Elias Canetti’s childhood memoir The Tongue Set Free follows his education, which means, mostly, his reading.
A few months after I started school, a thing solemn and exciting happened, which determined my entire life after that. Father brought home a book for me. He took me alone into a back room, where we children slept, and explained it to me. It was The Arabian Nights, in an edition for children… My father spoke very earnestly and encouragingly to me and told me how nice it would be to read. (39)
Wait, it gets better.
Once I’d finished the book, he’d bring me another… He kept his promise, there was always a new book there; I never had to skip a single day of reading. (40)
Canetti is six, and has just learned how to read in school. Think of the abundance of books so many children have today, books piled on them from birth in the hopes that their brain development will be stimulated to the point of Nobel-prize winning. Futile, obviously; unnecessary. Just wait until kiddo is six and give him kiddie versions of Robinson Crusoe, Don Quixote, Tales from Shakespeare, Dante – although the seventy year-old Canetti is skeptical of that one: “I wonder how it was possible to adapt Dante for children.” He has bad dreams, and his mother scolds his father – “’it’s too early for him.’”
Canetti’s mother had a powerful sense of what was too early. He had long readings and discussions with her of plays, of Schiller and Shakespeare, but when she becomes interested in contemporary writers who work with sexual material, she forbids her son to know anything about them. He complies, refusing to glance at the contents even when he buys her volumes of Strindberg as gifts. He suppresses all sexual interest through at least his sixteenth year, when the memoir ends, on his mother’s orders. It is possible that not everything in the memoir is true, but more interestingly it is possible that everything is exactly as Canetti remembers.
The hilarious culmination of the two themes occurs in Vienna. The mother falls ill and attracts the romantic attention of a bearded doctor, Herr Professor, who little Canetti entangles with the other claim to his mother’s attention:
I saw books by Schnitzler, and when she happened to tell me not only that he lived in Vienna and was really a physician, but also that Herr Professor knew him and that his wife was Sephardic like us, my despair was complete. (122-3)
His mother tells him that “’[t]he best thing is to be both a writer and a doctor,’” which infuriates poor Canetti, although he is old enough at this point that he never takes after Herr Professor with an ax, although he does fantasize about the doctor’s death in a balcony collapse, the very balcony where Canetti and his mother used to read Shakespeare.
Strindberg comes later. I can’t seem to write about this book in order. Tomorrow, Canetti discovers Swiss literature.