A note on Auto—da—Fé; Elias Canetti; Jonathan Cape, 15/-

Elias Canetti’s novel Die Blendung (1935) was translated into English by C. V. Wedgwood and, under the title of Auto-da-Fé, was first published here in 1946. Reading it then, I was very deeply impressed, and certain things in it have stayed clearly in my mind. Now that it has been reissued, I find myself having to go back over what has happened to myself in the intervening years, in the process of looking again at a work which was then so important to me.

I find that the power of the novel is quite as great as I then thought. It is still a very remarkable discovery of a mature fictional technique by which the varying states of delusion, and their interlocking, can be described. I will try to illustrate what I believe to be its permanent importance in this respect, but also to raise a question about the novel as a whole, which I could not then clearly express.

Auto-da-Fé is a series of interlocking studies of the ways in which people interpret the world in terms of their own fantasies, and of the ways in which these interpretations coexist, interlock and finally destroy each other. The two most memorable characters in the book are the dwarf, Fischerle, with his fantasies of himself as the unacknowledged world chess champion, and of his coming glory through fame and money, and the housekeeper Therese, her respectable cupidity as stiff as her blue starched skirt, her skill at making the letter ‘O’ reaching its highest achievement when she adds a row of ‘O’s to the figure in the will of her employer and husband. The deformed and hardened fantasies of power and money are combined, in each of these cases though in different ways, with a simple infantilism towards actual persons. Taken together, these portraits compose, at the level of great caricature, a version of thwarted and crippled human instinct hardening into ugliness and cruelty. Yet the power of Canetti’s method, in its flexibility and its range, achieves that rarest of contemporary feelings: a clear and terrible vision of human inadequacy which itself does not harden into contempt and spite. At least in the first half of the book the whole perception of human beings made ugly and ridiculous by exposure to a reality to which they are inadequate is essentially humane, in its actual effect. This is mainly because they are not held up to ridicule against some supposed norm of pleasant and adequate people, or, as more commonly in recent English fiction, against the norm of a hero who is himself inadequate but who has rationalised this into a brash self-acceptance which comes through finally as complacency. It is not a divided view of human weakness (by the sentimental and self-deluding devices of separation by class or age) but a whole view of a general condition.

At the centre of this view is a version of a profound intellectual alienation, in the character of the scholar Peter Kien: ‘a head without a world’. I don’t know any other novel in which this condition has been so brilliantly created, with the kind of detail which makes it exuberant and overpowering in the very richness of its reality. From the beginning when Kien is asked the way in the street and makes his careful notes and assessments of why the request is not answered by a supposed third person, to the extraordinary scene in which, driven out of his library, he unpacks the books from his head until he can hardly move around his hotel bedroom floor, the intensely actual description of this kind of withdrawal is brilliantly sustained. It is a state of prolonged delusion, but it is also a process of self-blinding. The early chapter, ‘Dazzling Furniture’, in which Kien deals with the intrusion of a bed and its threat of a woman into his library (he has married his housekeeper because she dusts the books so carefully), is the place where Canetti’s technique can best be studied.

‘When washing, Kien closed his eyes at the touch of water. This was an old custom of his. He pressed his lids together more tightly than was necessary, to prevent the infiltration of the water. He could not safeguard his eyes too thoroughly’.

From that starting-point, the total escape-route is devised.