Obituary: Elias Canetti

Elias Canetti, writer: born Ruse, Bulgaria 25 July 1905; Nobel Prize for Literature 1981; married twice (one daughter); died Zurich 14 August 1994.

ELIAS CANETTI, winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature, was unusual among writers in that he was a man of many languages.

When he was a little boy in the Bulgarian town of Ruse on the Danube, on the main route between Sofia and Bucharest, the young servant-girls in his family told him tales of werewolves and vampires in Bulgarian. His parents, Sephardic Jews, still spoke an ancient form of Spanish, as well as German, a language his mother forced him to learn at the age of eight. In the town itself, he heard people speaking Greek, Albanian, Armenian, Turkish, Spanish, Romanian and Russian. There were tribes of gypsies, too, with their own tongue, and many dialects. His grandfather spoke Hebrew. So the town where he was born was 'a very mysterious town for a child'. As he grew up, he learnt English, Latin, Greek and French, and became expert in the peculiar forms of German spoken in Switzerland and Austria.

Like Joyce, he was fascinated, indeed obsessed, by language. It was not the neurotic obsession with a purely native tongue such as one finds among the Japanese or the French and the Spanish, and that makes those nations, like the British, inhibited by the thrall of their own language, generally unwilling to master other ways of speech. With Canetti, multilingualism was part of his family heritage. He cherished the spoken word, in whatever language it manifested itself to his ears, as a priceless personal possession. It lies at the very heart of all his writings, and even when the tongue he hears is unknown to him, his ear greets it with intense interest and instinctive relish, as we find in one of his shortest, most beautiful and most approachable works, Die Stimmen von Marrakesch ('The Voices of Marrakesh', 1967), in which he is enraptured by the very sound of Arabic and Berber dialects, by the cries of the blind, the beggars, the men arguing or bargaining in the Mellah, the ancient Jewish section of the city.

When he visited Prague for the first time, in May 1937, on a visit to Oskar Kokoschka, he walked the streets of the old city, absorbed not just in the beauty of the architecture, but in the sounds of the unknown language he heard all round him. So he kept to busy streets and squares where he could mingle with great crowds of people and listen to the sounds they produced from their throats, lungs and tongues. He found that all their words seemed to be accented on the first syllable, 'so that every kind of conversation sounded like the parry, thrust and cut of a fencing match'. And he discovered a new word for music, that almost universal word: hudba.

It was perhaps partly this passion for language that led Canetti to study the psychopathology of power as expressed through mass movements and to write his densely composed Masse und Macht ('Crowds and Power') in 1960, translated into English in 1962. Canetti was a man who had been surrounded by crowds and the movements of various diasporas in the first half of his life. Paradoxically, that agitated, febrile existence in changing societies was to become ever more meditative and solitary. But, for someone who was to become a linguist and a writer, he started out with the inestimable advantage of being born into a large, talkative, highly dramatic family circle, and of later being able to move in the societies of Zurich, Berlin, Frankfurt and Vienna in which it is natural for educated people to express themselves in several languages, often with inventive fluency.

In the first of his three volumes of autobiography, Die gerettete Zunge: Geschichte einer Jugend ('The Tongue Set Free: the story of my youth', 1977), he writes of his earliest years:

All the scenes of my life were played out in Spanish or Bulgarian. Later, they translated themselves into German . . . I am unable to say exactly how that happened . . . But there is one thing I can say with certainty: the events occurring in those early years have preserved all their power, all their freshness in my mind - I have been nourishing myself on them for more than 60 years. Nevertheless, they are linked, for the most part, with words I did not know at the time. Those words come back to me today quite naturally . . . It is not like the translation of a literary work from one language into another, it is a translation effected by itself, in the unconscious . . .

The very first memory he records is one which involves his tongue. He is leaving the house in the arms of a serving girl, when a door opens and a young man advances smiling upon them. He asks the little boy to show his tongue, and when he obediently does so, the young man takes a knife out of his pocket and puts it close to the child's tongue, saying: 'Now we're going to cut your tongue off.' Little Elias is so petrified by fear, he cannot retrieve his tongue, but at the last moment the young man takes the blade away and says: 'No, not today, tomorrow.' This happens day after day. The little boy knows that the young man will eventually cut off his tongue, and lives in an atmosphere of mounting dread, but he does not mention it to his parents. This gruesome joke continues until the serving girl is dismissed: the young man had been her 'follower'. The effect upon Elias's psyche can only be imagined, but, once released from that daily terror, he must have felt compelled to put that precious tongue to good use for the rest of his life.

The Canetti household was large and voluble and distributed over several buildings arranged round a courtyard overshadowed by the grandfather's residence. This Old Testament character dominated the lives of all his flock, and when Canetti's father and mother announced, in 1911, that they were emigrating to Britain, he laid a solemn curse upon his son. Yet little Elias was his favourite grandchild. But the boy had a strange streak of violence in his character, and when one of his girl cousins refused to teach him the letters of the alphabet, he went after her with an axe and would have killed her if his grandfather had not stopped him. Such was Canetti's longing for language, for the spell of words, at the age of three.

From 1911 to 1913, the Canettis lived in Manchester, where two of Elias's mother's brothers were already comfortably established in business. They looked upon Manchester as a haven of social and cultural freedom after escaping from the suffocating family atmosphere in Ruse. They took up residence in Burton Road, but after Jacques Canetti died there of a heart attack, they moved in with a paternal uncle in Palatine Road, where Elias played the part of a guardian angel to his inconsolable mother, thus intensifying their relationship with one another, which was to grow ever stronger during Elias's youth and early manhood.

Canetti's descriptions of those childhood years on the Mersey are beautifully evoked, with sharp sketches of his governess and maid. Before his sudden death, naturally attributed by all to the grandfather's farewell curse upon him, his father had started giving him popular works for children in a series that even included Dante, Cervantes and Shakespeare as well as Grimm, Robinson Crusoe and the story of William Tell, a work which first impressed upon Elias the beauty of the word 'liberty'. On Sundays, he would take his son for walks along the Mersey, teaching him his first English words, like 'meadow' and 'island'. Elias began attending school in Barlowmore Road under the benevolent direction of a Miss Lancashire, where he suffered his first infatuation, for a little schoolmate called Mary Handsome, a passion that developed with such precocious intensity that in the end her mother had to come to the school and put a stop to it. This was also one of his first disappointments in life, mingled with his childhood fears of death and disaster. 'It is those fears,' he writes in his autobiography of childhood, 'that I am uncovering only now. There are other fears that I shall never uncover; in those fears resides, it seems to me, the mystery that makes me want to live eternally.' Later in life, he was to tell me that he was not only terrified of death, but also 'scandalised' that such a thing should exist. A child acquainted with death at such an early age never forgets it.

In the summer of 1913, Elias, his little brother Georg and their mother left England for Paris, Zurich and Vienna, where they were to stay for three years. They had an apartment near the Prater amusement park, where Elias was often taken by his nursemaid Fanny to ride on the ghost train. Canetti's mother took his cultural education firmly in hand, with long readings from Shakespeare and Schiller. She also taught him, by a completely irrational method of rote, to speak German, which was torture to the boy. He felt helpless in the face of his mother's grim determination to hammer the language home, and at first, as might be expected, he was in agonies because of his mother's failure to do so. But then, all of a sudden, after many painful months, and many severe reprimands, he found himself speaking German, at first hesitantly, then more and more fluently, though his mother never seemed quite satisfied with his progress.

The family doctor, to Elias's horror, paid court to his mother, and introduced her to the works of Baudelaire, but she remained a widow. She also began reading Arthur Schnitzler, informing Elias that the dramatist and novelist was living in Vienna, that he was a qualified doctor and that his wife was a Sephardic Jew. She advised her son to become a doctor, and then a writer, like Schnitzler. But he could not understand why she forbade him to read that author who seemed to amuse her very much. Instead, she fobbed him off with Walter Scott, whom he at once perceived to be a bore and a fraud: 'That's not real history]' he declared, and that was that.

In 1916, they moved to Zurich, where Elias was to spend some of the happiest years of his life, until 1921, an important formative period during which he completed his academic education and at the same time discovered authors he was to admire for the rest of his days, like Gottfried Keller, Frank Wedekind, Eduard Morike, Theodor Storm, Jacob Burckhardt and Jeremias Gotthelf - a curious mixture indicating already the eclecticism of his literary tastes.

Canetti wrote his first play, a ridiculous verse drama in the style of Schiller, on the life of Junius Brutus. He also discovered his first truly great contemporary Swiss author, the enchanting, inimitable Robert Walser, who at that period was living in Biel, not in Zurich, where Canetti might well have bumped into him on his wanderings round the city. Lenin, too, was in Zurich at that time, and the house he lived in is now ornamented with a memorial plaque. Also in the Old Town was the Cabaret Voltaire, with many of the leading figures of the Dadaist movement, but they seem to have escaped Canetti's attention.

The second and third volumes of Canetti's autobiography are set mainly in Vienna, where he came under the spell of the satirist Karl Kraus and his inflammatory periodical Die Fackel ('The Torch') which suggested the title of the second volume, Die Fackel im Ohr ('The Torch in My Ear', 1980). The third volume, Das Augenspiel ('The Play of Eyes', 1985), covers the years, mainly in Vienna, from 1931 to 1937, when Canetti departed for Britain. This volume is rich in satirical insights into the artistic Viennese society of the time, with vivid portraits of eminences in the literary world like Hermann Broch, Robert Musil and Franz Werfel.

In this volume, too, he writes about the composition of his one and only novel, Die Blendung (1935), translated as Auto da Fe, an immense and now almost unreadable saga of the gradual disintegration of European society. He also wrote three plays, Hochzeit ('Wedding', 1932), Komodie der Eitelkeit ('Comedy of Vanity', 1950) and Die Befristeten ('The Deadliners', 1956), which are virtually unactable. The balefully beautiful figure of Alma Mahler broods like a black widow spider over most of this book, which reveals the Viennese cultural establishment eternally at odds with itself, riven by petty jealousies, imaginary insults, grubby infidelities and a horribly provincial but very Teutonic obsession with titles, status, precedence and personal honour. Canetti is seen battling to gain recognition in the usual literary jungle where touchy authors know only the law of 'kill or be killed'. He is almost comical in his calculated reverence for those who are already at the top of the tree, though he gives portraits filled with irony of figures from whom he had nothing much to fear - Werfel, Stefan Zweig, Kokoschka, and in the end, Karl Kraus, despised for having gone over to the side of Dollfuss. There are comic rivalries between Mann and Musil, and conversations with Alban Berg. There are endless readings, hours long, of one another's works, and though Canetti is said to 'read quite well' we have the feeling he is being condescended to as a literary upstart. The meanness and hollowness of modern literary life has never been so well dissected.

I first met Canetti when I was staying at the flat of an old friend, Angela Petter, in Hampstead. His friend Friedl Benedikt had a room on the top floor, and Canetti was often there. On the first occasion I was taken upstairs to visit Canetti, we discussed the translation of Die Blendung, which was about to appear in English in Veronica Wedgwood's scrupulous translation, in 1946. I wanted to know why it was called Auto da Fe, as the Portuguese expression means 'act of faith'. Canetti explained that it had a more general meaning of destruction by fire, and I suggested that 'Holocaust' would be a better title - a prophetic word. I believe he discussed this possibility with his translator, but by then it was too late to change the title.

Elias Canetti is a fine writer who in the end never really achieved greatness, or full self-realisation. In his last collection of aphorisms, Die Fliegenpeine (1992), we read things like: 'Spit on everyone. Including oneself. This is your truth.' And: 'I have the impression that the truths they tell about me are lies.' There Elias Canetti speaks for himself. The victor, but also the victim, of his own talented tongue.

(Photograph omitted)

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