Elias Canetti, 76, a Sephardic Jewish writer who was born in Bulgaria, writes in German and has lived in England since 1938, won the Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday.
Known as a semi-recluse, Canetti had a typical reaction to the news that he had been given the $180,000 award by the Swedish Academy "for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power." He went into hiding and asked his West German publishers to "protect" him. He is expected to go to the award ceremonies in Stockholm on Dec. 10, although he has not yet officially accepted the invitation.
"I have contacted him and he asked me to keep my mouth shut," said his London agent, John Wolfers. "So I'm keeping my mouth shut. He is a very private man."
Canetti's work uses the approaches of the historian, psychologist, philosopher and poet as tools for a study of human nature in two radically different modes: the individual and the group. He has been hailed as one who writes philosophy and sociology with the imagination of a novelist, and his fiction has been compared to the work of James Joyce, Henry James, Franz Kafka and Bertolt Brecht, both in style and importance. His nonfiction, which is most of his work, has evoked comparisons with such thinkers as Marx, Freud, Spengler and Toynbee.
"In his basically ahistorical analysis, what he wants to expose and attack is, in the end, the religion of power," the Nobel citation said.
Some admirers have seen a distorted self-portrait in the figure of Professor Kien, the central character of Canetti's first book and only novel "Auto-da-Fe," which was originally published as "Die Blendung" ("The Deception") in 1935 and immediately banned in Germany. Kien, like Canetti, is an intellectual and a recluse. Kien goes insane after blundering into a marriage with his housekeeper; Canetti merely went into exile and became a writer. His works have now been published in 17 countries and translated into English, French, Italian and Czech, among other languages.
Born in Rustchuk, Bulgaria on July 25, 1905, Canetti was a member of a family that settled in Vienna in 1913. Educated in England, Austria, Switzerland and Germany, he earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Vienna in 1929 before deciding to become a writer. He was driven into exile by the Nazi annexation of Austria, but stayed for eight months after the Anschluss. He was married in 1934 and has been a widower since 1963.
Asked about his interests by "Contemporary Authors," a reference work, Canetti gave the following: "Anthropology, history, psychiatry, history of religions, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and the civilizations of Egypt, Sumer, Greece, Rome, Persia, India, China, Japan, Mexico, Maya, Inca."
"It is ridiculous to have so many," he said, "but they are all equally important to me and have cost me years and decades of study."
Most of these interests are reflected in Canetti's writings. His books span a bewildering variety of fields, including philosophy of history, sociology, surrealistic fiction, psychology and autobiography. He has also written several plays, notebooks and critical and sociological studies which have not yet been published in English or are not yet available in this country.
Outside of German-speaking countries, where he has reached the best-seller lists, his work has been sold mostly in college book stores, according to his publisher. It has attracted the attention of a small circle of literati -- Philip Roth began reading him, for example, on Susan Sontag's recommendation. Iris Murdoch (who reportedly took him as a partial model for some characters in her early fiction) has called him "one of our great imaginers and solitary men of genius."
His other works include:
"The Tongue Set Free: Remembrance of a European Childhood," an autobiography and one of his best-known works in this country.
"Crowds and Power," a massive theoretical study of crowd psychology and related topics, including leadership, the desire for and manipulation of power, royalty and dictatorship, paranoia and panic. Topics of discussion range, within a few pages, from symbolic postures and their relation to power to the gestures of orchestral conductors. One of the statements in this book: "To be the last person alive is the deepest urge of every real seeker after power."
"Earwitness: Fifty Characters," a collection of 50 brief, brilliant essays describing such human personality types as "The Fame-tester" (who has known since birth "that nobody could be better than he"); "The Culprit" (who feels guilty of all crimes); "The Paper Drunkard" (who "reads all books, no matter what") and "The Hero-tugger" (who "potters around monuments and tugs on the trousers of heroes.")
"The Human Province," essays on literature, psychology, anthropology, comparative religion and philosophy.
"The Voices of Marrakesh," a book about travel in which one reviewer has found "the archetypal voices of terror and trust, pain and joy."
"The Conscience of Words," a collection of literary essays, including one on Kafka, who was a friend of Canetti's while he was living in Vienna.
The American editions of all these books are issued by the same small publisher: Continuum, a subdivision of The Seabury Press and, coincidentally, also the American publisher of Czeslaw Milosz, who won the Nobel last year.
In his New York office yesterday, associate publisher Michael Leach was jubilant. "We don't specialize in exiles who win the Nobel Prize," he said. "It just looks that way. We're very eclectic."
Paperback editions are available for "Auto-da-Fe" and "Crowds and Power." The other titles are available, so far, only in hardcover.