Thursday, June 13, 2013

Canetti's mother - she forgot about the time, we kept reading and reading

I should write something about Elias Canetti and his mother.  Early in The Tongue Set Free, just a fifth of the way into the memoir, Canetti’s father suddenly dies.  Canetti is eight, I think.  He ends up moving into his father’s role in some ways.  The mother’s psychology is the curious thing, how she demands from her young son some of the intellectual and emotional satisfactions she once got from her husband.  Thus her insistence that he learn German instantaneously, or her course of reading Shakespeare and Schiller with Canetti – German was the language she shared with her husband, theater was the art the loved together.

I hate to think what this would do to a kid less tenacious and brilliant than Canetti, but she likely would have demanded less in that case.

She made an effort not to influence me.  After each scene, she asked me how I understood it, and before saying anything herself, she always let me speak first.  But sometimes, when it was late, and she forgot about the time, we kept reading and reading, and I sensed that she was utterly excited and would never stop…  Her wide nostrils quivered vehemently, her large, gray eyes no longer saw me, her words were no longer directed at me.  I felt that she was talking to Father when she was seized in this way, and perhaps I, without realizing it, had become my father.  (83)

A break is inevitable; thus Canetti’s confusion between the Schnitzler-like doctor who pursues his mother and the forbidden sexual content of the Schnitzler books his mother reads in place of Schiller.  Canetti’s own move toward independence occurs in Switzerland, in part due to his discovery of Swiss literature.  He first has contempt for it, as when, at the celebration of the Gottfried Keller centennial, he cannot believe that this writer he has never heard of can be any good:  “but what struck me to the core of my naïve attitude was the lofty claim for a writer whom not even mother had read” (168).  This bit of the story has a happy ending, by the way: “at the time, I couldn’t guess with what delight I would some day read Green Henry.”

The Zurich poet and historical novelist Conrad Ferdinand Meyer (who I have not read) breaks through Canetti’s resistance, as does Jeremias Gotthelf’s nightmarish The Black Spider (“I felt haunted by it, as though it had dug into my own face,” 253), which leads to some sort of break with his mother, who uses the novella as a weapon to attack Zurich, Switzerland, and her son (“nobody with any understanding took Gotthelf seriously today,” 254).  The memoir ends with the mother’s long, brutal attack on Canetti’s Bildung, his education, his interest in Switzerland, and the writers he likes.   It is wild; neurotic, cruel and misguided and, psychologically, of high interest, however strange.

And it is only half as strange as the story Canetti tells his mother about a circle of dancing mice:

“You’re being unfair,” she said, “that’s just like you.  You expect too much.  Mice aren’t people, after all, even if they do have a kind of dancing.”  (221)

Good point, Mom.

Canetti’s memoir and mother often reminded me of Romain Gary’s Promise atDawn, as different as the books are, as different as the mothers are, two stories of powerful but displaced Jewish mothers and their brilliant sons wandering across Europe, searching for not just a home but a culture.


  1. I should be looking for this. Such clashes are common and a parent will always want to have his/her influence on the child. They love to hold on. But a mother who reads with her son is a great person.

  2. The mother is a wonderful character. She is a great person. But she is also sometimes a ferocious opponent.

  3. Quite the relationship. It's a wonder Canetti didn't have any big psychological scars. Or maybe he did?

  4. The memoir is written sixty years after the close of events. Canetti had a lot of time to think, heal, enact revenge, etc. Joking about the latter. This memoir does not feel at all vengeful.

  5. This guy out-Freud Freud.

    "But sometimes, when it was late, and she forgot about the time, we kept reading and reading, and I sensed that she was utterly excited and would never stop… Her wide nostrils quivered vehemently..."

    The sexual connotations of this passage are so glaring, and the final line, I became my father? Old Schlomo would have a field day with him.

  6. Does he ever, but entirely knowingly. He knows exactly what he is writing.

    Perhaps it is all far enough in the past that he can face it head on; perhaps he is filtering it all through Freud strategically.

  7. It is striking how exposure to literature in general, or a particular type of literature, in this case Swiss, so often leads folks to question assumptions that they were brought up with. More evidence as to how dangerous reading is:)

  8. The big irony is that the mother's argument at the end of the memoir is an abrupt turn away from her earlier pedagogy, which was eminently Viennese - reading, culture, Bildung, the usual stuff. She may be something of a strategist, too.