Canetti, Elias (Vol. 3)
Canetti, Elias 1905–
Canetti is a Bulgarian-born Austrian who now lives in London but continues to write in German. A talented novelist and dramatist, he is best known for his strange and eloquent novel Auto-da-fé. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
Elias Canetti's eccentric and difficult novel Auto da Fé has remained virtually unknown in this country and has, in the thirty-seven years since its first publication, failed to develop the international reputation it deserves. Both Thomas Mann and Hermann Broch gave generous praise when it first appeared in 1935 in German. Philip Toynbee spoke of its brilliance and boldly maintained that it "makes all the later novels of Beckett superfluous." Jacob Isaacs compared its "multitudinous intensity" to that of Ulysses and found in the work "comic invention on a grand Satanic scale." Idris Parry, however, has been the only writer to date who has discussed the novel at any length. Although he clearly regards it as a major work of fiction which needs to be studied from various standpoints, he is almost alone in this view. The neglect of Canetti's uncompromising and brilliant novel is unfortunate; now that the modern mode has veered more toward the blending of the comic and the horrible, critics ought to be studying the work which in 1935 had perhaps already carried this blending to its farthest extreme.
In its larger and more discernible features, Canetti's novel has a number of familiar elements. Like Kafka, he unites precision and fantasy and represents the extraordinary and bizarre in a nonchalant, matter-of-fact manner. On the other hand, Canetti leans toward a narrative technique which judiciously alternates a Jamesian intelligence with a number of Joycean streams. The mixture of Kafkaesque bizarreness and deceptively simple style with sophisticated interior narration accounts to some extent for the peculiarly original effect Canetti achieves.
Another essential feature of Canetti's method, giving his work a marked singularity, derives from an element much older than Kafka or Joyce, probably coming from early German satire and Germanic painting, especially that of Breughel and Bosch: the grotesque physical and mental attributes of his characters….
A final element which contributes to the total effect of the novel is Canetti's use of warped obsessiveness in his characters: precisely the mental correlative which he would need, to complement their peculiar physical qualities and to enhance the gothic tone of his work. Canetti has carried obsessiveness to an unprecedented extreme, so that it has virtually become an organizing principle of his novel. Indeed, Auto da Fé is probably the most uncompromising and obsessional portrayal of obsessive characters in all of literature. Not only is each of the four major characters driven from minute to minute by a central preoccupation and by all the speculations which radiate from it, but almost all the rogues and fools who surround them also suffer from petty and peculiar obsessions which distort their personalities.
Thus, if we are to speak of Canetti's originality, a good starting-point would be the singularity and unswerving purpose with which he has pursued his characters' warped preoccupations. His originality manifests itself more completely when we examine a special characteristic of his obsessiveness, namely, its autistic quality. By autistic, I mean extremely subjective, to the point of ignoring the verification process essential to psychic growth and sanity….
The rich comic quality of the novel rests first upon the characters' unsound and ludicrous convictions, and then upon the mutual misapprehensions to which they fall prey as a result of discrepancies between their own convictions and those of others. Canetti thus exploits—again, to an unprecedented degree—the traditional comic technique of faulty knowledge and of faulty communication in ways which could not have been fully attempted until exploration of consciousness in the novel became complete in the twentieth century. Since the reader witnesses the actual creation of these false ideas, dramatic irony also becomes a pervasive comic principle throughout the novel; as the irreconcilable ideas of the deluded characters collide, the reader is always aware how wrong each character is. A final consideration would be the mixture of the comic and the horrible, regarded by some as a definition of the grotesque. Canetti's novel reaches a more intense form of this mixture than in any previous writer's work and surpasses the intensity of Nathaniel West, Beckett, Grass, and Lind….
[It] is possible to understand why The Tin Drum, in some ways a close analogue to Auto da Fé, could receive critical and even popular acclaim while Canetti's work did not. Grass's novel is indeed largely grotesque in its humor, but more external, more rollicking, less claustrophobic—and finally less rigorous and uncompromising as a work of art. Canetti's morbid concerns and the difficulty of his narrative technique have until now consigned him to the realm of superior but largely unread literature….
On the other hand, the publication of Auto da Fé in 1935 probably took place some years before its time. Eccentric and disturbing literature, once primarily fare for the connoisseur, has in recent years become more fashionable in both Europe and America. In addition, the theater of Pirandello, Brecht, Ionesco, Beckett, and Genet and new trends in fiction have to some extent broken the virtual control of literature in America by naturalism and realism. Thus, Auto da Fé, long buried by a combination of unfavorable circumstances, has again come to light and now has a chance to be re-evaluated.
Mark Sacharoff, "Grotesque Comedy in Canetti's Auto da Fé," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 1972, pp. 99-112.