Characters Discussed

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Dr. Peter Kien

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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 and platitudes drive Kien from his home. Therese also has an absurd view of her physical and sexual charm; she is in fact a repulsive hag. This obsession, for example, leads her to mistake the flattery of a furniture salesman (referred to as “that superior young man”) for amorous advances, to be followed by an encounter in the showroom of the store, where she removes her skirt and tries to embrace him with her fat and ugly body, much to the amusement of the crowd of shoppers. Whereas Kien’s insanity leads him to bookishness, Therese’s mania makes her pursue her greed and sexual frustrations. When George Kien tries to help his brother reestablish his life, he provides Therese with a small dairy-produce shop on the outskirts of the city on the condition that she never return to Peter Kien’s home.

Fischerle

Fischerle (FIH-shehr-leh), also known as Siegfried Fischer (ZEEG-freed FIHSH-uhr), a hunchbacked dwarf whose mania drives him to imagine that he can become the world’s chess champion. He exploits Peter Kien’s psychosis, first by being his assistant while “unpacking” his imaginary books from his head, and then by organizing a group of four friends who “sell” books to Kien at the municipal pawn shop (the Theresianum), while Fischerle makes off with most of Kien’s money.

Benedikt Pfaff

Benedikt Pfaff (pfahf), a retired policeman and caretaker of the apartment house where Kien lives. He lives in a cellar apartment, from which he exploits and brutalizes everyone who enters or leaves the house. After Therese has driven Peter Kien out of his home and library, Pfaff becomes her lover. Together they set out to sell the library to the municipal pawn shop. Pfaff rescues Kien from the police, who think he has murdered Therese, only to incarcerate him in a dungeonlike room of his cellar apartment, where Kien is then subjected to physical harassment and brutality while Pfaff enjoys life upstairs with Therese. After Peter Kien’s brother arrives, Pfaff is set up in business near Therese in another part of town.

George Kien

George Kien, Peter Kien’s younger brother, a psychiatrist and director of an asylum for the insane in Paris. Although George may be the only sane character, he too is portrayed as suffering a touch of madness in his unorthodox methods of treating his patients. It is obvious that his analysis of his brother’s mental condition is incorrect, as it leads quickly to Peter Kien’s demise.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

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 hears on one of his walks the cooing of pigeons. Having read that pigeons make such a sound, Kien agrees to receive it as a valid sensation: “‘Quite so!’ he said softly, and nodded as he always did when he found reality bearing out the printed original.”

Canetti’s treatment of Kien and the novel’s other characters is a fusion of comedy with horror, precision with fantasy, that can best be described as grotesque. Each of the characters elevates his or her fantasies to obssessionally held truths, unable or unwilling to check them against the perceptions of other people. Each is, therefore, driven by one or more monomanias. In addition to Kien’s pathological bookishness, Therese is led by avarice and sexual frustration, Fischerle longs to dominate through chess triumphs, and Pfaff delights in brutal exploitation of physical weaklings. These characters are all demented subjectivists, ruled by an absolute inner world. Paranoia infects them all. Their eccentricities are extreme enough to render them psychotic.

Therese’s characterization may be the most memorable and repulsive of this foursome. She is a misogynist’s delight: vicious, greedy, gross, ugly, selfish, shrewish, and merciless. Her conversation consists largely of monotonous daily tags, such as “up already,” “I ask you,” or “I make so bold.” Her torrents of platitudes and cliches become unbearably repetitive to Kien: “Several dozen times every day, she said the same thing.” Her values are vulgarly materialistic, compounded by spiteful self-righteousness. Her ludicrous carnal cravings—never fulfilled by the asexual Kien—cause her to mistake the flattery of a furniture salesman (“the superior young man”) for romantic interest. She imagines a liaison with him, laced with assignation lunches and nightly embraces. Her idee fixe leads her to public embarrassment: She literally confronts the salesman in the furniture showroom, undoes her skirt, and presses him to her fat body in a viselike embrace before a large, laughing crowd.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 66

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.

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