Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Canetti, Man of Mystery |
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Canetti, Man of Mystery

As a literary type after World War Two, the German-speaking International Man of Mystery found Britain a more comfortable land of exile than America, where he was always under pressure to explain himself in public, thereby dissipating the mystery. The chief mystery was about his reason for not going back to German-speaking Europe. Before the mysterious W.G. Sebald there was the even more mysterious Elias Canetti. While the Nazis were in power, Canetti had excellent reasons to be in London. But now that the Nazis were gone, why was he still there?

Like Sebald later on, Canetti might have found Britain a suitable context for pulling off the trick of becoming a famous name without very many people knowing precisely who he was. Canetti even got the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature, and people still didn’t know who he was. He was a Viennese Swiss Bulgarian refugee with an impressively virile moustache; he was Iris Murdoch’s lover; he was a mystery. Apart from a sociological treatise called Crowds and Power which advanced a thesis no more gripping than its title, his solitary pre-war novel Die Blendung, known in English as Auto da Fé, was the only book by Canetti that anybody had ever heard of. Hardly anybody had read it, but everybody meant to. Those who had read it said it was about a mysterious man in a house full of books, and that the house, in a symbolic enactment of the collapse of a civilization, fell down, or almost did, or creaked a lot, or something.

While living in Britain, Canetti wrote three books of memoirs about his life in pre-war Europe. He wrote them in German. (All three volumes are now available in English, although readers are warned that the translations lose some of the effortless pomposity of the original.) They were full of literary gossip: hard material to make dull, even for a writer with Canetti’s knack for colourless reportage. He proved, however, that he had a long memory for the frailties of his colleagues. He had a good story about Robert Musil, author of The Man Without Qualities. In the circumscribed world of the Vienna cafes, Musil reigned unapproachably as the resident genius. But Musil was eaten up by resentment of the public recognition accorded to Thomas Mann. When, in 1935, Canetti published Die Blendung to some acclaim in the press, he entered the café to find Musil, who had previously barely noticed his existence, rising to meet him with a congratulatory speech. Canetti was able to say that he had a letter in his pocket from Thomas Mann, praising him in exactly the same terms. Musil sank back into his chair and never acknowledged Canetti again.

The story shows how Canetti could recognize self-obsession in others. But there is no account of his ever recognizing the same failing in himself. His memoirs not only take him to be the centre of events — a standard strategy in autobiographical writing, and often an entertaining one — they proceed on the assumption that no events matter except those centred on him. Hitler scarcely gets a mention. The story is all about Canetti, a man with good reason, we are led to assume, for holding himself in high esteem.

Canetti spent the last part of his life in Zurich. In his last year he was at work on his memoir about London. (Now, in Elysium, he is probably working on his memoir about Zurich.) The unfinished book, Party in the Blitz, is the story of his years in and around Hampstead during the war and just after. We are fortunate that there is no more of it, lest we start wondering whether Canetti should not have received another Nobel Prize, for being the biggest twerp of the twentieth century. But a twerp must be at least partly stupid, and Canetti wasn’t even a little bit that. Instead, he was a particularly bright egomaniac, and this book, written when his governing mechanisms were falling to bits, simply shows the limitless reserves of envy and recrimination that had always powered his aloofness. The mystery blows apart, and spatters the reader with scraps and tatters of an artificial superiority. Witnessing, from Hampstead Heath, the Battle of Britain taking place above him — the completeness with which he fails to evoke the scene is breathtaking — Canetti, unlike many another German-speaking refugee, managed to take no part whatever in the war against Hitler. He had his own war to fight, against, among others, T.S. Eliot. Canetti’s loathing of Eliot is practically the book’s leitmotiv: you have to imagine a version of Die Meistersinger in which Beckmesser keeps coming back on stage a few minutes after he goes off. “I was living in England as its intellect decayed,” Canetti recalls. “I was a witness to the fame of T.S. Eliot... a libertine of the void, a foothill of Hegel, a desecrator of Dante... thin lipped, cold hearted, prematurely old... armed with critical points instead of teeth, tormented by a nymphomaniac of a wife... tormented to such a degree that my Auto da Fé would have shrivelled up if he had gone near it...”

The problem, of course, was that Eliot couldn’t have gone near it, because before 1946, when Auto da Fé was finally translated, scarcely anybody in London had read it. This might have been one of several practical reasons why Canetti was not accorded the automatic respect he felt due to him, but there was a supreme, spiritual reason which only he, the profound analyst of crowds and power, could detect: English arrogance. The English intellectuals, his antennae told him, were being arrogant even when they strove to seem tolerant. Tolerance, in fact, was the surest sign of their arrogance. “Arrogance is such an integral part of the English, one often fails to notice it. They take arrogance to new, unsuspected levels.” Eliot, for example, was such a master of arrogance that he could conceal it completely. “There he sat, the very famous man among all those others, amidst whom there were certainly many bad poets whom he must despise from the depths of his being, and he gave no indication of the fact...” Always keen to seem at home in British polite society, where zeal is rarely worn on the sleeve, Canetti found it politic to forget his earlier history as a Brechtian radical, but passages like this remind you that he was a born Vyshinskyite prosecutor, forever taking the ability of the accused to defend himself as proof of guilt, and the ostensible absence of a fault as a sure sign of its lurking presence.

It should be said in his favour that Canetti, by his own reluctant account, did manage to meet at least a few Englishmen who were not reduced to “desiccation” by the national trait. Herbert Read, Bertrand Russell, Vaughan Williams, Arthur Wayley: each is forgettably evoked, with perhaps an extra touch of specificity for Wayley, because he had read Canetti’s novel in the original language. But as a general rule, Englishmen neither realised Canetti’s importance at first glance nor managed to conceal their arrogance even when adopting an elaborate guise of congeniality. Take T.S. Eliot as a case in point. The fact that Eliot had been born and raised in America was only a further proof of the pervasive nature of English arrogance: having gone native, he had taken on the local characteristic, and indeed would not have been a success in England had he failed to do so. But he probably managed to acquire it so easily because his ancestors had been English in the first place. It was “the acquisition, so to speak, of an American returned to the home country after many generations. It will be difficult to describe Eliot as the quite abysmal character he was... His costive-minimal work (so many spittoons of failure), the poet in England and among the Modernists of emotional impoverishment, which became fashionable through him...”

The continually recurring diatribe about Eliot is made almost piquant by the fact that Canetti is talking about a time in his enemy’s career when the sequential poems later to be known as Four Quartets were being published to universal praise for their magnificence. There were plenty of English intellectuals who had no particular respect for Eliot’s conservative intellectual position but could see that he was writing the greatest poetry of his time. For Canetti, however, it was out of the question to separate man and work. The man was the work: it was the way, after all, that he felt about himself. “My chief trait, much my strongest quality, which has never been compromised, was the insistence on myself...” Canetti measured himself against other men according to the adamantine strength of his self regard, so it can be imagined what he was like when he was measuring himself against women.

Or, rather, it can’t. Just when you thought you had been handed the complete picture of a louse, you read how he rewarded the young Iris Murdoch for having bestowed her favours on him. Here we need to make a distinction. His abusive opinions on her qualities of mind were delivered long after their affair was over, and might even seem reasonable to those of us less than convinced about her status as a philosopher. “I don’t think there is anything that leaves me quite as cold as that woman’s intellect.” But his comments about her qualities as a mistress bring into question his own judgment at the time. “I could not ignore the ugliness of her feet. She had a bearlike walk, but it was a repulsive bear...” It was also a passive bear, for whom love was “an indifferent act”. You might have thought that this drawback would have become apparent to him fairly quickly, but not so. “This went on...for a couple of years.” Their love affair (one of the inspirations behind her second novel The Flight from the Enchanter) became famous as an event submissive on her part and dominant on his, but on this evidence he did his own share of the suffering, simply by having known her. “Everything I despise about English life is in her.” Except, strangely enough, arrogance. With typical gallantry, he sums her up as being “ambitious as a master criminal. But she’s too fixated on love to be arrogant...” The bitch, she couldn’t be depended on even for that.

Regulars in Canetti’s extensive harem pop up wanly throughout the book, usually doing exactly what he wants and almost invariably being patronised for their compliance. The historian C. V. Wedgwood, as “the student who loves her teacher”, is given a few points for translating Auto da Fé but earns a conclusive demerit for not being enthusiastic about — for possibly (whisper this) not even having read — Crowds and Power: “she was unoriginal, had no ideas about anything.” It could be said that she had enough original ideas to go to bed with an unmitigated creep, but it isn’t said by Canetti, who never awards women credit for choosing him. What choice do they have? It’s fate. Abject devotion from the poet Kathleen Raine is first welcomed (“It did not seem to matter to her that she didn’t know the first thing about me”) and then scorned for the usual reason (“I had no idea at the time of the arrogance there was concealed behind such modesty”). That was a close one.

Intelligent beauties lined up to be treated like dirt. The International Man of Mystery was also the Man with Power Over Women. In Hampstead there was only one Vienna-style coffee house. It was called the Coffee Cup. Canetti was still to be found hanging out there when I was introduced to him in the first summer after I got to London in the early sixties. He didn’t even pretend to be polite, and I couldn’t blame him. After only a few minutes in his company it was clear to me what attracted him about the passing parade: trainee bluestockings, of the stamp nowadays known, in Britain at least, as posh totty. He didn’t move his head to track them as they wafted by, but I could see his eyeballs swivel. Suffering from the same proclivities, I was in no position to despise him, and I might say that the same goes for the characteristic that he projected on to the local population because he had so much of it himself.

Arrogance is the natural condition of a mind in exile. If history had never torn Canetti loose from his first context, he might have flourished as a type well recognized, and even cherished, in the European world of the literary cafés: half know-all, half clown. It was being a displaced person that made him preposterous, and those of us in the post-war peace who chose to roam the world could have no warrant to look down on those among our elders who had been forced to. For the German-speakers, especially, there was never any easy undoing of the damage. Of the two undoubted masters of modern German prose, the novelist Thomas Mann and the essayist Alfred Polgar, neither ever really came back to the main German-speaking lands. Each was offered every enticement, but they settled for Switzerland. So, in the course of time, did Canetti, if not to find a final home for his mastery, then at least to give one extra twist to his mystery, and to gain the perspective for writing a memoir so delightfully awful that it makes his self-satisfied literary personality palatable at last.

Canetti had some reputation as an analyst who could skewer people in a paragraph. Here is the proof that he was too pleased about himself to be truly perceptive about others. The striking aphorism, said Polgar, requires a stricken aphorist. On the threshold of death’s door, Canetti saw nothing to be worried about when he examined his conscience. On this evidence, he couldn’t even find it. Instead, he wrote a book fit to serve every writer in the world as a hideous, hilarious example of the tone to avoid when the ego, faced with the certain proof of its peripheral importance, loses the last of its inhibitions.

(New York Times, October 2, 2005)


Ever since the imprecations of Coleridge failed to cure them of the habit, the second-rank literary editors of London have indulged their proclivity for ‘lively copy’, so Canetti always attracted more coverage than the Man of Mystery who really counted: W. G. Sebald. It was Sebald who used his years of exile in England to write European masterpieces. In his great book Austerlitz you get walking tours of London that show you what a foreign-born viewpoint could do to register detail and bring it alive. With a Leica lens in each eye, Sebald could turn Liverpool Street railway station into Chartres. Sebald, too, had his limiting quirks: he was all wrong about Germany’s post-war memories of the Allied aerial bombardment. He said that the Germans had wilfully repressed the traumatic recollection. In fact, the kind of pop magazines that he never read were full of stories about night-fighter pilots, and a whole generation of young men grew up dreaming of tearing Lancasters in half with the upward-angled cannon batteries of their Ju-88s while lakes of fire boiled far below. In that case, Sebald’s taste was too refined to catch the raw material. But on his own beat, with his Proustian gaze scanning photographs, documents, abandoned fortifications and all the resonant detritus of the past, he had a generosity that left a posturing snob like Canetti next to nowhere.