Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 2, 2005


The English Years

By Elias Canetti

Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

New Directions. 249 pp. $22.95

Born in Bulgaria in 1905, Elias Canetti -- best known for his gloomy novel Auto-da-Fé and his socio-philosophical study Crowds and Power -- seems to have known nearly all the most interesting Austrian and British literary figures of his time. Readers of The Torch in My Ear and The Play of the Eyes , Canetti's memoirs of the 1920s and '30s, will recall his vignettes of the celebrated satirical journalist Karl Kraus and the Russian short-story writer Isaac Babel ("he meant more to me than anyone else I met in Berlin"), his friendship with the great Viennese novelist Hermann Broch, and the brief encounter (in Zurich) with James Joyce (whose first words to the young Canetti were "I shave with a straight razor and no mirror"). Little surprise that the eager young intellectual also got to know the playwright Bertolt Brecht and the composer Alban Berg and the artists Oskar Kokoschka and Georg Grosz, among many others.

As Jeremy Adler observes in his long and illuminating afterword to the newly translated Party in the Blitz: The English Years , those earlier accounts of Canetti's youth display an almost Augustan serenity and polish. Take, for instance, this description of his friend Viennese novelist Robert Musil in The Play Of The Eyes :

"Musil was always -- though one wouldn't have noticed it -- prepared for defense and offense. In this posture he found safety. One thinks of armor plate, but it was more like a shell. He hadn't built the barrier he put between himself and the world, it was an integral part of him. He eschewed interjections and all words charged with feeling. He looked with suspicion on mere affability."

After this striking précis, The Play of the Eyes goes on to portray Musil as a complex and prickly genius, one who never touched currency, looked down on Broch and Joyce as misguided, and grew annoyed with Canetti after Thomas Mann sent an admiring letter about the young man's work. When friends would say to Musil "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?' " Canetti's three early memoirs -- the first, about his childhood, is The Tongue Set Free -- have been called a nonfiction Bildungsroman. But Party in the Blitz is, by contrast, a raggedy, first-draft set of notes about some of the people Canetti came to know after he emigrated to England at the outbreak of World War II. Many of these pages were dictated by the 1981 Nobel laureate in literature just before he died in 1994, and they display a fair degree of malice. Canetti himself likens his sketches to those in John Aubrey's Brief Lives , that irresistible grab-bag of more than 200 brief memoranda of 17th-century notables. But, in truth, Canetti's portraits and mini-essays more often recall the frequently snide commentary about Oxford life found in the diaries of Aubrey's contemporary, the bilious Anthony à Wood.

Most of the people Canetti writes about here lived in Hampstead, long a neighborhood attractive to successful London intellectuals, novelists and artists. Many of them would meet at the parties thrown by the poet and critic William Empson and his wife Hetta. By the 1940s Auto da Fé -- about a scholar who burns his library and immolates himself because he cannot deal with the grasping modern world -- was well known (it was translated by C.V. Wedgwood, the historian), but Canetti never heard a comment about it from the bookish Empson. Indeed, he was never sure that Empson knew who he was. But Canetti was always a good listener, and "I often heard him speak, he had wit and verve, he was quick and confident, talked in streams of interpretative knowledge, very individual opinions and precise knowledge, perhaps the most fluent, inspired, clearest speaker I ever heard in England, among poets." As Canetti himself was regarded as a marvelous talker, this is quite a compliment.

But Hetta Empson really steals the show. A committed communist from a South African Boer family, she was "a very beautiful woman," and was drawn to intellectuals of any color and provenance. "She turned over all the flats of the house to them, with the exception of her own quarters. Her lovers, of whom there got to be quite a number over the years, she sometimes even allowed into her quarters. Empson seemed not to have anything against it at all."

Alas, we get no more of Hetta Empson's tantalizing love life. And this is a recurrent problem with Party in the Blitz : Canetti tells more often than he shows, and he usually doesn't tell enough. Sometimes he simply delivers judgment, or launches into sustained jeremiad. Take his rolling diatribe against that easy target, T.S. Eliot, where phrases like "drools his self-loathing" and "impotency" build to an almost incoherent Old Testament denunciation of this "miserable creature":

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