Elias Canetti has never been a popular or an easy writer. Neither the popular press nor the academic community has been extensively involved in discussing and analyzing his work. Perhaps one can blame historical events: He was a promising young writer when he was forced into exile as a result of Hitler’s expanded persecution of Jews following the annexation of Austria. Perhaps one can blame the Western non-German-speaking countries: Even when his works appeared in translation, not many scholars and critics were willing to assume the challenging task of reading and working on this difficult writer. Perhaps one can also blame Canetti himself: He has always been a very private person who does not promote his own work.
The three volumes of Canetti’s autobiography can change the public’s lack of understanding of one of the most important men in the literary and intellectual world of the twentieth century. These three books offer a good introduction to the novelist and playwright. They provide a fine insight into the life and thinking of the scholar who wrote an extraordinary analysis of crowds and power. They serve as a prelude to the volumes of aphorisms and essays which Canetti wrote during the four decades following the period described in the autobiography.
Yet this autobiography can also be read as a work of history. The subtitle of the translated first volume is Remembrance of a European Childhood. The next two volumes are remembrances of a young European artist and intellectual. They examine that very creative period in the arts that ended only with the establishment of a dictatorship and the subsequent outbreak of World War II. Canetti was a marvelous observer and a critical analyst of the times.
Finally, the autobiography can be read as a work of fiction. It is written not unlike a Bildungsroman, a psychological novel of education and development. It is not necessary to have previous knowledge of the individuals or the times that are mentioned in these three volumes. Canetti is a marvelous storyteller.