March 7, 1999
In his famous essay “A Kind of Survivor,” the critic George Steiner warmly evoked the “Central European humanism” – bourgeois, urban, cosmopolitan, emancipated, largely Jewish – that flowered spectacularly for a few decades before being extinguished by Nazism and Stalinism. ts exemplars included Kraus, Kafka, Broch, Mann, Musil, Schoenberg, Kokoschka, Benjamin, Brecht, and Wittgenstein. Steeped to their eyebrows in literature, philosophy, painting, and music, they mingled in the cafes of Vienna and Berlin, Zurich and Prague; individually, they drove European art and thought to vertiginous heights.
One figure Steiner does not mention, who nonetheless perfectly embodied this Central European humanism, is Elias Canetti. Canetti was born in Bulgaria in 1905. His family on both sides was Sephardic, descended from Spanish Jews who were expelled after the defeat of the Moors in the 15th century. When he was six, the family moved to England where, after a few happy years, his father died suddenly. They returned to the Continent, living in Germany and Switzerland before Elias enrolled in the University of Vienna, while his mother and his two younger brothers settled in Paris. In 1938 Canetti left Vienna for London, where he spent the rest of his life quietly, reading in numerous languages and writing in German. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981 and died in 1994.
Canetti wrote three principal works, each in a different genre and each a unique masterpiece. Auto-da-Fe (1935), a novel equal to Kafka’s, is a black comedy about the descent into madness of Dr. Peter Kien, the world’s foremost Sinologist and most fanatical bibliophile. Crowds and Power (1960) is a phenomenology of humanity in groups, an idiosyncratic and wide-ranging assemblage of anecdote, analysis, and reverie. Canetti’s memoirs appeared in three volumes: The Tongue Set Free (1977), The Torch in My Ear (1980), and The Play of the Eyes (1985). Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which published superb English translations of each, has now reissued them in a single volume. It will surely take its place – has already begun to – among the century’s greatest autobiographies.
All three volumes brim with memorable characters, especially the first, subtitled “Remembrance of a European Childhood.” The Bulgarian town of Ruschuk, on the Danube; the proud Ardittis, the energetic Canettis, and their flock of cousins; Grandfather Canetti’s shop, full of exotic treasures; the Babel of languages; the housemaids’ stories; the visits of Gypsies: these make up a colorful supporting cast and backdrop. Canetti’s parents are marvellously vivid: passionate, good-looking, enamored of books and the stage, full of fun with their children. The most unforgettable character is little Elias. This is not because anything extraordinary happens to him, but because the ordinary things – a sickness, a quarrel with a cousin, imaginary conversations with figures in the wallpaper – are described so inventively and wittily. One of the bewitchments of autobiography is that, because the storyteller is also the protagonist, the charm of the telling may seem to be an attribute of the narrated rather than of the narrating self. How much of the enchantment of these early chapters should we credit to young Elias’s precocious imagination and how much to old Canetti’s narrative wizardry?
This childhood idyll is shattered by the early death of Canetti’s father. Miraculously another, different idyll takes its place. Every night Elias and his mother read poetry together, declaim plays, and talk over their acquaintances, friends, and the whole of European culture. It is an amazing relationship; and though it turns stormy and finally bleak, it is, in Canetti’s portrayal, an imaginative and emotional education with few parallels in fiction or biography.
The later volumes are more worldly and less intimate: fewer epiphanies but many brilliant vignettes, character sketches, conversations, and aperçus. The famous and the obscure alike are drawn with uncanny piquancy and depth. The climax of his education comes when Canetti spends the summer of 1928 in Berlin, an earnest 23-year-old plunged into the Weimar maelstrom. In Vienna he had absorbed the fierce idealism of the legendary critic and satirist Karl Kraus; in Berlin this is dashed by the frivolous cynicism of Bertolt Brecht and his circle. “I said that a true writer has to isolate himself in order to accomplish anything. … Brecht said his telephone was always on his desk, and he could write only if it rang often. … I railed against the advertisements contaminating Berlin. They did not bother him; on the contrary, he said, advertisements had their good points: he had written a poem about Steyr Automobiles and been given a car for it.”
Canetti is in despair until Isaac Babel, one of his literary heroes, visits Berlin and rescues the unhappy young man from its “blabbering vanity.” Together they escape to unfashionable restaurants, where “we stood side by side, very slowly eating a pea soup. With his globular eyes behind his very thick eyeglasses, he looked at the people around us, every single one, all of them, and he could never get his fill of them. He was annoyed when he had finished the soup. He wished for an inexhaustible bowl, for all he wanted to do was to keep on looking. … I have never met anyone who looked with such intensity.”
The book’s gallery of characters is enormous. There is the ethereal Hermann Broch, a great novelist: “Other writers collected people, he collected the atmospheres around them, which contained the air that had been in their lungs, the air they had exhaled. From this collected air, he deduced their particularity.” There is the fastidious Robert Musil, an even greater novelist: “When friends told him that someone had praised The Man Without Qualities to the skies and would be overjoyed to meet him, Musil’s first question was ‘Whom else does he praise?’” There are the gentle, magnanimous composer Alban Berg; the conductor Hermann Scherchen, a whirlwind of energy and egoism; the scheming and fatuous Alma Mahler; Canetti’s paralytic neighbor, who reads omnivorously, turning the pages with his tongue; his wife’s obstreperous Turkish grandfather, who has lived to be ninety eating nothing but red meat and wine, five times a day; his “angel Gabriel,” the self-effacing Doctor Sonne, a figure of almost unearthly goodness and wisdom. And there are dozens more. But all the while we remain immersed in Canetti’s inner life, fascinated as he broods over the enigma of crowds, the vicissitudes of appetite, the peculiarities of perception, and “the terrible seriousness of words.”
The Central European humanism Steiner celebrated now lies, as he lamented, “in literal ash.” Even the survivors of this century’s several holocausts have virtually all died off; Canetti was among the last. With them, one variety of sensibility, one species of inwardness and irony, has also passed away. In these indescribably rich memoirs, that glorious vanished milieu has a proper elegy.