Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Dr. Peter Kien

Dr. Peter Kien (keen), a world-renowned sinologist. Kien is a forty-year-old recluse who wants to live only for his scholarly work in his private library of twenty-five thousand books. His life is completely regulated, and his library is cared for by his housekeeper Therese, whom he decides to marry in order to ensure the continuance of this good care. The marriage, however, changes this misogynist’s life into a nightmarish existence. In searching for his bankbook and will, Therese makes Kien’s life so unbearable that he is forced to leave his home and library. Kien is rescued by Benedikt Pfaff, who in turn imprisons Kien and brutalizes him. Eventually, Kien’s brother George comes from Paris to rescue him. George reestablishes the original order of Peter’s life by removing Therese and Benedikt from his home and restoring his library. Believing that everyone is satisfied, George returns to Paris. At this point, however, Peter Kien has a complete breakdown. Fantasizing that all (including his books) are plotting against him, Peter sets fire to his library and hurls himself onto the flaming pyre.

Therese Krumbholz

Therese Krumbholz (teh-RAY-zeh KREWM-hohlts), Peter Kien’s housekeeper, a fifty-six-year-old unmarried woman who is seeking material wealth and security for her old age. Mistakenly believing that Peter Kien has considerable wealth, she sets out to obtain his bankbook and to become his sole heir after they are married. Her vicious greed and her merciless babbling of unbearable clichés...

(The entire section is 663 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In an illuminating essay he wrote in 1973, Canetti summarized Auto-da-Fe’s composition and initial reception. In 1929 and 1930, he originally planned a Balzacian eight-volume cycle of novels that would constitute “a human comedy of lunatics...each focusing on a figure on the verge of madness, and each of these figures was different from all [the] others down to his language, down to his most secret thoughts.” Kien was to be that “pure bookman.” His name was initially Brand, German for “fire” or “burning”; it was eventually changed to Kien, which means “pinewood” in German, suggesting his combustibility.

Peter Kien is a forty-year-old hermit dwelling in the crabshell of his library, acknowledging no reality beyond the Chinese brushstrokes and pictures inscribed in his books. They are his mandarin masters of silence, insulating him from meaningful relationships with other human beings. Moreover, even his books are not entirely indispensable, for Kien has a superb memory and carries “in his head a library as well-provided and reliable as his actual library....” In his schizoid self-deception, he regards his books as encompassing the whole world. Elias Canetti draws Kien as a bizarrely perverted Platonist, capable of denying or distorting phenomenal experiences while overloading his mind with abstract schemata. Like Don Quixote, Kien subjects empirical reality to confirmation or rejection by his preconceived ideas. Thus, he...

(The entire section is 538 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Canetti, Elias. “The First Book: Auto-da-Fe,” in The Conscience of Words, 1979.

Enright, D.J. “Auto-da-Fe,” in Encounter. XVIII (June, 1962), pp. 65-68.

Hulse, Michael. Essays in Honor of Elias Canetti, 1987.

Sokel, Walter H. “The Ambiguity of Madness,” in Views and Reviews of Modern German Literature, 1974.

Thomson, Edward A. “Elias Canetti’s Die Blendung and the Changing Image of Madness,” in German Life and Letters. XXVI (1972), pp. 38-47.