Saturday, October 18, 2014

Auto-da-Fé by Elias Canetti

"Humanity is fickle.  In general, I do not love it.  Yet how gladly at that moment I would have joined with them.  The mob brooks no jesting.  Fearful is its vengeance...."
Growing up, then commuting to college and then work in suburban New Jersey, meant that for the first 25 years of my life I spent approximately 30,000 hours a week in an automobile. Then for over ten years I lived and worked in New York City, a blissful motor-car-free interlude. Four years ago I was driven by the black verdict of fate from that Eden, so I’m back on the 30,000 hours/150,000 mile a week plan.

As a kid, I loved to sleep in the car; similarly, as an adult, I loved sleeping on Metro North, the commuter train that travels between beautiful Grand Central Terminal and points north. I find the movement of the vehicle very soothing, the passing landscape hypnotic. Of course, I can’t go to sleep while crisscrossing the Middle West in the driver’s seat of my dented Toyota Corolla, so to stay awake I listen to the radio.

One black September night while I was barreling home at 70 miles per hour on Route 69 (or 65, I can’t keep these damn highways straight) John Batchelor, while talking to a scientist about monkeys, started running his yap about a Modernist novel called Auto-da-Fé by an Elias Canetti. It sounded pretty good, so I tried to find it at various nearby libraries, but had no luck. So I broke down and purchased a 1984 printing of the novel used, and this week read it.

Elias Canetti was born in Bulgaria, traveled Europe in his youth, and in 1981 received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Auto-da-Fé, published in 1935 in Germany under the title Die Blendung, consists of three parts and totals 464 pages in the 1947 English translation by C. V. Wedgwood, which Wedgwood did in collaboration with Canetti himself, who lived in the UK for some decades following the Anschluss.

In Part One, "A Head Without a World," we meet eccentric and reclusive genius Peter Kien. Kien is the world’s foremost sinologist, and resident in a German city with his library of 25,000 books. Kien has refused many offers of university chairs, and conducts his work in private, living on an inheritance. Thanks to his peerless memory, vast erudition and iron discipline, each of the few papers he produces is a work of seminal and revolutionary importance in its field.

Kien lives for his work and his beloved books—money, food, sex, friendship, these mean nothing to him. He recognizes a need for rest and exercise, so every morning he takes a walk around the city, carrying with him a briefcase full of books to keep him company. He carefully selects which books to carry each day, and holds the briefcase close to his body as he takes his constitutional.

One day, in a moment of weakness and delusion, 40-year-old Kien is tricked by his ugly 57-year-old housekeeper, Therese, into marrying her. An ignorant, greedy, domineering and stupid woman, in short order Therese destroys Kien’s life, rearranging his orderly and comfortable home and schedule, stealing his money, physically beating his frail body, and finally throwing him out of his own apartment and onto the streets.

Part One of the novel is full of memorable images (Canetti’s description of Kien’s book-lined apartment is quite fine), psychological insights (throughout the book we are privy to the characters’ fantasies and dreams), and compelling scenes. Many scenes struck a chord with me, reflective as they were of the difficulties some of us have living with another person. In one scene Kien is so disturbed by the sight of the new furniture his wife has introduced into his rooms that he takes to walking around the apartment with his eyes closed. Kien’s memory is so exact and his library so well-organized that even blind he is able to retrieve any book he requires from among their thousands. In another scene, while confined to a sick bed, Kien has the delusion that he has grown ear flaps with which he can stop up his ears and protect his mind from Therese’s repetitive and moronic chatter.

In Part One we saw evidence of Kien’s tenuous grasp on sanity—he gives a stirring speech to his assembled books, for example, and has long conversations with apparitions of Chinese philosophers—but in Part Two, "Headless World," Kien’s mental state deteriorates further. Having memorized all the books in his library, Kien figuratively carries his books around in his head. But Kien comes to take that phrase literally, and each night he pantomimes pulling the books out of his skull and piling them up in his hotel room.  Kien even lays paper on the hotel room floor, so his noncorporeal books won’t get dirty, and hires a man, a hunchbacked Jewish dwarf, to help him with this task.

The dwarf, Fischerle, is a brilliantly realized and brilliantly funny character.  Fischerle is an unacknowledged chess master with ambitions of moving to America and building himself a palace.  He haunts a low class café where he pimps out his wife.  Kien in the second part of the novel reminded me of Don Quixote, and Fischerle plays the role of his Sancho Panza, but a malevolent Sancho who takes advantage of Kien’s delusions, stealing the money that Therese didn’t manage to get her mitts on.  Part Two climaxes with a long chapter that serves as an epic of Fischerle's hilarious adventures with Kien's money, which he uses in a tragic attempt to learn English, move to America, defeat the official chess champions and marry a millionairess.

In the third part of the novel, "The World in the Head," Kien totally, self-destructively, loses his mind, and we meet Kien's brother George, a psychiatrist who lives in Paris and is in many ways the polar opposite of Peter.   Where Peter has abandoned humanity and lived a life dedicated to favor of books, George has abandoned books and embraced humanity.  George comes to Germany to help his brother, and they find something to agree on when they have a learned discussion on how evil and disgusting women are, replete with scholarly references to Confucius, Buddha, Homer, and the Bible!  George tries to patch up Peter's life, getting rid of Therese, installing Peter back in his apartment, and rescuing Peter's books from the state pawn shop, but he is too late; absolutely insane (or "crackers," as Fischerle puts it) Peter immolates himself and his unique library.

The elements of Auto-da-Fé that most appealed to me were those about tragic male-female relationships (and there are several such miserable relationships in the book), but on the back cover of my edition Salman Rushdie and the publishers imply the novel is a “terrifying” work “concerned with the horror of the modern world….” What does this mean? Presumably men and women have been treating each other shabbily and suffering from unrequited love since the dawn of time, so that horror hardly counts as “modern.”

In about the final third or so of the book Kien, after a fight with Therese and others in the government pawn shop (Therese has come to sell her husbands books to this institution, which Canetti condemns with some bitterness), comes under the power of crowds (the subject of Canetti's famous non-fiction volume) and of the state. These powerful forces are irrational, corrupt, and quite dangerous. The crowd is eager to play some role in the Kien-Therese conflict, but its attitude towards the couple changes by the second as its members exchange one wrongheaded idea for another. When the police bring the combatants in for questioning we find that the police inspector and his officers act just as badly as the fickle and ignorant mob. Both the police and the citizens who make up the crowd relish committing violence against the helpless, and embrace any opportunity to do so.  Society, in Auto-da-Fé, as represented by the people and by the state, is an erratic and predatory monster.

Besides the horror of the urban crowd and of modern government, the talk of “horror” and “the modern predicament” on the back of the book is probably a reference to Auto-da-Fé being an attack on the importance of money and property in Western bourgeois society. With the exception of the Kiens, all the characters (and there are like eight or ten whom I haven’t mentioned) are motivated by a desire for money, and most try to obtain it through fraud. The characters often use the word “capital,” and Fischerle’s whore of a wife is called “The Capitalist” by the denizens of the café because she has a steady john who provides her a steady income. The dwarf calls his elaborate arrangements to defraud Kien of his cash his “firm,” calls Kien, the man he is robbing, his “business partner,” and calls his accomplices in this crime his “employees.” Similarly, a forger hired by Fischerle is obsessed with advertising his products to other members of the underworld.  The narcissistic and obsessive police inspector has a seat cushion which he has labelled “Private Property” and which he permits none of his colleagues to use.  In Auto-da-Fé business and remunerative work are synonymous with crime and predatory selfishness.

What are we to think of Kien, whom I have compared to Don Quixote?  Some readers of Cervantes see Don Quixote as a figure to be admired, even though he is insane and commits many anti-social acts, because The Knight of the Woeful Countenance represents a noble spirit or humanistic ideology that is in contrast to the fallen world in which he, and we readers, live. Should we admire Kien in the same way? Kien is obviously insane, and quite anti-social, but perhaps Canetti expects us to admire his dedication to books and learning and his disdain for money, despite his contempt for the common people, repeated refusals to provide even the most meager aid to his neighbors, his fantasies of murdering Therese, and dehumanizing misogyny.  Or is Kien an admonitory figure, directed at the intellectual and artistic classes, meant to dissuade them from or condemn them for turning their backs on humanity and using their gifts selfishly instead of for the betterment of society?  Perhaps it is significant that Peter and George Kien, who are undoubtedly intelligent and highly educated, make boneheaded mistakes just like the crowds and police, misjudging people and misinterpreting clues.  In my experience it is typical for academic types to look down on the uneducated common masses, and Canetti could be castigating them, pointing out that they are no better morally than those they despise, and are prone to the same mistakes. 

I enjoyed Auto-da-Fé, and would definitely recommend it. I laughed at many of the jokes (best joke: page 337), and found many of the situations, images, and characters compelling. I have to admit to enjoying the first part (pages 9 to 166) and the end of Part Two (the saga of Fischerle, pages 326 to 366) the best; a few of the middle sections, such as the long sequence at the police station, felt a little slow and repetitive. The novel is long, but not particularly difficult; I thought it was an easier read than (to pick another novel by a Nobel winner) Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which I finished and can recommend, and (to pick another Modernist work) Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, which soundly defeated me after only a dozen pages or so.  I guess I should warn that some may be offended by the depictions and treatment of women in the book, and perhaps by the Jewish dwarf character, whose long nose and hideous hump are used to absurd and comedic effect time and again. On the other hand, you could easily interpret the novel as an expose of how women and the underprivileged are abused by men and society; Auto-da-Fé is the kind of book which rewards criticism from varying angles.

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