WHEN ELIAS CANETTI was announced last fall as the 1981 Nobel laureate in literature, he may have seemed to some a "safe," rather obscure compromise choice. Although his two major works, Crowds and Power and the novel, Auto da F,e, have long been available in this country, he is certainly not well known here. But a couple of years before he was chosen by the Swedish Academy, Seabury/Continuum began the laudable work of translating his entire body of work, and now with each book that appears he is more clearly defined as the important figure in European literature that he certainly is.

Unfortunately for Seabury/Continuum, Canetti has switched to Farrar Straus Giroux, and this new book, The Torch in My Ear, is the second volume of his autobiography, which continues from precisely the point that the first, The Tongue Set Free, left off. You could, I suppose, read the present work independent of the earlier one, but it would be a shame to do so, for the serious and intellectually ambitious young man of The Torch in My Ear is indeed the product of the European childhood he describes so vividly in The Tongue Set Free.

In the earlier work, he introduces us to the fascinating world of Sephardic Jewry into which he was born in Ruschuk, Bulgaria. There, on the shores of the Danube, as many as seven or eight languages were spoken. Language was a choice that was offered. The first of many that Canetti learned was Ladino, the Spanish-derived tongue of the Sephardim, many of whom are descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Spain by the Inquisition in the 16th century. But his mother and father, who loved Vienna as only a couple in a provincial backwater could, spoke German to each other. It was the language of whispered confidences, of secrets from the children and was of course irresistibly attractive to Elias Canetti. If he was to be a writer -- and he was encouraged in this from early on by his mother and father -- then he would be a writer in German.

Fate confirmed this. Canetti's father left the family business to go into partnership with his brother-in-law. Before their departure, the Grandfather played the stern Jewish patriarch and solemnly pronounced a ritual curse upon his son. In a year's time Canetti's father was dead. The widow took her three children to Vienna and raised them in the world of German culture that she loved, supported there in reasonably good style by the repentant Grandfather.

Blessed with hindsight as we are today, we are avid for hints of anti-Semitism that foreshadow the Holocaust, as if to confirm that it was not simply some terrible accident of history. There are not many to be found in either The Tongue Set Free or The Torch in My Ear --a few incidents as a schoolboy in Zurich and Frankfurt. But in Vienna, during World War I, he witnessed a scene that was eerily prophetic of others to follow three decades later: "Once, walking along the Schuttel, we came near the railroad bridge that spanned the Danube Canal. A train was standing there, it was stuffed with people. Freight cars were joined to passenger cars; they were all jammed with people staring down at us mutely, but questioningly. 'Those are Galician ---' Schiebel said, holding back the word 'Jews' and replacing it with 'refugees.' Leopoldstadt was full of Galician Jews who had fled from the Russians. Their black kaftans, their earlocks, and their special hats made them stand out conspicuously. Now they were in Vienna, where could they go?"

All part of coming-of-age in Europe--and that is the subject of The Tongue Set Free, which is subtitled, "Remembrance of a European Childhood." For as personal and specific as his story is, he submits it as a case history, part of the general experience. The Torch in My Ear tells a story that is, and can only be, Canetti's own, for there has probably never been a writer whose life's work was so completely set so early in his career. First of all, his inspiration: Karl Kraus provide that. Kraus, the Viennese satirist whose one-man broadsheet Die Fackel (The Torch) showed the way to a whole generation of angry young Austrians, found only one true disciple, and that was Elias Canetti, the Bulgarian Jew whose works crackle with the same savage humor. But why The Torch in the Ear? Because Canetti first fell under Kraus' spell (and met his wife-to-be) at Kraus' well-attended readings. Although he came to know the man personally, his memory of him is the memory of a voice.

Although he was certain that he would follow a literary career, he took a degree in chemistry at the University of Vienna just to be on the safe side. Others took him seriously, too. Although he had published only a few poems, he was hired one university summer to do literary research for the Berlin publisher, Wieland Herzfelde. There he met the "Throng of Names" that he describes in one section of The Torch in My Ear. He was baited by Bertolt Brecht, awed by Georg Grosz, and finally won over completely by the great Russian-Jewish short short writer, Isaac Babel. They all took him seriously, even Brecht, for if he was a neophyte, he was one of infinite promise.

He was also one who had a book bubbling inside him -- though none knew that at the time. As an adolescent in Frankfurt, he had witnessed a demonstration against the assassination of Walter Rathenau, the foreign minister of the Weimar government (also, incidentally, a Jew) who had had the bad luck to sign the Treaty of Versailles. To witness such a crowd in action had affected him profoundly. Later, when he himself was swept up in an angry demonstration in Vienna that resulted in the burning of the Palace of Justice and the shooting of a number of the demonstrators, he knew he had his subject.

The book that came out of this proved to be nearly a lifetime's work. When Crowds and Power was at last published in 1960, Canetti was 55. It astonished the intellectual world -- not just with its scholarship, some of it from the most recondite sources, but also with its insights, which are packed into gnomic essays (some of them quite short) that can be read independently but stand as building blocks of the whole work. It is a book that is not easily summarized, ranging as it does over the whole of human history to examine every conceivable aspect of mass psychology. Religion, politics, statecraft, mass delusions, war, and many other aspects of social experience are examined through the prism of the crowd. Its style, anecdotal and accessible, slyly implies the author's attitude of skepticism toward human institutions and his contempt for the men whom historians hold great. Crowds and Power is the nearest thing to a book of wisdom we are likely to get in the 20th century.

Canetti wrote only one other book before it-- the novel, Auto da F,e. In The Torch in My Ear, he tells of its conception as one of eight novels devoted to different human types. This one described the "Book Man," Kien, a Sinologist who was immersed in the sort of learning into which Canetti had then just begun to dip his toe. Kien was, in other words, to some extent a caricature of the author himself. His unworldly protagonist is so victimized by the world outside his library that in a gesture of frustration he immolates himself with his books. Yet Canetti himself dealt far more practically with life. Although this second volume of his autobiography ends abruptly in 1931 with the writing of Auto da Fe, we know that he wisely foresaw the effect of the mass insanity that was just then beginning to sweep the German-speaking world within time to take himself, his wife and his child to England. There, for the most part, he has lived and written ever since.

He could have been a considerable novelist. Auto da F,e is a remarkable book, especially admired in Germany and England. But rather than give himself to the entire series that he had projected, he concentrated on Crowds and Power. In the two decades since its publication, he has written essays, incuding a book-length commentary on Kafka's Letters to Felice (these are included in Seabury/Continuum's The Conscience of Words); a few plays; a delightfully subjective travel book, The Voices of Marrakesh; a curious little book of human types, Earwitness (all that is left, perhaps, of his ambitious series of novels); and of course the two volumes of autobiography, which will probably be followed by others. Certainly not a large body of work for a Nobel laureate -- but was Carl Orff any less a modern master because he composed only a few works (considering that one of them was Carmina Burana)?

No, Elias Canetti is in his own way as deserving as any Nobel Prize winner in recent memory. And the Swedish Academy's award to him stands as a reminder of that vanished period when Europe's intellectual community was greater than the political and social boundaries that divided the continent; when a writer's responsiblilty was to Western culture. Canetti was comfortable in this older, larger Europe. It has shrunk around him. That may be why today he looms so large.