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

The earlier memoirs contain portraits mixed with dialogue and anecdotes, while giving the reader a sense of the work writers like Broch were engaging in during their friendship with Canetti. In this volume, work takes a backseat. Often, it isn’t even mentioned at all. In fact, in the case of the composer Vaughn Williams, Canetti finds the space to praise his character and to hint at his wife’s infidelities. As to his music, Canetti confesses, “He has to be in this book about England. I have nothing to say about his music, I only know some of it, perhaps it is insignificant, I don’t know, anyway, it doesn’t matter.”

There are some brilliantly-drawn character sketches, the best ones being those that are more tangential to the main narrative lines, including an eccentric aristocrat who spends his days bedridden in his medieval Scottish castle with such a hatred of noise that he dismisses a pair of servants because of their tendency to laugh. The story of Geoffrey Pyke is also a classic example: an eccentric, largely bedridden genius who was appointed to Lord Mountbatten’s staff of advisers in preparing the Normandy landing. Among his ideas Churchill reportedly considered were the use of artificial icebergs in the landing process.

It would be easy to relegate some of Canetti’s dismissals as a reaction to the lukewarm reception he encountered in his adopted country, personal revenge against former lovers and friends, or plain bitterness against perceived rivals. I think there was much more at stake.

Most moving of all is the portrait of a street sweeper in Chesham Bois, whom Canetti met during the war. After thinking of the eighty-year-old man as someone outside world affairs, Canetti was surprised when the street sweeper asked him about the latest war news. Death camps and the fate of his own family and friends throughout Europe are practically never even alluded to in the book, yet he closes his portrait of the street sweeper with this scene: “One day, when we had learned of the most terrible things, in incontrovertible details, he took two steps up to me, which he had never yet done, and said: ‘I’m sorry for what’s happening to your people.’ And then he added: ‘They are my people too.’”

Two more exceptions to the general negativity displayed throughout the book are portraits of fellow exiles Oskar Kokoschka and Prague-born anthropologist Franz Steiner, the latter of whom seemed to provide Canetti with one of his most intellectually stimulating friendships in England.

It would be easy to relegate some of Canetti’s dismissals as a reaction to the lukewarm reception he encountered in his adopted country, personal revenge against former lovers and friends, or plain bitterness against perceived rivals. I think there was much more at stake. Milan Kundera has often written about Central European modernism being overshadowed by Paris-based modernism for reasons that have nothing to do with the works themselves. As was the case for most of his compatriots, Canetti left without anywhere to return to. Postwar Vienna was not even a shadow of its former self. Berlin was devastated and divided, while most of Eastern Europe was under Soviet occupation.

The real indignity, though, was the extent to which the modernism Canetti had been a part of was ignored. How else to explain starting out a volume of his memoirs with a rant against T.S. Eliot? Canetti does not make the comparison himself. In fact, the material of his early life is almost entirely unmentioned here. And while his dismissal of Eliot is certainly over the top, a belated attempt to redress the balance is more than justified.

One defining characteristic of writers like Broch, Musil and Canetti is a frustration with the limits of the novel form and literary art itself. During and after Hitler’s rise to power, these writers could not stop questioning the effectiveness of expressing their ideas through traditional literary forms, and neither avant-garde formal innovation nor “engaged” writing offered them an adequate way out. For Canetti, it drove him out of novel writing altogether. Broch struggled with the same debate and looked for ways to add essayistic writing into novels, while Musil engaged in the process of writing a virtually endless novel.

Today, the issue of a novel’s — and other art forms’ — limitations has become common currency, and the influence of Central European modernism in contemporary literature is gradually seeing new light. But for Elias Canetti, through his decades in England, even after being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981, it must have felt like he was a visitor from another world.

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