Auto da fé
By most accounts Elias Canetti is a writer who deserves to be forgotten. Clive James describes him as ‘a particularly bright egomaniac’ with ‘limitless reserves of envy and recrimination’, and remembers an afternoon in a coffee house (The Vienna Cup) in Hampstead when ‘intelligent beauties lined up to be treated like dirt’ (Canetti’s admirers included Kathleen Raine and Iris Murdoch) and Canetti ‘didn’t even pretend to be polite.’ Robert Fulford calls Canetti ‘an unashamed egotist’ who ‘became famous even though most people didn’t know what he was famous for’ (in some respects the Kim Kardashian of the highbrow literary world). Auto da fé, his only significant work of fiction, seemed to have been read by only one person in the whole of England — Arthur Waley, an expert on Chinese literature (the book’s main character, Paul Kien, is a leading Sinologist).
As far as any casual researcher into the details of Canetti’s life can tell, he spent most of his years of exile in England loitering in coffee houses waiting to pick up women and then write scathing indictments of them in his memoirs. Those memoirs eventually spanned three volumes, with a fourth left unfinished, but Auto da fé remained his only novel of any note. Somehow, that single novel and those years of drinking coffee led to a Nobel Prize ‘for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power.’ In Canetti’s case, the use of the plural in ‘writings’ seems rather generous.
So what exactly were Canetti’s ideas? Auto da fé is more widely available now than it was in Arthur Waley’s day, but it seems a safe bet that even most literary types have yet to read it. Clive James finishes his paragraph on the novel by saying ‘Hardly anybody had read it, but everybody meant to. Those who had read it said it was about a mysterious man in a house full of books, and that the house, in a symbolic enactment of the collapse of a civilization, fell down, or almost did, or creaked a lot, or something.’ I managed to pick up a copy at a well-stocked second-hand bookshop (back in England – for a series of very understandable reasons, there aren’t many well-stocked second-hand bookshops here in Bangladesh) and read my way remarkably slowly through ‘one of the few undoubted masterpieces of our time’ (John Davenport, one of the few readers of said masterpiece, proselytizing from the back cover).
Having finished the book this weekend between bouts of vomiting (food-induced, rather than a dramatic overreaction to the closing chapters), I’ve discovered that most of Canetti’s ideas were (and still are) pretty unpleasant. It’s never wise to draw too close a connection between author and characters, but the evidence gleaned from Canetti’s memoirs does very little to counter the assertion that, for example, he shares some of the misogynistic tendencies of… well, almost every character in the book. Anti-Semitism (Canetti was Jewish, so he stands at a safe distance from the novel here), extreme violence (especially in the death of the chess-obsessed dwarf, Fischerle) and a general Modernist sense of world weariness are thrown in for good measure.
The violence, and even the exaggerated Anti-Semitism, are to a large extent justified by the plot, but misogynistic views appear to be related with a relish that becomes discomforting. Paul Kien’s brother (George: psychiatrist, former gynaecologist, irresistible lothario) criticises him for thinking women ‘are human beings like us [as opposed to] merely a passing necessary evil.’ All authors should have the courage to occasionally give their characters profoundly unpleasant views, but drawing those views out into a twenty-page lecture is possibly a little excessive. Paul Kien argues that ‘All really great thinkers are convinced of the worthlessness of women’, citing Confucius, Buddha and Antisthenes (‘If I were to meet Aphrodite, I’d shoot her’) in support. He concludes that ‘every woman deceives every man’, and quotes Thomas Aquinas as saying that ‘Women are weeds which grow quickly, incomplete men; their bodies only come earlier to ripeness because they are of less value, nature takes less pains with them.’
Only a lazy reader would take the passage at face value — as with most of the great Modernists, there’s always a sense that Canetti is being playful — but you have to question what such a lengthy diatribe adds to the plot. Add to the Kien brothers’ combined lecture the detailed descriptions of the brutish Benedikt Pfaff beating his daughter to death and the characterisation of Paul Kien’s wife, Therese, a greedy illiterate who thinks only of money, and a case against Canetti (in addition to his characters) begins to build.
Throughout the novel, female characters are treated with contempt. Therese is sneered at by the male characters for being overweight, and the dwarf’s wife (‘The Capitalist’) is a whore who seems to exist solely to procure clients. A passage in which Pfaff tries to rape Therese and Therese believes the encounter is consensual seems worth quoting in full:
‘With one hand the caretaker [Pfaff] handed her the books, with the other he went for her and pinched her violently in the thigh. Her mouth watered. She was the first woman he had won by this method of wooing. All the others he had simply assaulted. Therese breathed to herself: There’s a man! Again please. Aloud she said, bashfully: ‘More!’ He gave her a second pile of books and pinched her with equal violence on the left. Her mouth overflowed. Then it occurred to her that such things aren’t done. She screamed and threw herself off the steps into his arms. He simply let her fall to the ground, broke open the starched skirt and had her.’
I think most readers would agree that, whatever the author’s intentions, there’s something discomforting about this scene. Of course Canetti deliberately set out to make the novel challenging to its readers, but it’s hard not to read his withering dismissals of each female character and think back to his description of Iris Murdoch as ‘an unutterably petit bourgeois shop-girl’, his references to female admirers as his ‘creatures’, or his unabashed adultery (Robert Fulford relates an anecdote about how Canetti’s wife met his lover [Murdoch] ‘at the door with a smile and afterwards made a little lunch for the three of them.’)
All this makes Canetti’s Nobel Prize still more inexplicable (Clive James writes of ‘wondering whether Canetti should not have received another Nobel Prize, for being the biggest twerp of the twentieth century’), although the Nobel Committee has an impressive track record when it comes to choosing bizarre recipients (think of Kissinger’s Peace Prize, or — more recently — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s). And yet there is plenty in Auto da fé that deserves remembering and rereading, and it’s regrettable that Canetti’s treatment of women often obscures the value of his writing.