Memoirs of a gossipy egotist: From beyond the grave, Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti smears reputations
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 25 October 2005)

During his lifetime, Elias Canetti, the winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for literature, brought out three volumes of autobiography about his early life. In his eighties he wrote, but never completed, a fourth, about his four decades in Britain. This year, the 100th anniversary of his birth, Canetti's heirs have released that manuscript as Party in the Blitz: The English Years (New Directions), which turns out to be an astonishing gift to gossipmongers everywhere. It shows Canetti as an unashamed egotist who tears at the reputations of old friends and colleagues, above all Iris Murdoch, his lover in the 1950s.

Canetti, a Sephardic Jew whose ancestors had been banished from Spain centuries ago, was born in Bulgaria when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. As an infant he learned Ladino, the old Spanish dialect, from his parents. Then he learned Bulgarian, then English and finally German. He admired English literature above all others, but loved the mysteries and possibilities of German, in which he wrote his books. If Hitler had not existed, he might have grown old in Vienna. Instead, the Nazis forced him to move first to Paris and then to London, where he arrived in 1939.

Expecting reverence, Canetti was greeted in England by blank stares. So far as he could tell, his only novel, Auto-da-Fe, swiftly banned after publication in German in 1935, had exactly one English reader, Arthur Waley, the great expert on Chinese literature. Canetti's life became a campaign to find psychic support for his princely self-regard. He evaluated every cocktail party according to whether people knew of him. If they didn't, he felt humiliated.

This might have happened anywhere, but Canetti blamed the English, always a good target: "They take arrogance to new, unsuspected levels." He became a grievance collector.

But soon he started acting like a great man, a seer, the Magus of Hampstead. His performance succeeded, particularly among women. Murdoch, while enraptured by him, noted that he became famous even though most people didn't know what he was famous for.

In 1960, he finally produced the book he had been preparing for years, Crowds and Power, an analysis of mass movements through myth, history and literature. It became one of those works hardly anyone even pretends to have read. Many who delved into it, like me, came back claiming that it was a collection of commonplace observations wrapped in pomposity. Still, Murdoch gave it a good review in The Spectator.

He loved the British in wartime. "Never, not once, did I overhear an anxiety, or even a complaint. The worse things stood, the more determined people were." But he disliked their closed, enigmatic personality and amused himself by decrypting their conversation. He decided, for instance, that if anyone said "I can't afford it," early in a conversation, "then you knew they were rich."

Like all foreigners, he fastened on English eccentrics. He knew a rural clergyman, an author of books on the history of religion who was obsessed by snails. When it rained he was always late ("a sin for the English") because the rain would bring out snails and he was compelled to pick up each of them for inspection. "He was a connoisseur and a lover of snails," Canetti recalls. "He did not have any choice in the matter."

He depicts Murdoch as a lover who worked a tight schedule; arriving at his flat she would tell him precisely how much time she had allotted for her visit, say 3:15 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. Canetti's wife met her at the door with a smile and afterwards made a little lunch for the three of them. Other wives were not so generous, which led to humiliating confrontations for Murdoch. Canetti claims that "there were whole postal districts in London from which she felt herself banished by the wife of some lover or other."

After three years, Murdoch left Canetti to marry John Bayley, the eminent literary critic, whose affectionate memoir became the basis for Iris, the film in which she's played by Kate Winslet and Judi Dench. On the one occasion when I met Murdoch and Bayley, over lunch in the 1960s, their mutual attraction was unmistakable; you felt you could reach out and touch the sexual charge that ran between them. They married in 1956, the same year she dedicated to Canetti her novel, The Flight From the Enchanter, in which he appears, poorly disguised, as the power-hungry, manipulative Mischa Fox. She also used Canetti as the basis for similar men, usually misogynist, in The Sea, The Sea and A Fairly Honourable Defeat.

Recognizing himself, Canetti was not amused. He felt used and decided her habit was to steal the minds of her lovers. He admits that "nothing draws me to a person more than the feeling that they want to listen to me. With Iris, that desire was a passion." He expressed his thoughts, she absorbed them, and he read them in her novels. Worse, she wrote two dozen well-regarded novels to his one, plus three plays and six works of philosophy. He saw himself as her guru; what right had she (a woman!) to rise above him? Bayley said recently that he was "pathologically conceited and jealous of her success," which sounds about right.

Certainly, the Canetti who wrote this book was no gentleman. While he remembered Murdoch's beautiful face ("Flemish, like an early Memling"), he also found it necessary to speak of her big, ugly feet, her lack of sexual response, her wretchedly plain clothes, her down-market mind: "She has not one serious thought." Her success was "vulgar." He decided that she embodied all that he despised in English life.

Well, maybe there was one person he disliked more, someone he barely knew: T.S. Eliot. To him, Eliot was the poet of "emotional impoverishment, which through him became fashionable." He tried to diminish anything that had "more stamina and sap" than his own poetry. He doesn't quote a line but describes Eliot himself, "thin-lipped, cold hearted, prematurely old."

Canetti could never separate the writer from the work; in this book he doesn't even acknowledge that it would be possible to do so. He believed that if the writer is a scoundrel or an opportunist then the work must be garbage. Fortunately for Canetti's reputation, not everyone embraces that idea.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page