Michael Dirda
Cultural insight and vicious gossip from Nobel laureate Elias Canetti.

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":

"He kowtows to any order that's sufficiently venerable; tries to stifle any élan; a libertine of the void, a foothill of Hegel, a desecrator of Dante (to which Circle would Dante have banished him?); thin lipped, cold hearted, prematurely old, unworthy of Blake or of Goethe or of anything volcanic -- his own lava cooled before it ever warmed -- neither cat nor bird nor beetle, much less mole." And on and on, as Canetti continues his frenzied indictment of all the "enfeeblement that emanated from Eliot."

Even more troublesome, though, is his antipathy to the novelist Iris Murdoch, his former lover:

"I don't think there is anything that leaves me quite so cold as that woman's intellect. She is a passionate schoolgirl, of the kind that likes nothing better than studying systems. She seems to realise herself in that compulsion. And then she's the schoolmarm who likes to explain these systems."

After this he describes, with obvious revulsion, Murdoch's sexual fantasies, dowdy underclothes, mechanical love-making, intellectual vampirism and inept social climbing. It's undeniably fascinating, and there is doubtless some truth to Canetti's portrait (that "passionate schoolgirl" is just right), but even those who like gossip as much as I do will find the tenor of his comments not only ungentlemanly but downright cruel and vindictive. After all, this is the brilliant woman who praised Crowds and Powers in a rave review for the Spectator, who dedicated her own early novel, The Flight from the Enchanter , to Canetti.

So, is Party in the Blitz a mere exercise in snarkiness? Not entirely. As Canetti's aphoristic notebook The Human Province showed, the man can be as shrewd as Lichtenberg or La Rochefoucauld with an apt and concisely phrased insight: "Social life consists of futile efforts at proximity." "It was possible to discuss some thousands of titles with him, so long as one didn't get into too much detail." "While analysts manage to appear full of curiosity, they don't really manage much more than patience. They give the appearance of listening."

At the end of his life, Canetti came to loathe Margaret Thatcher's England and the triumph of modern selfishness. So it's not surprising that the writer's most telling chapter in Party in the Blitz describes not the eccentric aristocrats with whom he became friends or the women he loved or scholars like Arthur Waley or poets like Herbert Read and Kathleen Raine, but rather an old street sweeper who, he tells us, "looked like a fresh-painted apostle" and spoke with the unconscious majesty of the Bible. The two men only encountered each other occasionally, always on the street. But as Canetti movingly concludes:

"In the course of those years, I met many of the local people. He was the only one whom I wholeheartedly loved. . . . He lived alone in a hut nearby. He was never ill. One time, when he failed to turn out for two days in a row, I knew what had happened. There are only four or five people in my life whom I mourned as I mourned him." Today Elias Canetti himself seems to be in danger of falling into neglect. At the very least, Party in the Blitz , for all its uneasy mix of wisdom and waywardness, should lead adventurous readers back to this learned, idiosyncratic mind, and to his many books, nearly all of which -- whatever their genre -- deal with mankind's greatest burdens, the problem of evil and the inevitability of death. ยท

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for Book World. His e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtontonpost.com.

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