Visitor from Another World — Party in the Blitz: The English Years by Elias Canetti

Party in the Blitz

Party in the Blitz: The English Years
BY Elias Canetti
BY Michael Hofmann
(New Directions, 2010)

From the Publisher:

“Elias Canetti’s Party in the Blitz captures the ‘torture’ and ‘needless humiliations’ of his years in exile in wartime London. Well known throughout mainland Europe, Canetti was ignored by British intellectuals, and he scorned them in turn. By force of will alone, he accumulated followers, but not before being christened ‘the godmonster of Hampstead.’ Party in the Blitz, like an X-ray, displays Canetti’s brief, scathing, brimstone sketches of the various people in his social circle: T.S. Eliot, Iris Murdoch, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Herbert Read, Bertrand Russell. Gorgeously translated by Michael Hofmann, Party in the Blitz lives up to Canetti’s injunction that ‘when you write down your life, every page should contain something no one has ever heard about.'”

I was living in England as its intellect decayed. I was a witness to the fame of a T.S. Eliot. Is it possible for people ever to repent sufficiently of that? An American brings over a Frenchman from Paris, someone who died young (Laforgue), drools his self-loathing over him, lives quite literally as a bank clerk, while at the same time he criticises and diminishes anything that was before, anything that has more stamina and sap than himself, permits himself to receive presents from his prodigal compatriot, who has the greatness and tenseness of a lunatic, and comes up with the end result: an impotency which he shares around with the whole country; he kowtows to any order that’s sufficiently venerable; tries to stifle any élan; a libertine of the void…

Party in the Blitz: The English Years, p. 2

The fourth volume of Elias Canetti’s memoirs, Party in the Blitz: The English Years, represents a major departure from his first three books, which covered his intellectual development from an exotic background as a Sephardic Jew from Ruse, Bulgaria to his family’s numerous European wanderings and onto the cultural ferment of Vienna and Berlin in the twenties and thirties. The picture he painted of Central European cultural life is virtually unparalleled, with a parade of names including Broch, Musil, Brecht, Babel and the painter George Grosz among his many personal friendships and acquaintances.

At the outset of the Second World War, Canetti and his wife Veza went into exile, choosing England because of the fond memories he had of living in Manchester for a brief period as a child. From being at the center of a modernist renaissance he was thrust into obscurity in the entirely different universe of wartime and then postwar England. The transition must have been a struggle, and the ensuing bitterness shows.

Differences between this book and its predecessors are not only a question of subject. Whereas the earlier memoirs were organized chronologically in order to show the intertwining of personal, artistic and political changes taking place as Central Europe fell apart, Party in the Blitz is a series of portraits — about people Canetti encountered during his English years — interspersed with various observations on the English character and the modern day legacy of Thatcherite Britain.

Because Canetti died before the book saw its final form, the writing contains some “rough edges” and seemingly unavoidable repetition. Yet the decline from his other memoirs has more to do with world history than his own writing, for gray postwar England simply could not compete with the mayhem and color of the modernist explosion in Vienna. While Canetti was in contact with an impressive range of British cultural figures — from Dylan Thomas, Kathleen Raine and Iris Murdoch to Herbert Read, William Empson and Bertrand Russell — he very likely didn’t see them as being in the same league as the luminaries of Central Europe. Furthermore, when he recounted meetings or relationships with Babel or Brecht, he never failed to add what he learned from them, a feature distinctly absent in this book, possibly because he was simply an observer.

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