The cultural pole of the northwestern quadrant of the globe has shifted several times over the centuries – from Egypt to Babylon, from Rome to London and New York by way of Berlin. For much of the 600 years of the Habsburg Monarchy, and particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries of Schubert and Grillparzer, Sigmund Freud and Johann Strauss the Younger, Vienna was the magnet, attracting in three-quarter time dreamers of all classes, even emancipated Jews.
Elias Canetti was born in 1905 to parents mesmerised by that distant power. Vienna was a four-day trip up the Danube from the port of Ruschuk (today Ruse) in Ottoman Bulgaria where Canetti’s mother Mathilde was born into the court of Ladino-speaking Jewish nobility. Her parents opposed her marriage to Jacques, the son of arrivistes who had worked their way up from unsophisticated nargileh-smoking Jews in Turkish Adrianople (today Edirne) to thriving Bulgarian merchants. But Mathilde and Jacques were born with their own imaginations. Thespians manqués, they found a common language in a private German, speaking in secret over their son’s head about the Burgtheater in Vienna and the performances they had seen in their schooldays. Little Elias grew up speaking Ladino, Turkish, and Bulgarian – the language of the village girls who worked as maids in the Canetti household and who terrified the little boy with tales of another Danube, a frozen river where hungry wolves attacked horse-drawn sleighs as they skated from Bulgaria to Romania on the distant shore. Even when Jacques moved the family to Manchester in 1911 and Elias had to learn English, German remained the boy’s language of magic and mystery.
When Jacques collapsed suddenly the next year, the twenty-seven-year-old Mathilde lost both her love and the language that had nurtured that love, German. She packed up Elias and his younger brothers and let language pull her back to Vienna. It was in this now fifth language that the young boy grew up and began to write. Even twenty years later in 1938, when the Anschluss threw the polarity of Austria on its head and Canetti fled back to England, German remained the language of his memoirs, his essays, and his single great novel Auto-da-Fé; the language that won Canetti the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981.
In I Want to Keep Smashing Myself Until I Am Whole: An Elias Canetti Reader, Joshua Cohen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel The Netanyahus, has done much more than compile a simple playlist of the Nobel laureate’s Greatest Hits. In the best psycho-analytic tradition of Canetti’s fellow post-war refugee in London, Sigmund Freud, Cohen identifies and draws out Canetti’s recurring obsessions by introducing Canetti’s longer works with selections of his aphorisms and autobiographies.
The superb memoirist that Canetti is – The Tongue Set Free is arguably his masterpiece – doesn’t make Cohen’s detective work difficult. 15 July 1927, he wrote in The Torch in My Ear, ‘may have been the most crucial day of my life after my father’s death’. On that day, Canetti let the electrical force of a crowd pull him towards Vienna’s Palace of Justice. The building had been set on fire in protest against a verdict of ‘not guilty’ in the death of two young leftists the winter before. From the edges, Canetti watched as the police fired on the crowd, killing ninety and wounding over six hundred:
In a side street, not far from the burning Palace of Justice, yet out of the way, stood a man, sharply distinguished from the crowd, flailing his hands in the air and moaning over and over again: ‘The files are burning! All the files!’… He was inconsolable. I found him comical, even in this situation. But I was also annoyed. ‘They’ve been shooting down people!’ I said angrily. ‘And you’re carrying on about files!’ He looked at me as if I weren’t there and wailed repeatedly: ‘The files are burning! All the files!’
The event figured largely thirty-five years later in Canetti’s extraordinary anthropological, socio-political essay Crowds and Power, a book that continues to resonate with every football stadium crush or Halloween parade disaster.
15 July 1927 also sparked Canetti’s only novel, ‘sprung from the darkest aspects of Vienna’. In Auto-da-Fé, Canetti grafts the Viennese clerk from the 1927 fire onto a distant cousin from La Mancha in Spain and creates a librarian driven as mad by books as Don Quixote. His Sancho Panza is a Jewish dwarf whose own fevered dream is to become a chess champion; his Dulcinea, his housekeeper. But the language of Canetti is not the satirical Spanish of Cervantes flowing with melodious vowels, but the dark and malevolent German of Kafka, where obsession runs up against multisyllabic brick walls of consonants.
Yet I Want to Keep Smashing Myself Until I Am Whole is hardly an analytical book. It reads more like a novel, with Canetti as Cohen’s hero of finite hobby horses but many faces. Canetti’s portraits of Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, and of James Joyce in the Café Culture of the final days of the Austrian Empire, are drawn with a painful self-consciousness – the ambitious and frustrated Canetti scuttling from one writer’s table to another searching for crumbs of praise. His aphorisms, preserved in notebooks and diaries, strive for Pascal yet fall somewhere between Kafka and Dylan – the aphoristic title of the book prefaced by, say, an ‘Oh Mama’, could easily be set to guitar and harmonica. But in his memoirs and his novel, Canetti finally sits at a table of his own, the writer and hero of his work, sailing up the beautiful blue inferno of 20th-century Europe with the defiance of a man who is at home nowhere except in language.
Reviewed by Jonathan Levi
I Want to Keep Smashing Myself Until I’m Whole. An Elias Canetti Reader
Edited and with introduction by Joshua Cohen
Published by Picador USA (2022)
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Jonathan Levi is an American writer and producer. A founding editor of Granta magazine, Levi is author of two novels, A Guide for the Perplexed and Septimania. His short stories and articles have appeared in many publications including Granta, Condé Nast Traveler, GQ, Terra Nova, The Nation, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times Book Review.
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