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 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.”

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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...

(The entire section contains 607 words.)

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