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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

In love and despair

By Norman Lebrecht / July 25, 2005

Just before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981, Elias Canetti banned his works from being published in Britain, where he had lived since arriving as a Hitler refugee in 1939. He could not prevent his two masterpieces Auto-da-Fe and Crowds and Power being reissued in paperback, but he was determined to withhold his wonderfully crafted autobiographies. It was an act of spite and rage, triggered by Penguin's 1977 deletion of Auto-da-fe but expressing a complex, passionate ambivalence towards his adoptive country.

I got his American publisher, Roger Straus (of Farrar, Straus, Giroux), to smuggle me a copy of The Tongue Set Free and was smitten by its vividness and violent emotions. As a five year-old boy, Canetti took an axe to a Bulgarian playmate when she refused to let him see her schoolwork. It set the tone for future relationships.

The next volume, The Torch in My Ear, found him in 1920s Vienna sitting at the feet of the celebrated orator Karl Kraus, who could kill a man with an aphorism. Peter Kien, anti-hero of Auto-da-fe, was conceived in this ambience, modelled on the moral philosopher Immanuel Kant, who (so Canetti believed) set fire to his library and burned to death among his books. I began to see where Canetti was coming from.

Over the years, I tried to make contact with him, first through publishers, then through a mutual friend, Anna Mahler, who told me not to bother. Canetti, she said, might be living up the road in Hampstead, but he was unwilling to meet new people, saving his energies for dealing with the past. He died, aged 89, in 1994.

He never quite finished telling the tale of his British years (though he did rescind the UK ban) and left instructions that the fragments he had written or dictated should not appear before 2024. His daughter overruled that embargo and the resulting volume, Party in the Blitz, is quite the most incendiary piece of vituperation to hit literary London since the Luftwaffe went home.

The book has been greeted by Professor John Carey 'as an outflow of venom and envy' and by Iris Murdoch's biographer, Peter Conradi, as 'jealousy and paranoia'. Yet, for those who feel less obliged to rush to the defence of sacred literary cows, it reads like a love letter to an idyllic England, to the land of Milton, Dryden, Donne and Swift, a paradise lost in the second half of the 20th century. 'I was living in an England as its intellect decayed,' writes Canetti. 'I was witness to the fame of a T. S. Eliot. Is it possible for people ever to repent sufficiently of that?' He accuses Eliot of 'an impotency which he shares around the whole country,' a 'stink of enfeeblement.' In the barrage of his wrath, Eliot's reputation shrivels like a popped balloon.

He admits no affection for any English writer - even Veronica Wedgwood who got Jonathan Cape to publish Auto-da-Fe in 1946, is remembered only for her latterday worship of Margaret Thatcher. He saves the best revenge, though, for last.

Canetti met Iris Murdoch through his sickly friend, the poet Franz Steiner, who died soon after their engagement. Steiner asked Canetti to read Under the Net, her first novel. Iris came round to see him. On her second visit, they kissed.

'Quickly, very quickly, Iris undressed without me laying a finger on her, she had things on that didn't have anything remotely to do with love, it was all woollen and ungainly, but in no time it was in a heap on the floor, and she was under the blanket on the couch. There wasn't time to look at her things, or herself. She lay unmoving and unchanged, I barely felt myself enter her, I didn't sense that she felt anything.'

Unchivalrous? This is monstrous, the sort of thing no Englishman would do outside a tabloid newspaper. Canetti does it to show that he is no Englishman and she no novelist, lacking as she does the pre-requisite of feeling. He scorns her 24 novels, her 'sloppy' monographs, her lovers of both sexes: 'all these men she has taken into her, they are all metamorphoses of herself… Everything I despise about English life is in her.'

Professor John Bailey, Iris's widower and protector, has dismissed these comments as the product of envy and 'pathological conceit', while admitting that Iris 'went on being inspired by him in almost everything she wrote.' Conradi notes that Canetti's attitude to Iris changed with her success; he was certainly impressed enough by Under the Net to submit it anonymously to a publisher.

Envy, however, can be ruled out. Canetti, when writing his memoirs, had won the Nobel, created in Peter Kien an indelible image of a man with a library in his head and presented, in Crowds and Power, a work to which scholars will always make reference, whether they are seeking to explain Hitler or the dynamics of Live8, where thousands waved a forefinger in the air at the command of a distant pop singer. Canetti had all the success he could have desired when he laid into Iris. All she had was a bluestocking opus that few abroad will read in future centuries.

His reason for attacking her, malice apart, appears to be a last effort to define his own values in the blackout of an England whose insularity and interminable drinks parties left him cold. Iris Murdoch represented, to Canetti, all that was wrong with postwar England – its insensate selfishness, later on its Thatcherite self-righteousness.

But his hatred is misleading, for it is just the other side of love. As a boy, his family spent two years in Manchester. 'The foundation that I received from my father in England remained intact,' he writes. 'I spent the rest of my life looking for people who corresponded to such an image, in England I several times came close to finding one, and being reborn as a result.'

In the thick of the Blitz he marvels at 'the self-control of the English who refused to be distracted'. On the bus, he never once heard anxiety or complaint. In 1952 he became a British citizen and, though he made a second home in Zurich 30 years later, he never gave up looking for the England he adored. He names the aged composer Ralph Vaughan Williams as something of a paradigm: 'a man one would like to cover pages and pages about.' Few foreigners have ever felt such passion for English culture, and none has expressed it with such delirious bile.

Elias Canetti, Party in the Blitz, is published by The Harvill Press, (£17.99).

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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