Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607

Elias Canetti is a Bulgarian-born Jew of Sephardic ancestry who was brought up largely in Vienna, although he also lived in England and Germany. In the second of his autobiographical volumes, Die Fackel im Ohr (1980; The Torch in My Ear , 1982), as well as in the essay cited...

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Elias Canetti is a Bulgarian-born Jew of Sephardic ancestry who was brought up largely in Vienna, although he also lived in England and Germany. In the second of his autobiographical volumes, Die Fackel im Ohr (1980; The Torch in My Ear, 1982), as well as in the essay cited above, he tells how an episode that occurred on July 15, 1927, influenced him to write not only Auto-da-Fe but also his most important sociological treatise, Masse und Macht (1960; Crowds and Power, 1962). On that day, the Viennese newspapers headlined a verdict that Vienna’s radicals regarded as a flagrant miscarriage of justice. Workers had been killed in the Austrian province of Burgenland, but their killers had been acquitted, and the acquittal was termed “a just verdict” by the government’s party. Enraged, thousands of Viennese workers marched on the Palace of Justice and set it on fire. In retaliation, the police killed ninety of the demonstrators. That day, Canetti recalls, “I became a part of the crowd. I dissolved into it fully. I did not feel the least resistance to what it did.”

One consequence of this profound experience was the writing of Crowds and Power, an impressively original study of the nature and structure of crowds. The other resulting work, Auto-da-Fe, was additionally prompted by Canetti’s sighting a man in a side street moaning over the destruction of his files inside the burning Palace of Justice. “Better than people!” retorted Canetti. Peter Kien’s characterization was born that day.

Auto-da-Fe is a forbidding novel with an uncompromising narrative style which reflects the claustrophobic inwardness of the characters’ unbalanced minds. The novel has failed to gain widespread popularity, possibly because of the disagreeableness of almost all of its characters. Even George Kien, while empathetically humane to his patients, is an egotist, pleased to be the subject of their awe and adoration.

Nevertheless, the novel is a masterpiece. With it, Canetti joins such modernist authors as Franz Kafka, Hermann Broch, Robert Musil, Heimito von Doderer, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Gunter Grass, and Nathanael West. Canetti recalls reading Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) while he was laboring on his novel: “Nothing more fortunate could have happened to me at this point....[T]here was the rigor that I yearned for....I bowed to this purest of all models....” Kafka’s example encouraged him to write a severely disciplined work, representing the abnormal and aberrant in a ruthlessly calm and factual manner. Beckett’s fiction, particularly Watt (1953) and the Unnamable (1953), parallels Canetti’s concentration on his characters’ ludicrous delusions and elaborate speculations. The deformed physical and mental attributes of such people as Fischerle and Pfaff are akin to West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) or Grass’s The Tin Drum (1959) or The Flounder (1977); indeed, Auto-da-Fe surpasses these satiric-absurdist texts in the intensity of its uncompromising focus on the grotesque. In stressing the divorce of abstract knowledge from vital experience and in suggesting madness as the sadly underlying agenda of the contemporary world, Canetti’s work bonds with that of other noted Central European novels: Doderer’s The Demons (1956), Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1930), and Broch’s The Sleepwalkers (1931-1932). In addition, Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness technique provides the narrative framework for the novel.

The saddest yet most instructive context for Auto-da-Fe is the twentieth century’s history of totalitarianism. Power games may be confined to books, chess, money, and sex in this novel, but world events have unleashed its violence on a genocidal scale. The Reichstag fire, the Nazis’ burning of humanistic books, concentration camp ovens, and the bombing of cities testify to the savage truth of Canetti’s vision of the world as a self-destructive inferno.

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