Canetti on Canetti

Elias Canetti, winner of the 1981 Nobel, was born on this day in 1905. Canetti’s reputation as a polyglot and polymath can be traced to his cultured upbringing and cosmopolitan travels — born in Bulgaria; raised in Vienna, Zurich, and Frankfurt; most of his working life spent in London. The hero of his most famous novel, Auto-da-Fé, is a reclusive, book-loving scholar, a man easily entrapped and destroyed by his small-minded and self-centered antagonists. Published as Europe slid into WWII, the book is often read as a voice of warning, as is the later Crowds and Power, perhaps Canetti’s most famous book. This is an anthropological-philosophical study that finds a herd-animal pathology behind many cultural events and social groups.

In his autobiographical writing, Canetti made no apologies for being an outspoken individualist. “My chief trait,” he writes in Party in the Blitz, memoirs covering his years in England, “much my strongest quality, which has never been compromised, was the insistence on myself.” The excerpt below, from the first paragraph of The Tongue Set Free, suggests that Canetti was destined to take speaking up as his life theme:

My earliest memory is dipped in red. I come out of a door on the arm of a maid, the floor in front of me is red, and to the left a staircase goes down, equally red. Across from us, at the same height, a door opens, and a smiling man steps forth, walking towards me in a friendly way. He steps right up close to me, halts, and says: “Show me your tongue.” I stick out my tongue, he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a jackknife, opens it, and brings the blade all the way to my tongue. He says: “Now we’ll cut off his tongue.” I don’t dare pull back my tongue, he comes closer and closer, the blade will touch me any second. In the last moment, he pulls back the knife, saying: “Not today, tomorrow.” He snaps the knife shut again and puts it back in his pocket….

Canetti eventually learned the explanation for this recurring scene: when he was two years old his family’s teenage maid was having an affair with the man wielding the knife.

Though highly praised by many, Canetti’s memoirs can seem gossipy and sometimes sour. T. S. Eliot, whom Canetti regarded as not in his league, is recalled as “a libertine of the void, a foothill of Hegel, a desecrator of Dante”; Iris Murdoch, with whom Canetti had a lengthy affair, is described as a “bubbling Oxford stewpot” and “a vulgar success.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at