Friday, 13 May 2011

Blogger silence: Canetti on Eliot and parties

Elias Canetti

Blogger has been off the air for a couple of days so it was impossible to post, but it has just come back on. It's an opportunity to say something about Elias Canetti's posthumous memoir, Party in the Blitz, that I picked off my Canetti shelf in an idle moment, wondering why I hadn't read it. I was quite prepared to put it back after a few more idle moments but the book immediately grabbed me. It is something like John Aubrey's marvellous 'Brief Lives' set in the wartime and postwar years, with Canetti's versions of T S Eliot, Iris Murdoch, Kathleen Raine, William Empson, Bertrand Russell, Arthur Waley, Enoch Powell and all, with a little Mrs Thatcher thrown in for good measure. Here's a flavour. Canetti on Eliot:

I was 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 round the whole country...

The sentence goes on but you get the idea. It is entertaining fury, born partly, or so I think it turns out, of the sense of rejection that he perceives through the wall of English reticence and polite distance. It is what he notices about English parties - and he seems constantly to be going to parties.

You're brought together in a small space, very close, but without touching. It looks as though there might be a crush, but there isn't. Freedom consists in the distance from your opposite number, even if it's only a hair's breadth. You move smartly past others who are crowding in on you from all sides without brushing any of them. You remain untouched and pure... An individual's identity is expressed by an active form of restraint.

Over a few pages he traces the untouchability of the English which disorientates and infuriates him. You can see how Crowds and Power might have been brewing in a mind like this.

The books is written in German of course, translated by Michael Hofmann, in whose translation everything sounds marvellous, even these crabbed unfinished notes written at the end of a life. And that untouchability is still there among the air-kissing mwah-mwah huggy-kissies - it has simply moved under the skin. In a trivial mood I think the English soul is like the country itself, an island in a sea. But I am used to the island and the sea. It has become habitat for me, in the way it never did for Canetti, much as he admired the English of the wartime, and the English of the great writers who were, he proclaims, the world greats of three centuries. That's until Old Possum came along, more English than the English, carrying his own cold polite sea about his person. Or so said Canetti, who, for all his personal warmth, fumed and boiled and blew and drew these unkind brilliant, clearly biased portraits. Furnace meets sea.


Ms Baroque said...

Fascinating and kind of shocking, George, but maybe not in a bad way... Of course TS Eliot DID make a contribution. (!) This description of the parties reminds me of a flood of hidden dynamics that were at work on the tube today.

George S said...

I think it's brilliantly comical, MsB. He's very hard on Iris Murdoch - his ex-lover - for example, but it is not too difficult to imagine that his victims might have enjoyed the giggle, in the same way as Lord Hervey might have laughed to see himself as Sporus in Alexander Pope. Pope had actual malice of course, as well as genius. Canetti has, it seems, a lovely buffoonish fury that even he recognised for what it was. And uder Canetti's rage and contempt there are distinct snatches of affection.

Fabio G. Bensoussan said...

There is a Brazilian edition of his memories - three-volumes. A cousin of him, Sadi Canetti, married my aunt - they both were Brazilians, she was my father's sister, daughter of a Turkish family; he was son of Bulgarians and Turkish.

George S said...

Yes, I knew he was Bulgarian. I have two of three volumes, Fabio. The title of my own last book, The Burning of the Books, was taken from Canetti's Auto da Fe, and the title sequence closely followed his book. Crowds and Power is an excellent book. I don't know how accurate it is but it sparkles with ideas.