Monday, June 10, 2013

The important thing was the letters, on which he knocked his fingers - Elias Canetti, young reader

If I am reading the first volume of Elias Canetti’s memoir, The Tongue Set Free (1977), tr. Joachim Neugroschel, it is in part for passages like this, from which I learn the most important thing I can learn from any book, that I was right:

She had intellectual interests and an ironic way of talking about things with Mother, none of which I understood.  She lived in the Viennese literature of the period and lacked Mother’s universal interest…  She was Viennese if for no other reason than because she always knew, without great effort, what was happening in the world of the intellect.  (111)

Right, I mean, about that marvelous, obsessive Viennese artistic culture and its literature, art, and music.  Canetti only lived in Vienna for about three years, 1913 to 1916, and he was only eight or nine when he arrived, but he was the perfect sponge for the city.  He was an unusual kid with an unusual mother.

I have never read anything else by Canetti, to my knowledge, nor do I know much about him or his work, and some of what I do know, like gossip about his sex life, is almost embarrassing to know.  I knew about his unplaceability, though.  He was born in Bulgaria, into a family of merchants, Sephardic Jews who spoke Ladino – they even had Ladino newspaper written in Hebrew characters.  Canetti eventually adopted German for his writing, but German was his fifth (!) language (but he came from a place where “[e]ach person counted up the languages he knew”).  The chapter in which his mother teaches him German by means of memorization and insults is hair-raising.  The memoir travels from Bulgaria to Manchester to Vienna to Zurich, which turns out to be in some ways paradise, and of course paradise is the place from which one is expelled, providing a good place to end a childhood memoir.

Canetti’s memoir is, broadly, about two things, his family and his education.  The latter mostly means books, literature, reading.  The Tongue Set Free is a memoir of reading (Canetti must be three or four here):

I tried to find out what fascinated [his father] in the newspaper, at first I thought it was the smell; and when I was alone and nobody saw me, I would climb up on the chair and greedily smell the newsprint.  But then I noticed he was moving his head along the page, and I imitated that behind his back without having the page in front of me, while he held it in both hands on the table and I played on the floor behind him.  Once, a visitor who had entered the room called to him; he turned around and caught me performing my imaginary reading motions…  [he] explained that the important thing was the letters, on which he knocked his fingers.  Soon I would learn them myself, he said, arousing within me an unquenchable yearning for letters.  (26-7)

The newspaper is of course Viennese.  A page later, in a chapter titled “The Murder Attempt,” Canetti tries to murder his cousin with an ax because she won’t show him the writing in her notebook, “letters of the alphabet in blue ink, they fascinated me more than anything I had ever laid eyes on” (28).  I believe this is one of the early predictors of winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, as Canetti did seventy years later.


  1. I've only read Auto-da-Fé which I remember as intense and quite brilliant. Not sure why I never got around to any more, I remember this being recommended.
    Was Stephen King thinking of him when he wrote The Shining? I now see Canetti being played by Jack Nicholson.

  2. "I raised the ax high and, holding it straight in front of me, I marched back over the long path into the courtyard with a murderous chant on my lips, repeating incessantly: "Agora vo matar a Laurica! Agora vo matar a Laurica!! - "Now I'm going to kill Laurica! Now I'm going to kill Laurica!"

    The necessary extra detail is that Canetti is no taller than the ax, this "holding it straight in front." Otherwise, yes, terrifying!

    There is some of that Ladino, quite close to Spanish.

  3. "Agora vo matar a Laurica! Agora vo matar a Laurica!!"

    That's Ladino? It sounds almost like Portuguese! I have to learn more about Sephardi Jews.

    I read, many years ago, Canetti's The Voices of Marrakesh. And I'm of course curious about Auto-da-Fé. Now that I think of it, it's strangely appropriate for a Sephardi Jew to write a novel with that title.

  4. I've not read this. I'm reading Canetti's autobiography backwards, so I've only got to the bit where this ends (although obviously I know bits about what's in this already, like his desire to write in German because he feels it was a language that was forbidden him, in which only his parents were allowed to communicate).

    He's certainly not happy to leave Zurich in Book 2: until, of course, he discovers Karl Kraus.

  5. I obviously have to continue the series through Karl Kraus. At the very least. I suppose I should also read some other book of his some day. D. G. Myers likes once called Earwitness, a collection of "characters" a la Theophrastus.

    The bits of Ladino, words and phrases, were all easily decipherable via my bad Spanish.

  6. And I must start reading the memoirs. The only question is availability, especially in view of my hatred against e-books. Somewhat.