By Elias Canetti
Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel
London: Granta Books, 1982
ISBN # London: Granta Books, 1982
372 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
August 2012

This book is volume 2 of Elias Canetti’s 3-volume autobiography. However, it was written some 50 years after the events, and told with the appearance of such minute detail that one has to assume Canetti was doing a mix of memory and invention. Thus, at least for me, I read it as sort of a hybrid between autobiography and fiction. In either case it is a delightful read.

The book opens when he moves from Switzerland to Frankfurt. He was about 17 and really didn’t want to leave Switzerland and wasn’t keen on the Pension Charlotte where he lived with his mother, two younger brothers and quite a few colorful boarders.

We do learn that his father has already died and that his mother spent some significant time in a Swiss sanitarium. Ironically I have just recently read Thomas Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN which is itself set in a sanitarium in the same region and much of what Canetti says about his mother’s experience rings true with what Mann had written many many years earlier.

In April of 1924 he moves to Vienna with just his younger brother George. Elias is 18 and preparing himself to take exams to be admitted to the University of Vienna to study chemistry.

The Vienna experience is deeply moving for him and he meets (not directly but via lectures he attends and discussions with others) Karl Krause. Canetti comes to know Krause’s journal, The Torch (Die Fackel) and was much moved. He remained under Krause’s influence for a number of years, until he moved to Berlin where he came to see Krause as much more limited and old fashioned than Canetti had earlier thought.

I found the short section of his visit to Sofia to be quite interesting. His family had come from that area and he visits family, staying with two different aunts. He describes Sofia of that time as a hot bed of Zionist Jews in Bulgaria, including aunt’s family. He is astonished to find Sofia to be very clean and to have no ghettos or persecution of Jews. Yet the return-to-Palestine movement was very popular.

Canetti then moves back to Vienna, living with his mother and brother. While he is studying chemistry, he was never really interested in it, and even scorns the discipline as merely commercial. Eventually gets a doctorate in it, but always saw the discipline as “merely” job related and not knowledge for its own sake.

A theme that begins to obsess Canetti is the notion of the crowd. He sees there is a universal conflict between crowd instinct and personality instinct. This conflict becomes central for him and eventually, in later years, he wrote a book on crowds and the psychology of crowds.

Freud concentrated on the individual and had little contact with either the army or church. Canetti saw both the army and church as key institutions of “the crowd.” That was especially fascinating for me: From early on I saw religion as a private affair between me and God. The church, as crowd, never played much of a role. Perhaps that’s partially why I separated completely from church in my early 20s.

Canetti had a great difficulty getting along with his mother and eventually by 1926 ends up in Vienna living on his own and attending the university. He has met a lovely woman, Veza, and they become much closer, but not (yet) quite lovers, but very close.

In 1928 Canetti takes a life-changing trip to Berlin. He is not yet a published author, but has friends on the inside of the literary circles and meets several important writers, including Berthold Brecht (who’s Three Penny Opera he hated). He especially likes Isaac Babel and through this Berlin literary circle he came to know and appreciate some of the important literary figures of the time including Stendhal, Maupassant, Flaubert, and Gogol.

In was at this same time, and because of the Berlin experience that for the first time Canetti began to doubt Krause. It was Krause’s dislike of Heine that caused the split.

In 1929 Canetti returned to Vienna, finally got his doctorate in chemistry and began to work. At this time he met the paralyzed author Thomas Marek and became quite close to him. Marek also influenced Canetti’s interest in crowds. Marek saw himself as quite different from war-wounded vet, since his paralysis had nothing to do with war. When Canetti took him to a May Day parade and he was wheeled there by Canetti, the parade organizers wanted Marek to be with the war-wounded. Marek resisted and refused and bitterly commented:

“Now they [war wounded] were all pulling along, behind the giant signs that said ‘Never Again War’ of course not. would never go to war again; they couldn’t. They weren’t lying at least, but all the other walking on their legs; they would dash to war again like sheep and forget all the fine May Day slogans.”

I enjoyed reading Canetti’s story, but given the huge gap in time between the writing and the living of the events, I can’t really take it seriously as auto-biography. It is a much later reconstruction of events, and my experience is that as we grow in age and retell tales of the past they tend to get overlaid with our later and more current views of the world and not quite as accurate to the past as they are commentaries on the present. It’s not only my own personal experiences that lead me to this conclusion, but I am still in touch with many people whom I have known all my life, even since early childhood. I see and hear such things in their accounts of their own past, and through those challenges come to see that this is true of my own memories and recounting of the past as well.

It’s not that any of us are consciously or purposely altering the facts – that’s a totally different matter. Rather, even when trying to grab and retell the past AS IT WAS LIVED, we simply cannot escape the layers of experience and thought that time has laid on us and in which has altered the memories and meanings of much of the past. We tend to get the EVENTS mainly right, I think, but the MEANINGS get altered.

I don’t mean those remarks to criticize Elias Canetti’s “autobiography.” Not at all. I merely mean to offer a caution that this autobiographical tale, colored by the passage of some 50 or more years, may not quite be a fully accurate history.

Bob Corbett


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