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The Tongue Set Free

In the mid-1930s, Elias Canetti wrote his first and only novel. It told of Professor Kien, a reclusive scholar who, after venturing out into Europe’s gathering horrors, incinerated his library and himself with it.

“Auto-Da-Fe” came to be recognized as a work of unsparing prophecy but--the fate of unsparing prophets--it was at first detested. At an early reading in Vienna, the novelist Franz Werfel, practitioner of a by-then motheaten sublimity, walked out, hysterically shouting, “Give it up.”

Canetti, a Bulgarian-born Sephardic Jew who wrote in German and lived in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France and England--he was a map and timeline of Europe’s great shattering--did not give it up. Making his way across the historical and cultural chasm that sundered the first half of the Western 20th century, he dramatized, analyzed, psychoanalyzed, lyricized and prophesied his way to a Nobel Prize.

Like Kien, Canetti had stepped out from his own over-bred bookish self. On the Vienna streets one day in 1927 (he was 22), he found himself sucked up in the whoosh of history bursting into flame. The city was a battleground between mobs of angry workers and the panicked police.

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When it was all over, 90 rioters had been shot dead and the Palace of Justice was ablaze. Silhouetted in the glow Canetti spotted Tragedy’s classic arms-flung-out gesture of despair: an official lamenting the fate of his files.

The image would fuel a life’s work: Canetti’s novel, his theatrical sketches, essays and case studies and above all his “Crowds and Power.” Pondered and elaborated during the succeeding 30 years, “Crowds” is imbued with the immediate horror and foreboding felt by the young writer caught in the mob and some of the scary allure, as well.

It is a pioneering yet magisterial statement of the dynamics and psychology of crowds--in the streets, in politics, in culture and religion. It is a study of how this century has seen these crowds usurp the role played by the individual ever since the Renaissance, at least. (Pioneering? A generation earlier, the Spaniard Jose Ortega Y Gassett proposed a very similar thesis in “The Revolt of the Masses.” There are no real discoveries, I suppose, only rediscoveries.)

Over many of the same 30 years, Canetti was working on a counterpart to the abstractions of “Crowds”: a memoir. Covering his life from birth to the publication of “Auto-Da-Fe"--shortly before he was obliged to leave Nazified Vienna, move to Paris and eventually settle in England--it appeared in three volumes from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s.

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Now, four years after Canetti’s death, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has reissued them, in a single volume, and sparely (no retrospective introduction or notes) but usefully. In our besieged print-and-paper culture, publication is not enough to establish memory; it takes republication and then perhaps only for a while.

Canetti was born to affluence in 1905 in the Danube town of Ruschuk. His paternal grandfather was a dynamic and autocratic merchant; his maternal grandfather, surly and less active, prided himself on his superior standing in the Sephardic lineage. Canetti’s mother and father, both artistic by temperament, were caught in the family’s dynastic expectations until they escaped to Britain, where the father, though working for his brother-in-law, was free of the tyranny of his own father, who publicly cursed him for his “desertion.”

Little Elias’ early memories breathe the kinked violence, overlaid by staid prosperity, that finds its way into much of the literature of Central Europe before World War I. The memoir’s opening scene could have come from the minatory German children’s classic “Struwelpeter”: the maid’s boyfriend threatened--not entirely jovially--to cut off the child’s tongue. At 5 or 6, Elias pursued a cousin with an ax; not long after she shoved him into a caldron of steaming water. He almost died; only the return of his father from a business trip seems to have saved him.

Kind, funny, affectionate, the father died of a heart attack two years after moving to England. Mother and 8-year-old boy were thrown together in a relationship compounded of love and fury, nurture and near-violence. They would stay up nights acting out Shakespeare and Schiller; her favorite modern writer, appropriately, was Strindberg. The home temperature was alternately scalding and freezing (for the last few years of her life, the mother refused to see Elias)--everything, in fact, but warm.

Extremes of temperature, powering Canetti’s intelligence and usually restrained by it, mark the memoirs as well. Warmth is scarcer. (There is a touching wartime scene in Zurich: Groups of wounded French and German prisoners, about to be exchanged, call out “Salut!” as they pass one another, and Canetti’s ardently pacifist mother weeps.)

More characteristic--as the author details his studies in Vienna and Frankfurt, his brief and uncomfortable introduction to the savage brilliance of Berlin in the 1920s and his settling down to work and write in Vienna--are the white-hot moments. For example, there is Canetti’s statement at the start, which could serve as epigraph--or, after all the storms, his conclusion:

“There is nothing bad I couldn’t say about humans and humankind. And yet my pride in them is so great that there is only one thing I really hate: their enemy, death.”

On the other hand there are freezing passages and odd emptinesses. Canetti’s portraits of the conductor Hermann Scherchen and of Gustav Mahler’s widow radiate contempt. Alma Mahler, grande dame of Vienna’s artistic world, he finds gross and vain. Theatrically mourning a dead daughter, “even her tears were of unusual size.”

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Eight hundred and fifty pages of detailed Mitteleuropa memories of fellow students, teachers, issues and long-gone minor figures among the major ones can feel rather long. Canetti’s brilliance as a writer shines out, particularly as it works to bring alive his intellectual passions and--occasionally--a measure of personal pain. For much of the time, though, he uses memory to narrate, reflect and judge rather than to evoke. He recites the human aspects of his past but rarely re-inhabits them.

His is a divided spirit. Usually, though not always, he is more interested in the qualities of people than in the people themselves. Time and again, his portraits of such contemporaries as Bertolt Brecht, George Grosz, Karl Kraus, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch and Isaac Babel, and of several women he loved, retreat after an initial sharp and suggestive attack into perfunctoriness or silence.

It is not because Canetti lacks a gift for portraiture--one or two lesser figures emerge unforgettably--but it is as if his interest was less in what he could discover than in what, evolving his life’s work, he could use. For him, as an assertive thinker, essence is bound to precede existence; for the great memoirists, of course, it is the other way around. Boswell, Canetti is not; more like Johnson remembering Boswell.

Yet there is an incandescence that surpasses the dutiful “and . . . ands” of remarkable teacher after remarkable teacher, exotic character after exotic character, stormy woman after stormy woman. It burns through memory as ledger. It becomes memory as consuming battle. In a sense, Canetti’s long struggle with his past is Professor Kien incinerating himself and his culture very slowly over three decades. In the slow flames, we see the world darkly turn.


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