Form and Content
An autobiography often sheds light on the major works of a writer. It is preferable to diaries or notebooks, since those can contain fragmentary thoughts which may or may not be fully developed. Some writers produce well-researched memoirs, which may give the appearance of justifying thoughts and actions after the fact.
The three volumes of Elias Canetti’s autobiography leave readers with the impression that they have just listened to an elderly gentleman tell the story of his early life. Canetti thinks back fifty or more years and recalls events that made a significant impression on him. Sometimes the impression was crucial for only that moment; at other times, it was so profound that it endured throughout his life. Although the first and second volumes are arranged in chronological order—the third volume is divided topically—Canetti’s interest seems to be more in telling a good story than in revealing logically ordered information.
These three volumes cover the period of time from Canetti’s birth in 1905 until the death of his mother in the summer of 1937. This formative period of his life encompassed the years when he wrote his important novel Die Blendung (1935; Auto-da-Fe, 1946) and two plays, Hochzeit (1932; The Wedding, 1984) and Komodie der Eitelkeit (1950; Comedy of Vanity, 1983). During this time Canetti also began work on his monumental lifelong study Masse und Macht (1960; Crowds and Power, 1962).
When Canetti won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981, there was considerable confusion on the question of which country could claim him as its writer. He was born in Russe (Rutschuk), Bulgaria. His family belonged to the group of Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century and settled in Andrianople, Turkey. Since his paternal family had retained Turkish citizenship, Canetti was a Turkish citizen at the time of his birth. At home he spoke Ladino, an old form of Spanish that was spoken in the community of Sephardic Jews. In this environment he also learned Bulgarian and Hebrew, as well as several other languages.
When Canetti was six years old, the family moved to Manchester, England, where he learned English. When his father died in 1912, his mother decided that the family should move to Vienna, which meant that Canetti had to learn German. This stage of his life was an important one since he now had the opportunity to learn the language that his parents had used as their “secret language” at home. In the next decade, he learned three different types of German: From 1913 to 1916 he...
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