Canetti, Elias (25 July 1905 - 14 August 1994)
Elias Canetti (25 July 1905 - 14 August 1994)
Thomas H. Falk
Michigan State University
Dagmar C. G. Lorenz
University of Illinois at Chicago
This entry was expanded by Lorenz from Falk’s Canetti entries in DLB 85: Austrian Fiction Writers After 1914 and DLB 124: Twentieth-Century German Dramatists, 1919–1992.
BOOKS: Die Blendung: Roman (Vienna, Leipzig & Zurich: Reichner, 1936); translated by C. V. Wedgwood as Auto-da-Fé (London: Cape, 1946); translation republished as The Tower of Babel (New York: Knopf, 1947);
Komödie der Eitelkeit: Drama (Munich: Weismann, 1950); translated by Gitta Honegger as Comedy of Vanity (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1983);
Fritz Wotruba (Vienna: Rosenbaum, 1955);
Masse und Macht (Hamburg: Claassen, 1960); translated by Carol Stewart as Crowds and Power (London: Gollancz, 1962; New York: Viking, 1962);
Welt im Kopf edited by Erich Fried (Graz & Vienna: Stiasny, 1962);
Hochzeit: Drama (Munich: Hanser, 1964); translated by Honegger as The Wedding (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1986);
Die Befristeten: Drama (Munich: Hanser, 1964); translated by Honegger as Life-Terms (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1983); translated by Stewart as The Numbered (London: Calder & Boyars, 1984);
Dramen (Munich: Hanser, 1964)—comprises Hochzeit, Komödie der Eitelkeit, and Die Befristeten;
Aufzekhnungen 1942–1948 (Munich: Hanser, 1965);
Die Stimmen von Marrakesch: Aufzeichnungen nach einer Reise (Munich: Hanser, 1967); translated by J. A. Underwood as The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit (London: Calder & Boyars, 1978; New York: Seabury Press, 1978);
Der andere Prozeβ: Kafkas Briefe an Felice (Munich: Hanser, 1969); translated by Christopher Middleton as Kafka’s Other Trial: The Letters to Felke (London: Calder & Boyars, 1974; New York: Schocken, 1974);
Alle vergeudete Verehrung: Aufzeichnungen 1949–1960 (Munich: Hanser, 1970);
Die gespaltene Zukunft: Aufsätze und Gespräche (Munich: Hanser, 1972);
Macht und Überhben: Drei Essays (Berlin: Literarisches Colloquium, 1972);
Die Provinz des Menschen: Aufzeichnungen 1942–1972 (Munich: Hanser, 1973); translated by Joachim Neugroschel as The Human Province (New York: Seabury Press, 1978);
Der Ohrenzeuge: Fünfzig Charaktere (Munich: Hanser, 1974); translated by Neugroschel as Earwitness: Fifty Characters (New York: Seabury Press, 1979);
Das Gewissen der Worte (Munich: Hanser, 1975; enlarged, 1976); translated by Neugroschel as The Conscience of Words (New York: Seabury Press, 1979);
Der Überlebende (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1975);
Der Beruf des Dichters (Munich: Hanser, 1976);
Die gerettete Zunge: Geschichte einer Jugend (Munich: Hanser, 1977); translated by Neugroschel as The Tongue Set Free: Remembrance of a European Childhood (New York: Continuum, 1979);
Die Fackel im Ohr: Lebensgeschichte 1921–1931 (Munich: Hanser, 1980); translated by Neugroschel as The Torch in My Ear (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982);
Das Augenspiel: Lebensgeschichte 1931–1937 (Munich: Hanser, 1985); translated by Ralph Manheim as The Play of the Eyes (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986);
Das Geheimherz der Uhr: Aufzeichnungen 1973–1985 (Munich: Hanser, 1987); translated by Joel Agee as The Secret Heart of the Clock: Notes, Aphorisms, Fragments 1973–1985 (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989);
Die Fliegenpein. Aufzeichnungen (Munich: Hanser, 1992); translated by H. F. Broch de Rothermann as The Agony of Flies: Notes and Notations (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994);
Aufzeichnungen 1942–1985. Die Provinz des Menschen. Das Geheimherz der Uhr (Munich: Hanser, 1993);
Werke, 10 volumes (Munich: Hanser, 1993–2005);
Nachträge aus Hampstead: Aus den Aufzeichnungen 1954–1971 (Zurich: Hanser, 1994); translated by John Hargraves as Notes from Hampstead: The Writer’s Notes, 1954–1971 (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998);
Wortmasken. Texte zu Leben und Werk von Elias Canetti, edited by Ortrun Huber (Munich: Hanser, 1995);
Aufzeichnungen 1992–1993 (Munich: Hanser, 1996);
Aufzeichnungen 1973–1984 (Munich: Hanser, 1999);
The Memoirs of Elias Canetti (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999)—comprises The Tongue Set Free, The Torch in My Ear, and The Play of the Eyes;
Party im Blitz: Die englischen Jahre, edited by Kristian Wachinger (Munich: Hanser, 2003); translated by Michael Hofmann as Party in the Blitz (London: Harvill, 2005);
Über den Tod, edited by Thomas Macho (Munich: Hanser, 2003);
Über die Dichter, edited by Peter von Matt (Munich: Hanser, 2004);
Aufzeichnungen für Marie-Louise, edited by Jeremy Adler (Munich: Hanser, 2005).
PLAY PRODUCTIONS: The Numbered (DieBefristeten), translated by Carol Stewart, Oxford, Playhouse Theatre, 5 November 1956;
Die Komödie der Eitelkeit, Brunswick, Germany, Staatstheater, 6 February 1965;
Hochzeit, Brunswick, Germany, Staatstheater, 3 November 1965;
Die Befristeten, Vienna, Theater in der Josefstadt, 17 November 1967.
OTHER: Veza Canetti, Die gelbe Straβe, edited by Canetti (Munich: Hanser, 1990);
Veza Canetti, Der Oger, edited by Canetti (Munich: Hanser, 1991);
Veza Canetti, Geduld bringt Rosen, edited by Canetti (Munich: Hanser, 1992).
TRANSLATIONS: Upton Sinclair, Leidweg der Liebe (Berlin: Malik, 1930);
Sinclair, Das Geld schreibt. Eine Studie über die amerikanische
Literatur (Berlin: Malik, 1930);
Sinclair, Alkohol (Berlin: Malik, 1932).
Bulgarian-born novelist and playwright Elias Canetti was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981 for “writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power.” Even prior to this turning point in his career, Canetti had attracted a small but loyal following among Austrian, British, German, and American intellectuals without, however, being a “popular” writer. His work includes outstanding writing in all major genres except poetry. Canetti was a polyglot and a voracious reader, a classical man of letters. Throughout his life he was an intellectual of independent means without an academic or professional position. He developed his ideas and a literary universe free from obligations to employers and research agencies, and his writings present a challenge to anthropologists, culture critics, philosophers, and scholars of social theory and psychology. Transcending traditional boundaries of genre and discipline, Canetti’s literary and nonliterary texts are structurally and intellectually interconnected and function as a complex and idiosyncratic network of ideas that call into question “big” systems such as Marxism, capitalism, and fascism.
Canetti’s achievements were honored throughout his career by coveted literary prizes indicating the high regard he enjoyed among critics and scholars worldwide. He received the Grand Prix International du Club Francais du Livre in 1949, the Writer’s Prize of the City of Vienna in 1966, the Great Austrian State Prize for Literature in 1967, the Georg Büchner Prize in 1972, the Franz Nabl Prize of the City of Graz in 1975, the Nelly Sachs Prize, and the Gottfried Keller Prize for Die gerettete Zunge: Geschichte einer Jugend (1977; translated as The Tongue Set Free: Remembrance of a European Childhood, 1979). These distinctions were followed in 1980 by the Europa Prato Prize and the Johann Peter Hebel Prize; that same year he was also invited to the order Pour le Mérite. In 1981, in addition to the Nobel Prize, he was awarded the Franz Kafka Prize, and in 1983 he received the Great Service Cross of the Federal Republic of Germany. He received honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Manchester in 1975 and the University of Munich in 1976. Canetti was at home in several cultures and languages, but he chose German as his literary medium and emphasized his indebtedness to German culture even after World War II and the Holocaust.
Elias Jacques Canetti was born on 25 July 1905, the oldest of the three sons of Sephardic merchant Jacques Canetti and his wife, Mathilde, née Arditti, in Rustschuk, Bulgaria. The Canettis and the Ardittis were descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. Canetti’s father’s ancestors had eventually settled in Adrianople, Turkey (now Edirne). His grandparents moved to Rustschuk, which developed into a prosperous trading center on the Danube River. Canetti’s father retained his Turkish citizenship; consequently, his children were considered Turkish citizens. Canetti’s mother came from one of Rustschuk’s old and distinguished Sephardic families of scholars and intellectuals. In contrast to the Canettis, the Ardittis had an appreciation for progress, modern culture, and world literature.
Mathilde Arditti and Jacques Canetti had studied in Vienna, and their thinking and the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the imperial city influenced their lifestyle. Enamored of classical European drama and Vienna’s outstanding theater tradition, they had dreamed of becoming actors at the Vienna Burgtheater. Only reluctantly did Jacques Canetti follow his father’s wishes and enter the family’s wholesale grocery business. Mathilde Canetti, the most influential person in her son’s childhood and adolescence, used her enthusiasm for literature, notably dramas and novels, as a medium for Elias’s education and inspired him to become an author and intellectual.
At home Canetti’s family spoke Ladino, the language of the Sephardim in the Balkan states and around the Mediterranean, which had been derived from medieval Spanish and contained elements of Hebrew and non-Jewish languages. In addition, Canetti was exposed to Bulgarian, Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, Albanian, Armenian, Romanian, and Russian. His parents spoke German with one another as their intimate language and as a code when they did not want their children to understand what they were saying. The German language thus assumed a special fascination for the young Canetti. Being surrounded by so many languages early in life was undoubtedly a factor in his lifelong sensitivity to the spoken word and different linguistic registers. In his autobiographical writings Canetti reveals that many of his childhood experiences found their way into his mature writings, one example being his earliest memory: the fear of having his tongue cut off if he revealed his nanny’s amorous activities. This episode, told in Die gerettete Zunge, connects language with the problem of truth and honesty, with sexuality, and with a sense of physical vulnerability.
When Canetti was six years old his father escaped the oppressive situation of working in a family business in a small Eastern European town by joining his brothers-in-law’s business in Manchester, England. Mathilde Canetti welcomed the move. She was eager to remove her children from the influence of her orthodox in-laws, and she liked England because of its democratic tradition. Young Elias learned English without difficulty and was able to start school. In Manchester his father introduced him to literature and the life of the imagination, discussing what the boy read, including The Arabian Nights, Grimm’s fairy tales, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719–1722), Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), tales from William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615), the works of Dante, and Friedrich von Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell (1804). He later said that he was grateful to his father for never telling him that fairy tales were untrue.
In October 1912 Jacques Canetti, a heavy smoker, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Mathilde Canetti had just returned from a stay at the health resort of Bad Reichenhall, where she had sought help for her depression, a condition that became worse over the years. A romance with her physician caused her to postpone her date of return several times. Around the same time, the war on the Balkans began, which posed an increasing threat to the families in Bulgaria. After his father’s death, Canetti, despite his inordinate attachment to his mother, harbored resentments and suspicions against her. Unable to tolerate life with her husband’s brothers, Mathilde Canetti gave in to her nostalgia for Austria and moved to Vienna in May 1913. During an intermittent sojourn of three months in Lausanne, Switzerland, she subjected her son to a painful and humiliating crash course: she taught him German in record time so that he would be able to enter the third grade in elementary school. Through this troubling experience Canetti acquired the language he used for all of his major writings, the language that provided him with a tenuous sense of cultural identity.
Mathilde Canetti rented an apartment in the Leopoldstadt, a modest immigrant neighborhood near the Danube Canal and the Prater amusement park. Canetti attended the Leopoldstadt elementary school and, on his way home from school, had his first encounter with anti-Semitism. In the first volume of his autobiography, Die gerettete Zunge, he recalls his mother’s categorical rejection of the insults—she believed that her son, a Sephardic Jew, was not the intended target. Convinced that Elias was destined to become a foremost author, she encouraged him in his intellectual aspirations. She considered his Sephardic background an asset rather than a liability.
In 1916 the family moved to Zurich to avoid the ravages of World War I. The Swiss capital was a paradise for Canetti during his formative years. At age fourteen he completed his first literary work, an historical tragedy in five acts of 2,290 lines of blank verse titled “Junius Brutus.” He dedicated the unpublished play to his principal and most exacting teacher, his mother. Decades later Canetti noted that his first play, for all its faults, was his earliest literary attempt in which he examined the horrors of the death penalty, which continued to be an issue of lifelong concern for him.
Much to Canetti’s dismay, in 1921 Mathilde Canetti moved to Frankfurt am Main with her sons. If the previous five years had appeared like a dreamworld, the years in Frankfurt introduced Canetti to the harsh postwar reality in the defeated Germany. He was shocked by the effects of inflation when he saw an old woman die of hunger in the street. In 1922 another event, a mass demonstration against the murder of the Jewish politician and industrialist Walter Rathenau, revealed to Canetti the power of a crowd. In the following decades Canetti devoted his energy to studying and gaining an understanding of the phenomena of crowds and power in a variety of settings, modern and historical.
In 1924 Canetti enrolled at the University of Vienna as a student of chemistry to satisfy his mother’s wish that he establish himself in a lucrative profession. His actual interest being literature, he immediately came under the influence of Karl Kraus, Vienna’s great satirist and polemicist, editor and to a large extent sole author of the famous journal Die Fackel (The Torch). Canetti attended almost all of Kraus’s public lectures and readings. He credited Kraus, a confirmed pacifist, with having him “gegen Krieg geimpft” (inoculated against war); moreover, Kraus’s caricatures of political foes inspired Canetti’s concept of the akustische Maske (acoustic mask), a detailed rendering of the linguistic idiosyncrasies associated with individual characters and using their speech patterns to encapsulate their emotional and mental makeup. This device became a crucial ingredient of Canetti’s novel, Die Blendung (The Blinding, 1936; translated as Auto-da-Fé, 1946, and as The Tower of Babel, 1947), and his first two plays, Komb’die der Eitelkeit (published in 1950, performed in 1965; translated as Comedy of Vanity, 1983) and Hochzeit (published in 1964, performed in 1965; translated as The Wedding, 1986).
At his first Kraus lecture Canetti met his future wife, Venetiana (Veza) Taubner-Calderon. Aged twentyseven and known for her sophisticated literary taste and judgment, she became his second mentor and strongest supporter in Vienna and later, England. Mathilde Canetti strongly resented Taubner-Calderon’s influence on her son and disapproved of the relationship. Canetti seems to have been drawn to Taubner-Calderon because of her literary interests and her active involvement in humanitarian and social causes. Most of all, her sense of fairness and independence impressed him. Having experienced abusive relationships within her immediate family and suffering from a physical disability (she was missing her left arm, whether as the result of an accident or a birth defect is unrecorded—the Canettis treated the subject as taboo), she had nonetheless succeeded in detaching from those who would oppress her and had established her own residence.
In 1928, frustrated by his studies and troubled by the 1927 riots in Vienna, which strengthened the political Right, Canetti went to Berlin with his friend Ibby Gordon, who introduced him to members of the avant garde. He stayed with Wieland Herzfelde, the head of the Malik publishing house, and met George Grosz, Bertolt Brecht, and Isaak Babel. He was both attracted to and repulsed by Berlin’s gaudy bohemian scene. Some of the leading intellectuals, including Brecht, he disliked intensely. In 1929 Canetti completed his chemistry doctorate in Vienna, but he never worked as a chemist. That same year, he began writing Die Blendung. Originally, he had planned this work to be one in a series of eight novels, all of which were to make up a “Comédie Humaine an Irren” (Human Comedy of Madmen). According to his plans, each novel would have as its protagonist a character who dedicates his life to the pursuit of a single concept or ideal—the man of truth, the visionary who wants to live in outer space, the religious fanatic, the collector, the spendthrift, the enemy of death, the actor, and the bookman.
Dr. Peter Kien, the Büchermensch (bookman), is the protagonist of Die Blendung. Kien, at age forty, is the greatest living authority on sinology but has withdrawn to his personal library of twenty-five thousand volumes on the top floor of an apartment house at No. 24 Ehrlich Straβe (Honest Street). (Even though it is never stated specifically, one can assume that the novel is set in Vienna.) Eight years earlier Kien had hired Therese Krumbholz (BentWood), who was then fifty-six, as a housekeeper. Each day she dusts one of the four rooms of the library from floor to ceiling and prepares Kien’s meals, which he takes at his desk. Kien, having severed all contact with the world for the sake of his research, is leading the life of “Ein Kopf ohne Welt” (A Head without a World), as the first part of the novel is titled. Kien has a pathological relationship with books: he speaks to them, scolds them as one would a recalcitrant child, and on occasion suspects them of harboring ill will toward him. On other occasions Kien appears more rational: for example, his suggestion that a novel can help the reader to think himself into another person’s place seems a reasonable account of what takes place in the reading process.
To assure the continued care of his library, Kien decides to marry his housekeeper, whose subservience he mistakes for loyalty; she agrees to the marriage because it will provide her with material security in her old age. Kien, far from seeking a relationship, allows Therese to speak to him for only a few minutes during lunch, and at that time he concentrates on not listening to her. While he remains completely devoted to his scholarly work, Therese sets about securing her future. She assumes that Kien must be rich because of the generous pay he gave her prior to their marriage, and even now he seems to pay no attention to money matters. When she asks for money to buy furniture, for instance, he gives her a large amount. What she does not understand is that he is trying to get rid of her so that he will not be bothered at his work. With this misunderstanding begins Therese’s all-out search for Kien’s bankbook and his will. Not finding either, she assumes that Kien deceived her about his finances. After a failed attempt at intimacy, which leaves both parties frustrated and disillusioned, Therese sets out to get revenge by invading Kien’s space, making it impossible for him to work. Kien flees from the house.
Homeless and separated from his library, Kien becomes the easy prey of a ruthless exploiter, the dwarf Fischerle, in the section of the novel titled “Kopflose Welt” (Headless World). To continue his studies, Kien imagines that he is carrying his library in his head. Each day he adds more imaginary books to his head library, and each evening he imagines himself taking them out and stacking them on the floor of his hotel room. As he accumulates more and more imaginary books, he needs ever larger rooms. When the task becomes too great, he hires Fischerle, who introduces himself as the World Chess Champion Siegfried Fischer and plays along with the head-library game. Through a variety of tricks he swindles Kien out of most of his money.
One source Kien uses to build his head library is the municipal pawnshop, the Theresianum, which calls to mind the Vienna Dorotheum. Rather than buying books, he pays would-be customers not to pawn their books. Fischerle enlists four friends who pretend to want to pawn books in order to get their hands on Kien’s money. One day as Kien is standing in the hallway of the Theresianum, his wife and the custodian of his apartment house come to pawn Kien’s books. A row ensues; the police arrive; and Kien is accused of theft for preventing the sale of his own books. He sees Therese, but in his state of confusion believes that she did not throw him out of his apartment. Instead, he is convinced that he locked her in the apartment, causing her to die of starvation. When the police inform him that he is charged with a crime, he confesses to her “murder.” The custodian, a retired policeman named Benedikt Pfaff, realizes that he can profit from the situation. He vouches for Kien at the police station and takes him to his own basement apartment. Forcing Kien to live in a dark room, Pfaff ensconces himself with Therese in Kien’s top-floor apartment.
At this point Kien’s brother Georg, a psychiatrist, arrives from Paris. In the third section of the novel, “Welt im Kopf” (World in the Head), Kien and Therese are divorced, and she is established as the owner of a dairy store on the other side of town. She and Pfaff will receive generous sums of money from Georg, provided that they stay away from the sinologist. Kien’s apartment is refurbished and his library reclaimed from the pawnshop. By the time Georg returns to Paris he even seems to have cured his brother’s psychosis. But suddenly Kien is once again overcome by his mania. He places his beloved books in a pile in the center of the room, sets them on fire, and perishes with them.
Although Canetti never wrote the seven other novels of the “Human Comedy of Madmen,” some of the protagonists of those planned works appear in Die Blendung under slightly different guises. Kien’s extreme pursuit of his scholarship calls to mind the man who would pursue one particular truth, or the visionary, or even the religious fanatic; likewise, Kien represents the collector and the spendthrift. The most fascinating aspect of the book is the meticulous development of the main characters’ psychological imbalance. Kien, Therese, Fischerle, Pfaff, and even Georg each suffers from his or her own brand of madness, and the unveiling of each particular form of madness is carried out with great subtlety. In his only major work of fiction, a novel written at the age of twenty-five, Canetti exhibits an unusual mastery of storytelling.
It took Canetti a long time to convince himself that the book was worthy of publication. Finally, almost five years after Canetti completed the manuscript, his friend, the writer Stefan Zweig, found a publisher for it. The novel was well received by some critics and received praise from Hermann Broch, Alban Berg, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, and Hermann Hesse. However, since 1934 it had become increasingly difficult for Jewish authors to publish under Austro-Fascism, the so-called Ständestaat. After the Nazi takeover, the so-called Anschluss in March 1938, all publication venues in Austria were closed to oppositional and Jewish writers, and the Nuremberg racial laws took effect. Distributing Die Blendung on the German-speaking market was impossible. When the novel was translated into English after World War II, many critics and reviewers labeled the work “too difficult.” Little effort was made to promote the translation, and it soon went out of print. After Canetti won the Nobel Prize he showed his bitterness for the years of neglect by withholding permission to have his works printed in England until 1985.
Two years before Die Blendung was published, in February 1934, Canetti had married Taubner-Calderon against his mother’s wishes. His wife was an author in her own right. She had published a social-critical serial novel, Die gelbe Straβe (1934; translated by Ian Mitchell as The Yellow Street, 1990), as well as short stories in the Socialist Vienna Arbeiter-Zeitung and elsewhere under a variety of pseudonyms. Like most Jewish authors, especially women authors, her works were rejected by Austrian publishers after the coup d’état in 1934. The couple took an apartment in the idyllic suburb of Grinzing, from where, as he writes in the third part of his autobiography, Das Augenspiel (1985; translated as The Play of the Eyes, 1986), he commuted every day to downtown Vienna to spend time in his favorite coffeehouse, the CaféMuseum, to observe the crowds. In 1937 Mathilde Canetti, who had lived in Paris since 1927, died. In November 1938 Elias and Veza Canetti left Vienna, fortunate to have been able to procure the necessary documents. They first went to Paris and from there to England, where they eventually took a modest apartment in the London suburb of Hampstead. For years the couple maintained separate residences, she in London, he in the suburbs. Canetti’s notes and sketches in the posthumously published autobiographical volume Party in Blitz: Die englischen Jahre (2003; translated as Party in the Blitz, 2005) and Veza Canetti’s Der Fund (2001, The Find) reveal the difficulty they faced as exiles in Britain. Party in Blitz also provides an impression of the author’s need for independence as well as his affairs, including relationships with the writers Friedl Benedikt and Iris Murdoch and the painter Marie-Louise von Motesiczky.
In his London exile in the 1940s Canetti worked on his major work of nonfiction, Masse und Macht (1960; translated as Crowds and Power, 1962). The impetus for this ambitious study can be traced back to 15 July 1927, when Canetti observed the dynamics governing the crowd setting fire to the Palace of Justice in Vienna. Other experiences with crowd behavior, notably the seemingly inexplicable power of political leaders such as Adolf Hitler over the masses, compelled Canetti to examine the origins, makeup, and behavior of crowds in a vast array of social settings and cultures. Obviously familiar with the phenomenon of the authoritarian personality as discussed by Wilhelm Reich, the author of Massenpsychologie des Faschismus (1934; translated as The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 1946) and Theodor W. Adorno and others in The Authoritarian Personality (1950), Canetti steered clear of research informed by psychoanalysis and Marxist theory. He also avoided direct discussions of men associated with the war and the Holocaust such as Hitler or Adolf Eichmann. Instead, Canetti developed theses about the paranoid political leader by way of the classic case study of Daniel Paul Schreber, the Leipzig judge who chronicled his own schizophrenia in Denükwrdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken (1903, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness), and he took his examples for the dynamics of crowd behavior and domination from lesser-known, supposedly primitive cultures.
The fact that major players of the early to mid twentieth century are conspicuously absent while obscure figures are introduced to elucidate issues central to this epoch reveals that Canetti deliberately constructed an antihistory. He revised the most prominent models of history and society by way of his own perceptions and tried to “explain” his era through an anthropological model. His arguments are structured around concepts that he considered basic to the human condition: death, survival, dominance, submission, war, killing, and transformation, and he examined universal roles played by human beings throughout history.
To counterbalance the concentration required by his monumental project on crowds and power, Canetti took up writing his Aufzeichnungen (notebooks) in the 1940s. Following the tradition of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Heinrich Heine, and Friedrich Nietzsche, Canetti’s aphorisms and diaristic entries include incisive observations and epiphanic insights on a broad range of topics including different cultural myths, languages, war and revolutions, Jewish history and experience, crowds and power, and individual authors and events. Some of the entries consist of miniature essays, which, according to some scholars, may someday be regarded as Canetti’s most significant contribution to German literature. Eventually the Aufzeichnungen covered the years from 1942 to 1992 and were published in several volumes.
In writings and interviews Canetti repeatedly expressed his passion for the drama. Yet, only three plays by him were published and produced. In the winter of 1931–1932, shortly after completing Die Blendung Canetti wrote his first play, Hochzeit, and followed it with a second play, Komödie der Eitelkeit, in 1933–1934. Both works were written in Vienna. His third play, DieBefristeten (published in 1964, performed in 1967; translated as Life-Terms, 1983, and as The Numbered, 1984) was written in London during 1952 and 1953. Die Befristeten premiered in English, translated as The Numbered, on 5 November 1956 at the Playhouse Theatre in Oxford; its German premiere occurred on the Studiobühne (Studio Stage) of the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna on 17 November 1967. The other two plays premiered at the Staatstheater (State Theater) in Brunswick, Federal Republic of Germany: Die Komödie der Eitelkeit on 6 February 1965 and Hochzeit on 3 November 1965.
There are various reasons for the long delay between the writing and the publication and first performances of the plays. As with all his writings, Canetti insisted on reworking his plays with great care. Before leaving Vienna he gave several public readings of the first two plays; by the time he might have been ready to have them published and performed, Austria had been transformed into a fascist regime. It was difficult enough for a Jewish author to find a publisher, let alone for a Jewish playwright to find a producer and an audience. During the war Canetti concentrated on his scholarly project and his notebooks and diaries. Not until an edition of his three plays appeared with the Hanser publishing company in 1964 did Canetti become known in Germany as a playwright. Canetti believed that the proper moment for his plays to appear onstage was in the early 1960s, after German audiences had become familiar with the Theater of the Absurd.
Occasionally, Canetti indicated that he was planning a book on his theory of the drama. Although no such book emerged, three key concepts for his dramatic practice can be identified on the basis of interviews with the author, his notes, and his essays: the akustische Maske, the Grundeinfall (basic idea), and the Verwandlung (transformation). The acoustic mask, a character’s linguistic structure, which is as unique as a fingerprint, reveals his or her emotional and intellectual makeup as well as his or her desires and goals in life.
According to Canetti, every drama has to proceed from a completely new Grundeinfall. The plot of the play must be so innovative that it transports the viewers into a world they have never before experienced; it must also introduce the audience to completely new and unexpected events. Based on the Grundeinfall, the author creates a world apart from everyday reality to appeal to the audience’s critical faculties.
The notion of Verwandlung refers to Canetti’s conviction that the theater is not only a place for entertainment but also an educational institution. The playwright’s task is to challenge the audience with a shocking reality to induce a catharsis. Canetti does not seek to describe or interpret the world; he wants his grotesque and absurd dramatic antiworlds to bring about a transformation through confrontation and mental and emotional readjustment. Transformation—in contrast to rigidity, be it a lack of flexibility, an unwillingness to change, stubbornness, or stagnation—is also a central concept in Canetti’s theory on crowds and power. The ability to become a different being, even across species boundaries, as in native myths and fairy tales, is the key to survival. It enables the weak and persecuted to escape from the power of tyrants, perhaps even from death.
Hochzeit has as its Grundeinfall the proximity of the desires for power, sex, and possession with selfdestruction and, ultimately, death. The play depicts a merciless society void of a moral code and heading toward complete destruction. Hochzeit is divided into a prelude in five scenes and the main act. The prelude introduces the residents of an apartment house on Gütigkeitstrafie (Kindness Street), all of whom are obsessed by the desire of owning the house in which they live. The landlady is a shrewd old woman who is visited every day by her granddaughter. Under the guise of concern the younger woman, who hopes that the old lady will soon die, plots to become the heiress and bring the house into her possession. Each time the landlady’s parrot hears the word Haus (house), he repeats it three times, emphasizing the major theme of the play. Subsequent scenes within the prelude introduce the other residents, including a pompous schoolteacher and a young couple whose wedding is celebrated in the main act. They, too, are trying to cheat the old woman out of her house. The fifth scene takes place in the janitor’s basement apartment, a setting that calls to mind the chapter “Der gute Vater” (The Good Father) in Die Blendung, a sinister farce on patriarchal patterns. In the play the janitor’s wife is shown lying on her deathbed while her husband reads from the Book of Judges in the Bible. The episode in question tells how the blinded Samson pulls down the house upon the Philistines, thereby foreshadowing the events of the main act.
The wedding celebration in the main act introduces the audience to a depraved, bourgeois family. The bride’s father, Oberbaurat Segenreich (Chief Construction Engineer Richly Blessed), insists in his vanity that everyone acknowledge that he has built a solid house and a fine family. However, it is obvious that the members of this family and the wedding party are driven by greed and the will to power: they want to acquire property and dominate other people. In addition, all of them are obsessed with sex. The sex-crazed mother of the bride can think of nothing but copulating with the groom; the bride lusts after three friends of the family; and—revealing the connection between sexuality, power, and domination—the eighty-year-old family physician, Dr. Bock (Stud), an erotomaniac and pedophile, brags that he has “had” all the women in the family and those present at the party. Into this macabre world Horch (Hark), an idealist, introduces a play within the play. He asks what each person would do if the one he or she loves were threatened by imminent danger. When a sudden earthquake changes the game into reality, and the characters could really save the person they love, they try to save themselves first. The play ends with cruel, hateful screams cutting through the silence. The parrot has the last word: “Haus! Haus! Haus!”
The premiere of Hochzeit caused a scandal. Spectators were offended by Canetti’s explicit language, by the way the characters were portrayed, and by the message of the play. To make matters worse, the day before the premiere, a Brunswick newspaper had printed an anonymous article charging that the play was pornographic. Even though several writers and critics, including Günter Grass and Adorno, vouched for the high artistic quality of Hochzeit, the play closed after seven performances. Today Hochzeit is considered Canetti’s most stageable play. It was successfully performed under the direction of Karl Paryla in 1970 in Cologne and had an enthusiastic reception when Canetti read it later that year at the Schauspielhaus (Playhouse) in Kiel. When the city of Vienna celebrated Canetti’s eightieth birthday in October 1985, Hans Hollmann directed Hochzeit at the Akademietheater with a distinguished cast.
The Grundeinfall of Komödie der Eitelkeit is that the human race would waste away if individuals were deprived of the ability to see themselves in a mirror or through the eyes of others. A new government decree intended to eliminate vanity, interpreted in a narrow sense as the indulgence of selfishness, is imposed on the population. The ownership and use of mirrors are prohibited; photographing people is forbidden, and all photographs of human beings must be destroyed; and all movie houses must be closed and all movies destroyed. The punishment for violating the decree is long-term imprisonment or death. The play illustrates different reactions to the new social situation by way of some two dozen characters. The teacher Fritz Schakerl (Little Jackal) represents the strict disciplinarian. When he is not acting as an enforcer of conduct, he develops a severe stutter. He is the one who announces the decree; during the announcement he does not stammer a single time. S. Bleiss, a photographer, is in the business of perpetuating vanity. His favorite gimmick is to take pictures of poor newlyweds standing in front of his car, which the couple can pass off as their own when they show the picture. François Fant (Fop) steals all of his mother’s mirrors and takes them to the carnival, where he smashes them with a ball while watching his reflection in them. Emilie Fant, François’s mother, needs the mirrors for her brothel for ambience and to help her girls make themselves attractive for her customers. Heinrich Föhn (Hot Air) strolls across the stage, pontificating to his companion Leda Frisch (Fresh) that a self-image of good health provides the individual with a meaningful life.
The second half of the play, set ten years later, shows how the characters have come to terms with the decree. Schakerl has become the powerful chairman of a committee of crime fighters after he advocated the passage of a law under which the eyes of girls are torn out if they look into someone else’s eyes to see themselves. Married to one such girl, Schakerl grows ill and despondent, a victim of the so-called mirror sickness, which can only be cured by looking into a mirror. When he obtains a mirror, his stammering returns. Bleiss is still dealing in vanity, going from door to door selling time in front of a mirror at ten schillings for two minutes. Although he is occasionally caught in this illegal venture, he survives. Emilie Fant has established a “Spiegelbordell” (mirror brothel) where almost all the characters of the play pay high prices to sit in front of mirrors and admire themselves. Föhn stands before a full-length mirror in a luxury cabin making pompous and trivial pronouncements. After each proclamation he pushes a button and hears applause; but each time, the applause grows weaker, until there is none. Becoming demented, he threatens in a thundering voice to destroy the establishment. The final scene shows the majority of the characters in Emilie’s “Spiegelsaal” (Hall of Mirrors). Each is confronted by and recoils from a raging voice that summarizes his or her character traits, exposing the untruthfulness of the mask each had created. All raise high mirrors or pictures of themselves, but they never merge into a group; individual vanity prevails.
The reviews of opening night were so negative that Komödie der Eitelkeit closed after only eight performances. Yet, most reviewers thought highly of the play itself and placed the blame on the director, Helmut Matiasek. He had chosen the Nazi period as the setting, thereby transforming Canetti’s drama into a commentary on National Socialism rather than leaving it more neutral as a general statement on totalitarian systems. The historically specific setting, appropriate to the author’s own experience in the 1930s and 1940s, had supposedly prevented the catharsis Canetti intended. The most successful production of the play took place in Basel in February 1978 under the direction of Hollmann, who was familiar with Canetti’s concepts of the akustische Maske and the Grundeinfall.
In Die Befristeten the Grundeinfall is a utopian society in which people are not tormented by the uncertainty of when they will die. At birth, people are given a locket containing their birth and death dates, along with a number that indicates the number of years they will live. Although everyone knows the information in his or her own locket, it is a crime to reveal it to others. An official called the Kapselan (locketeer) is the only one authorized to open the locket at the time of death to confirm the accuracy of the date recorded there. The play has three major and twenty minor characters, as well as a chorus. The minor characters have names such as Die Mutter 32 (The Mother 32), Der Junge 70 (The Boy 70), Zwei junge Herren, 28 und 88 (Two Young Men, 28 and 88), Der Mann, Dr. 46 (The Man, Dr. 46), and Der Junge zehn (The Boy 10). Each person’s number determines his or her personality and behavior. The Mother 32, for example, is unable to persuade her son, the Boy 70, to be cautious while playing, because the son knows that he cannot be killed until he is seventy. The Boy 10 is a spoiled brat because he knows that his is only a short life. The dystopian character of this society is expressed in a woman’s reminder to her granddaughter that the latter will live “bis zu deinem Augenblick” (only until your moment). Characters with high numbers assume a superior and arrogant attitude; those with low numbers obviously feel inferior and behave in an obsequious and downtrodden manner.
The major characters are Fünfzig (Fifty), Freund (Friend), and the Kapselan. Fünfzig resists the dictates of the Kapselan. For many years he has suspected that the lockets might be empty and that the Kapselan was a fraud. He reveals his suspicions to Freund and subsequently to the masses, who follow him merrily in precipitating the downfall of the deceptive system, driven by the idea that they will now live forever. However, the death of the first person puts an end to this dream. It turns out that the uncertainty of the time of one’s death is worse than the certainty that death will occur at a predestined moment. Here, as elsewhere in Canetti’s writing, the new system achieved through violent action is even less desirable than the previous one, despite the latter’s imperfection.
Reviews of the premiere performance of Die Befristeten as The Numbered by the Meadow Players of the Oxford Playhouse Company, directed by Mionos Volanakis, were positive. The Times of London compared the play with works by Jean Giraudoux and Jean Cocteau: “Into this distinguished repertoire Mr. Elias Canetti’s play erupts with a strangely mathematical absorption.” Oxford magazine reported that “the writing is forceful and plain, as is the production.... In scene upon scene they build up the delicate web of tension, achieving with truth and economy effects which grip the mind.” By contrast, the German-language premiere in Vienna under the direction of Friedrich Kallina on 17 November 1967 was not well received. The critic for Die Welt (The World) considered the drama a nice exercise for the mind but not a play for the stage. Other critics described Canetti’s dramas as “difficult” or “uncomfortable.” The frequent controversies occasioned by the performances suggest the public’s unwillingness to take an honest, albeit pessimistic, look at itself. Canetti addressed such major issues as greed, power, lasciviousness, freedom, death, the depersonalization of the individual, and the creation of an inhumane mass society.
In 1952 Canetti had traveled to Morocco in the company of a movie team. The experience of a North African Arab society with a rich Sephardic history and subculture proved highly productive. It resulted in a manuscript initially titled “Moroccan Memoirs” and published under the title Die Stimmen von Marrakesch: Aufzeichnungen nach einer Reise (1967; translated as The Voices of Marrakesh, 1978). The volume successfully combines the genre of the travelogue and documentary with autobiographical writing.
Veza Canetti died on 1 May 1963. In her afterword to the 2001 edition of Der Fund, Angelika Schedel speculates that the death was a suicide; however, biographer Sven Hanuschek argues convincingly that Veza Canetti, in all likelihood suffering from cancer, died after weeks of hospitalization. In 1971 Canetti married Hera Buschor, an art restorer; their daughter, Johanna, was born in 1972. Canetti had met Buschor, daughter of classical archaeologist Ernst Buschor, in London in 1957. His relationship with the much younger woman (she was born in 1933) developed slowly over the years. Despite her background from parents supportive of the Nazi system, her common interests with Canetti in history, languages, and art prevailed. In the 1970s Canetti had acquired an apartment in Zurich and had begun living alternately in Hampstead and Zurich.
Another genre in which Canetti excelled was the essay. Some of his longer essays were collected in Das Gewissen der Work (1975; enlarged, 1976; translated as The Conscience of Words, 1979). These essays explore figures who had a major impact on Canetti’s writing and thinking during the decades he devoted to the study of crowds and power, among them Broch, Musil, Kraus, Stendhal, Leo Tolstoy, and Aristophanes. The essays also examine the human condition after the Holocaust and the atomic bomb—for the most part indirectly, without naming these specific reference points, but sometimes directly, as in “Dr. Hachiyas Tagebuch aus Hiroshima” (1975; translated as “Dr. Hachiya’s Diary of Hiroshima,” 1979), a sensitive and compassionate review of a Japanese survivor’s account. Particularly revealing in the context of Canetti’s theories on crowd management and his most direct commentary on Hitler’s mentality is his review article “Hitler, nach Speer” (translated as “Hitler, According to Speer”) in Das Gewissen der Work.
The volumes of Canetti’s autobiography not only serve as a chronicle of the author’s life but also constitute an important contribution to historical and autobiographical writing. Die gerettete Zunge is devoted to Canetti’s experiences between 1904 and 1921 and discusses the formative experiences and social forces in the author’s youth. These forces include his Sephardic background and important personalities such as his parents, his grandparents, and other people with whom he interacted as an adolescent in Bulgaria, Britain, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. Of all the episodes, those set in interwar Germany are the bleakest and most pessimistic. The spontaneity and the easy flow of Canetti’s narrative are deceptive. All of the key episodes are carefully chosen, and the characters are framed in such a way as to reveal aspects of the author’s development and his creative processes. Die Fackel im Ohr: Lebensgeschichte 1921–1931 (1980; translated as The Torch in My Ear, 1982) describes Canetti’s experiences from the years 1921 to 1931, most notably his fascination and eventual disillusionment with Kraus, his courtship of Veza Canetti, and his increasing detachment from his mother. Rather than sketching a panoramic view of his life, Canetti focuses on central personalities. One of these figures is Broch, who provided him with insights concerning mass psychology; another is Abraham Sonne, a fellow patron of the Café Museum in Vienna and author of Hebrew poetry published under the pen name of Abraham ben Yitchak, who helped Canetti to overcome Kraus’s overpowering influence. The third volume of Canetti’s autobiography, Das Augenspiel, reviews experiences and events of the years 1931 to 1937.
In every part of his memoirs Canetti establishes connections between personal, social, historical, and political developments. For example, in the first volume he places his family’s move from Vienna to Frankfurt into the larger context of the aftermath of World War I, and the second volume makes obvious the interplay between the author’s intellectual development and the freewheeling revolutionary spirit of the times. Without addressing Austro-Fascism and National Socialism directly, as Veza Canetti did in her novel Die Schildkr’ten (1999; translated as The Tortoises, 2001), Canetti’s memoirs indicate that the idyllic abode of the newlyweds in the Viennese suburb of Grinzing was a retreat from the increasingly threatening urban atmosphere. Interestingly, Canetti makes more of an issue about the proximity of his living quarters to the house of the publisher Ernst Benedikt (who because of the rising anti-Semitism had to relinquish his position as editor and his share in his paper Die Neue Freie Presse in 1934), than he does about the radicalization of the Austrian public and the Nazi threat. Although many of his interlocutors of those years chose exile, as did sculptor Anna Mahler in London and Sonne in Palestine, Canetti does not comment on their fates. The key figures in the autobiography reveal to what degree Canetti steered clear of the fashions of his time and refused to follow literary and ideological movements. He likewise treats with discretion his personal affairs, the waning passion in his marriage, his infatuation with Mahler, and his evolving relationship with Friedl Benedict, Ernst’s daughter and a successful author in England.
During the war era Canetti was preoccupied with the killing, devastation, and suffering caused by the nation whose language he had adopted. He was greatly concerned about the consequences of the violence, the extent of which was not known at the time. Canetti, who was so closely identified with the culture of the aggressors, faced a double bind: an exile from Nazi-controlled Austria living in Great Britain, he felt that he owed a double loyalty, both to his country of exile and to the German culture to which he owed much of his creative impulse. Having learned German under almost traumatic circumstances, he noted in his Aufzeichnungen that the language of his spirit would forever be the German language, not despite the fact that he was a Jew but because of it. Canetti considered himself the protector of the unspoiled German language, whose task it was to return to the Germans their uncorrupted language to pay his debt of gratitude. Canetti continued to write in German, even though during the war and for several years afterward he was virtually unknown in German-speaking countries.
Unlike other exiles from Nazi-controlled territories, he did not publish during the war years or take part in the propaganda effort—doing so would have compromised his position as a neutral arbiter, which he wanted to establish. Even after Germany’s defeat, when he had learned of the extent of the destruction and the devastation of the Holocaust, he refrained from taking sides. His Aufzeichnungen of the postwar years reveal the agony that resulted from his attempt to preserve his neutral stance. Canetti continued to examine the phenomenon of the masses and the paranoid leader in universal rather than specific terms, and he continued to state his compassion for all those who had suffered, including the Germans and the Japanese. Canetti avoided addressing the topics of Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust directly, even though aspects of both are implied in his crowd studies and his Aufzeichnungen, which over the years sketch an increasingly pessimistic image of humanity.
Critics and the international media reacted with bewilderment to the announcement that Canetti, at the time still somewhat of a cult author lacking the international standing of his later years, was the recipient of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature. Because seven nations had supported Canetti’s nomination for the Nobel Prize—Bulgaria, Germany, England, Austria, Israel, Spain, and Switzerland, countries where he had resided or been a visitor—Canetti’s identity became an issue of debate. A similar stir had followed the 1966 nomination of Nelly Sachs, the German Holocaust poet living as a recluse in Sweden, and that of the Yiddish American novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978—both writers whose lives, like Canetti’s, had been shaped by the exile experience. The New York Times noted that Canetti was “the first native of Bulgaria to win the prize.” The Times of London identified Canetti as “the first British citizen to win the literature prize since Winston Churchill,” observing that “most unusually of all for a British laureate, Dr. Canetti writes, and has always written, in German.” A critic for the Austrian literary journal Literatur und Kritik wrote that Canetti, although not an Austrian citizen, could be counted among the representatives of Austrian literature on the basis of his views. The journal termed him the first author of Austrian spirit to receive the Nobel Prize.
In his presentation speech at the Nobel award ceremony, Johannes Edfelt of the Swedish Academy characterized Canetti as an exiled and cosmopolitan author and praised him for never having abandoned his true native land, the German language, and his love of classical German culture. Furthermore, Edfelt extolled the laureate’s intellectual passion and his dedication to the cause of humanity. He interpreted Canetti’s one novel, Die Blendung, as a metaphor of the dangers posed by hyperspecialization and the ensuing isolation of the individual on the one hand, and the rise of the internalized “massman” on the other. He observed structural and ideological affinities between Die Blendung and Canetti’s critically acclaimed anthropological-philosophical study Masse und Macht, “a magisterial work” on “the origin, composition and reaction patterns of mass movements.” Canetti’s three plays, Komödie der Eitelkeit, Hochzeit, and Die Befristeten, were celebrated in the laudation for their portrayal of “extreme situations” and their insightful examination of a “unique world of ideas.” Also recognized in the Nobel speech was Canetti’s study of the tortured relationship of Franz Kafka and his fiancée Felice Bauer, as it emerges from the letters he sent her while writing Der Prozeβ (1925; translated as The Trial, 1937). Canetti’s essay on Kafka and Bauer had appeared separately in 1969 as Der andere Prozeβ (translated as Kafka’s Other Trial, 1974).
Edfelt gave his most heartfelt tribute to Canetti’s autobiography, of which the first two volumes had appeared (Die gerettete Zunge and Die Fackel im Ohr). According to Edfelt, these highly personal texts represent “a peak in Canetti’s writings” and reveal “his forceful epic power of description to its full extent” as they portray the political and cultural life in central Europe in the early 1900s. The laudation concluded on a note of highest acclaim: “with your versatile writings, which attack sick tendencies in our age, you wish to serve the cause of humanity. Intellectual passion is combined in you with the moral responsibility that... is nourished by mercy.”
Confirming Edfelt’s observations about his intellectual identity, Canetti presented his speech at the Nobel Banquet on 10 December 1981 in German. He credited three cities, Vienna, London, and Zurich, for having played a pivotal role in his intellectual development, because they represented to him peril, inspiration, and excess. Moreover, he also stated his indebtedness to three Jewish intellectuals and one non-jewish author: the Viennese journalist and satirist Kraus, the Prague prose writer and lawyer Kafka, the Austrian novelist and mass psychologist Broch, and finally, the prose writer Musil, an observer and critic of Central European culture. Indeed, these four authors, foremost representatives of fin de siècle modernity, epitomize and transcend the multicultural legacy of the Habsburg Empire, the cultural realm that shaped Canetti. Citing these particular sites and names, Canetti placed himself within the larger European modernist tradition, the major achievement of which he characterized as the ethics of pacifism, most notably the distrust of power and authority and the institutions that administer them. Linking his own concerns with authors he admired, Canetti points in his speech to aspects of his own writing, which combines the personal and empirical with the philosophical and rational in an attempt to transcend conventional or fashionable concepts and thought patterns.
Even though Canetti did not mention his country and culture of origin, Bulgaria and Sephardic Jewry, the name of his native city, Rustschuk (now Ruse), was inscribed on the back of his chair in the hall of Nobel laureates, rather than the author’s country of citizenship as is customary. Indeed, Die gerettete Zunge reveals Canetti’s vivid memories of Rustschuk and the importance of his childhood place for his thought and creativity. Through his avoidance of Bulgaria in his writings Canetti seems to suggest his culture of origin perished as the result of the Holocaust and World War II. Susan Sontag, who quoted Canetti as saying that he set out to “grab this century by the throat,” was impressed with his refusal to adopt a reductionist psychological approach, his opposition to historicism, and his rebellion against death. In his writings she recognized both his affinity with classical European authors and his fascination with Chinese, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian thought. As was the case with many critics, she overlooked the significance of Jewish, especially Sephardic, tradition in Canetti’s work and did not mention how profoundly the Holocaust, the war, and the atomic bomb affected the author.
Winning the Nobel Prize made Canetti financially independent for the first time in his life. The event also placed him at the forefront of literary debates and into the limelight, which he tried to avoid. Following the award, Canetti was in demand as an author, public lecturer, and reader, and aspiring scholars besieged him. Yet, he maintained his modest lifestyle, living in a nondescript modern apartment building in Zurich and remaining loyal to old friends. In 1988 Hera Canetti died of cancer, leaving her young daughter and her husband, who was now advanced in years, on their own.
In the late 1980s Canetti started to release new editions of Veza Canetti’s novels and short stories with the Hanser publishing company. Aside from paying tribute to her creativity, his observations about his late wife’s writings provide insights into his views on gender roles, femininity, and his and Veza Canetti’s relationship.
Canetti died suddenly in Zurich on 14 August 1994. His grave site in the Fluntern Cemetery is close to that of James Joyce, whom he admired and who as a writer stood similarly apart from the crowds.
Since Canetti’s death new publications by and about him have appeared from his extensive estate, which the author entrusted to the Zentralbibliothek Zürich. The posthumously published books include the fourth volume of his autobiography, Party im Blitz, impressions from Canetti’s early years in England. Written in 1990, the work provides boldly stated observations about Canetti’s personal aversions and predilections, his first impressions about British society, and astute insights into his own tenuous position as an exile. He also presents assessments of global events, politics, and society.
In light of the seemingly never-ending wars and conflicts in the late twentieth century involving nationality, ethnicity, and religion, Elias Canetti’s increasingly critical, if not downright misanthropic, view of the human species deserves special attention. From the confrontation with inhumanity and brutality evolves Canetti’s alternative anthropology that links human and nonhuman animal behavior in unexpected ways. Canetti’s often misquoted and misinterpreted “opposition to death” is at the very core of his thinking, calling for a rigorous nonviolent ethic that rules out death—killing and suicide—as options, regardless what the circumstances may be. Canetti fiercely objected to the threat of death as a political tool (warfare), a means to discipline and punish (capital punishment), or a way of dealing with other species (hunting and slaughter). Indeed, his ethic calls for the elimination of killing or murder altogether, even in the realm of imagination, arts, and literature. Canetti’s insistence that a fundamental reorientation and a global intellectual and educational effort be undertaken to delay the self-destruction of the human species constitutes his major contribution to the twentieth-century discourse on the human condition.
Sven Hanuschek, Elias Canetti: Biographie (Munich: Carl Hanser, 2005).
Heinz Ludwig Arnold, ed., Literatur und Kritik, special Canetti issue, no. 28, third edition (September 1982);
Friedbert Aspetsberger and Gerald Stieg, eds., Elias Canetti: Blendung als Lebensform (Königsberg: Athenäum, 1985);
Dagmar Barnouw, Elias Canetti (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1979); Barnouw, Elias Canetti zur Einführung (Hamburg: Junius, 1996);
Kurt Bartsch and Gerhard Melzer, eds., Elias Canetti: Experte der Macht (Graz: Droschl, 1985);
Alfons-M. Bischoff, Elias Canetti: Stationen zum Werk (Bern & Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1973);
Mechthild Curtius, Kritik der Verdinglichung in Canettis Roman “Die Blendung” Eine Sozialpsychologische Literaturanalyse (Bonn: Bouvier, 1973);
David Darby, ed., Critical Essays on Elias Canetti (New York: G. K. Hall, 2000);
Manfred Durzak, ed., Zu Elias Canetti (Stuttgart: Klett, 1983);
Friederike Eigler, Das autobiographische Werk von Elias Canetti. Verwandlung, Identität, Machtausubüng (Tübingen: Stauffenburg, 1988);
Susanna Engelmann, Babel - Bibel - Bibliothek. Canettis Aphorismen zur Sprache (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1997);
Thomas H. Falk, Elias Canetti (New York: Twayne, 1993);
Leslie Fiedler, “The Tower of Babel,” Partisan Review, 3 (May/June 1947): 316–320;
Kristie A. Foell, Blind Reflections: Gender in Elias Canetti’s Die Blendung (Riverside: Ariadne Press, 1994);
Helmut Göbel, Elias Canetti (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 2005);
Herbert G. Göpfert, ed., Canetti lesen: Erfahrungen mit seinen Büchern (Munich: Hanser, 1975);
Werner Hoffmann, ed., Hütter der Verwandlung (Munich: Hanser, 1985); translated by Michael Hulse as Essays in Honor of Elias Canetti (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987);
Walter Höllerer and Norbert Miller, eds., Elias Canetti zu Ehren, Sprache im technischen Zeitalter, 94 (1985);
Gitta Honegger, “Acoustic Masks: Strategies of Language in the Theater of Canetti, Bernhard, and Handke,” Modern Austrian Literature, 18, no. 2 (1985): 57–66;
Heike Knoll, Das System Canetti. Zur Rekonstruktion eines Wirklichkeitsentwurfes (Stuttgart: M & P, 1993);
Michael Krüger, ed., Einladung zur Verwandlung. Essays zu Elias Canettis “Macht und Macht” (Munich: Hanser, 1995);
Detlef Krumme, Lesemodelle: Canetti, Grass, Hölerer (Munich: Hanser, 1983), pp. 31–84;
Richard H. Lawson, Understanding Elias Canetti (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1991);
Dagmar C. G. Lorenz, ed., A Companion to the Works of Elias Canetti (Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 2004);
Michael Mack, Anthropology as Memory: Elias Canetti’s and Franz Baermann Steiner’s Responses to the Shoah (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2001);
Modern Austrian Literature, special Canetti issue, 16, no. 3/4 (1983);
Edgar Piel, Elias Canetti (Munich: Beck, 1984);
David Roberts, Kopf und Welt: Elias Canettis Roman “Die Blendung” (Munich: Hanser, 1975);
Sidney Rosenfeld, “1981 Nobel Laureate Elias Canetti: A Writer Apart,” World Literature Today, 56, no. 1 (1982): 5–9;
Angelika Schedel, “Nachwort,” in Veza Canetti, Der Fund (Munich: Hanser, 2001), pp. 309–324;
Susan Sontag, “Mind as Passion,” in her Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980);
Adrian Stevens and Fred Wagner, eds., Elias Canetti: Londoner Symposium (Stuttgart: Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz/Akademischer Verlag Stuttgart, 1991);
Kristian Wachinger, ed., Elias Canetti: Bilder aus seinem Leben (Munich: Carl Hanser, 2005).
Elias Canetti left his papers to the Zentralbibliothek Zürich under the condition that his literary estate (120 boxes) be made available for research in 2004 and his personal papers (30 boxes) in 2024.