When Elias Canetti (kah-NEH-tee) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981, he was recognized as a preserver and transmitter of classical German culture in an age when the individual is threatened by the powerful brutality of the masses. Canetti was born on July 25, 1905, in Ruse, Bulgaria. His father, Jacques Canetti, belonged to a merchant family of Sephardic Jews who had settled in Turkey several centuries before moving to Bulgaria. His mother, Mathilde Artitti, also belonged to one of the old and distinguished Sephardic families. The parents had met while studying in Vienna and spoke German—almost as a secret language—when they were together. The common language of the Jewish community was Ladino, an old form of Spanish, and Canetti also heard and understood Hebrew and Bulgarian, as well as perhaps a dozen languages and dialects at this early stage of life.
When Canetti was six years old the family moved to England, where he added English and French to the list of languages he knew. Following the sudden death of his father, his mother decided to move to the Continent, where they lived in Vienna, Zurich, and Frankfurt, and Canetti learned and mastered German, the language he used for all of his writings. Upon completion of secondary school in 1924 Canetti attended the University of Vienna. Although he completed his study of chemistry with a doctorate in 1929 to satisfy the wishes of his family, he never worked professionally as a chemist.
From 1930 to 1931 he wrote the novel Auto-da-Fé, which did not appear in print until a suitable publisher was found in 1935. Two sources had a great influence on Canetti’s work, not only in writing this novel but also on his work in general: the great Austrian poet and satirist Karl Kraus and the events surrounding the burning of the Palace of Justice in Vienna on July 15, 1927. In his Nobel lecture Canetti noted that the writer and critic Kraus taught him “to hear imperturbably the sounds of Vienna” and to be forever opposed to war.
The personal experience of participating in the crowd on the day the Palace of Justice was burned by an angry and unorganized group had a profound and...
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