Elias Canetti Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born July 25, 1905, in a Danube port city in northern Bulgaria as the oldest son of Mathilde and Jacques Canetti, Elias Canetti had a polyglot and multicultural upbringing. As he details in the first volume of his autobiography, German was the fourth language he acquired—after Ladino (an archaic Spanish dialect spoken by Sephardic Jews that is also known as Spaniolic and Judezmo), Bulgarian, and English. In June, 1911, he was taken to England and enrolled in a Manchester school. Following the sudden death of his father, the family (consisting of his high-minded, strong-willed, and rather overbearing mother as well as his two younger brothers) settled in Vienna, but they spent some of the years of World War I in Switzerland. After attending secondary school in Zurich and Frankfurt am Main, Canetti returned to Vienna and studied chemistry at the university from 1924 to 1929, taking a doctorate of philosophy. For a time, he lived in Berlin and worked as a freelance writer, translating books by Upton Sinclair.

In February, 1934, Canetti married Veza Taubner-Calderón, whose short stories have garnered critical attention. His mother died in Paris in June, 1937, and that is where Canetti and his wife immigrated in November of the following year, later settling in London in January, 1939. While working on Crowds and Power and other writings, Canetti eked out a living as a freelance journalist and language teacher. After the death of his wife in May, 1963, Canetti spent some time with his brother Georges in Paris. In 1971, he married Hera Buschor and became the father of a daughter, Johanna, the following year. They settled in Zurich, with Canetti making periodic trips to London. He died in Zurich in 1994.