Elias Canetti (1905-1994)

Die charaktervollsten gelehrten sein um Bucher willen schon zu Verbrechern geworden. Wie gross sei die Versuchung erst fur einen intelligenten und bildungshungrigen Menschen, die zum erstenmal Bucher mit all ihren Reizen druckten!" (from Die Blendung, 1935)


Bulgarian-born German novelist, essayist, sociologist, and playwright, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. Canetti's best-known works is Crowds and Power (1960), an imaginative study of mass movements, death and disordered society which drew on history, folklore, myth, and literature. The book was inspired by the burning of the Palace on Justice in Vienna in 1927. Canetti started publishing in the 1930s but it was not until the 1960s and especially after the Nobel price that his work started to gain sustained critical attention. Most of his life he was resident in London, but he did not actively associate with English writers or German language colleagues.
Elias Canetti was born in Ruse, a small port in Bulgaria on the river Danube, into a Sephardic Jewish family. The family were well-to-do merchants, who spoke old Spanish. German was the fourth language Canetti acquired - after Ladino, an archaic Spanish dialect, Bulgarian, and English. He eventually chose to write in German and retained a lasting love of German culture. When Canetti was six, his family moved to Manchester, England. After the sudden death of his father, his mother took the family to Vienna, where he learned German.

From 1916 to 1921 Canetti studied in Zurich, and produced his first literary work, JUNIUS BRUTUS, a verse play. During a visit to Berlin in 1928 he met Bertolt Brecht, Isaak Babel, and George Grosz, and started to plan a series of novels on the subject of human madness. The idea resulted in the novel DIE BLENDUNGEN, (translations into English in 1947 and 1964), which was well received after WW II among others by Thomas Mann and Iris Murdoch, and considered to have been ahead of its time.

Canetti graduated in 1929 with a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Vienna. In the early 1930s he translated works by the American writer Upton Sinclair. While in Austria he had an experience that would affect all his future work: angry protesters burned down the Palace of Justice and the author was caught up in the crowd, later describing how he felt himself becoming part of the mob. In 1934 Canetti married Veza Taubner-Calderon, who died in 1963. In the 1930s he wrote two plays, DIE HOCHZEIT (The Wedding), a comedy of manners, and DIE KOMODIE DER EITELKEIT, forerunners of the theater of the absurd. DIE BEFRISTETEN, produced in Vienna in 1967, asked the question what happens if one knows the exact date of ones death. To escape the systematic persecution of Jews, Canetti fled to Paris in 1938 and next year he immigrated to England, where he mostly lived for the rest of his life, also maintaining a home in Zurich from the 1970s. In 1971 he married Hera Buschor; they had one daughter. Hera Buschor died in 1988.

Canetti's breakthrough work Die Blendung (Auto-da-Fe) apperared in 1935. It was banned by the Nazis, but beside this acknowledgment Canetti did not gain much attention as a writer before the 1960s when the book was reprinted. The protagonist is Peter Klein, a forty-year-old philologist and sinologist. He knows much of ancient languages but is unable to decipher contemporary voices. "He himself was the owner of the most important private library in the whole of this great city. He carried a minute portion of it with him wherever he went. His passion for it, the only one which he had permitted himself during a life of austere and exacting study, moved him to take special precautions. Books, even bad ones, tempted him easily into making a purchase. Fortunately the great number of the book shops did not open until after eight o'clock." Klein feels safe with his 40 000 characters of the Chinese alphabet and 25 000 books. He fears social and physical contacts, and his inhumane view of the world contradicts his learning. However, he allows himself to get into the clutches of his ignorant and grasping housekeeper Therese Krummholz, nearing 60, whom he marries, and who robs him of everything. In this she is helped by Benedikt Pfaff, the proto-fascist caretaker of the apartment block. Klein descends to the lower, surrealistic depths of society. His brother Georges, who is a psychiatrist, tries in vain to cure him. Doomed Klein dies in apocalyptic self-destruction amidst his books.

Crowds and Power (1960), brought together material from many disciples, and avoided such names as Marx or Freud, who is mentioned once in a note. It started from the assumption that crowd instinct is as fundamental as the passion to survive. "The lowest form of survival is killing." The first half analyses the dynamics of different types of crowds and of 'packs'. The second part focuses on the question how and why crowds obey rulers. Canetti presented Hitler as the paranoiac ruler of crowds, fascinated by the size of the crowds he commands. The persecution of the Jews he connects with the German experience of inflation - they needed to pass this humiliation on to something else which would be reduced to worthlessness. "Our most pressing need, as Canetti very movingly and convincingly argues at the end, is to control the 'survivor mania' of our rulers, and the key to this is 'the humanisation of command'. But how is command to be humanised? Canetti has not given us a psychology with which to picture the humanisation of command." (Iris Murdoch in The Spectator, September 1962)

Kafka's Other Trial: The Letters to Felice (1969) examined Kafka's struggle between comfortable middle-class life and individual isolation. As an essayist Canetti became known with The Conscience of Words (1976). With one exception, these essays date from the 1960s and 1970s and deal mostly with literary topics. Canetti sees that writers are responsible of the preservation, revivification, and invention of the life-sustaining myths and their meaning. Tolstoy is rejected as a model for having "struck a kind of pact with death" in his late turn to religion, and Kafka emerges "among all writers as the greatest expert on power". "Canetti has a very acute ear for colloquialisms and the banalities of everyday speech, creating what he term as "acoustic mask" for each figure, a core vocabulary of a few hundred words that marks out a character's habits of thoughts and behavior. Canetti's penetration of his various social representative's linguistic habits is quite remarkably sustained, creating a world of complete self-absorption, vanity, and personal and public insanity." (Anna.Marie Taylor in Contemporary World Writers, ed. by Tracy Chevalier, 1993)

Before the Nobel Prize made Canetti world- famous, he lived modestly in Hampstead. The German literature critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki met him for the first time in the mid-1960s and already noted his charisma and his greats skills as a conversationalist (see Mein Leben, 1999). Canetti admitted that he did not have patience to listen to others. He had written most of his diary in cipher so that intrusive critics would not understand it. When Reich-Ranicki asked him to write a short essay on Heinrich Boll, the writer refused. Reich-Ranicki's impression was that Canetti did not place much value much on Boll's books.

Among Canetti's several awards were Foreign Book Prize (1949, France), Vienna Prize (1966), Critics Prize (1967, Germany), Great Austrian State Prize (1967), Bavarien Academy of Fine Arts Prize (1969), Buhner Prize (1972), Nelly Sachs Prize (1975), Order of Merit (1979, Germany), Europa Prato Prize (1980, Italy), Hebbel Prize (1980), Kafka Prize (1981), Great Service Cross (1983, Germany). He had also honorary degrees from two universities. Canetti died on August 13, 1994 in Zurich. His autobiographical works include DIE GERETTETE ZUNGE (1980), in which the author returned to the traumatic experience of his father's death, DIE FACKEL IM OHR (1982), and DAS AUGENSPIEL (1985). DIE STIMMEN VON MARRAKESCH (1967), a travel book, dealt also with death.