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Category: Non-fiction

Sven Hanuschek

Elias Canetti
[Elias Canetti]



“The only choice an artist has is to exist either as a person or as his works,” Arno Schmidt once noted. “In the latter case, it’s better not to inspect the defective other half.” Pronouncements like this, with which artists attempt to repel any biographical obtrusiveness from the outset and refer inquisitive people to their works, are not rare. Still, they cannot fend off the biographers.

Notwithstanding such resistance, Munich University professor Sven Hanuschek, author of a voluminous and much-praised biography of the writer Erich Kästner (1999), has now taken up the task of scrutinizing this “defective other half” of Nobel laureate Elias Canetti’s life (1905–1994) and brought forth a fat volume just in time for the one-hundredth anniversary of Canetti’s birth. It is the first biography of this important writer, who published his only novel, Die Blendung (Auto-da-fé), in 1935 but achieved international fame only after winning the Büchner Prize in 1972 and the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981. Canetti shared the skepticism of Arno Schmidt and a number of other writers when it came to the biographical genre. He had many reservations about biographies, especially any which aspired to make him their subject. Back in the 1980s he had managed to check the attempt of one journalist, and he specified in his will that no story of his life was to be published for ten years following his death.

Against this background, the writing of his own massive, three-volume biography appears like an attempt to define his own image. Besides, Canetti feared — as he recorded in his notebooks — “being translated into academic language.” Scholarly interpretation was something he considered a dismal and misdirected enterprise. Moreover, he objected to biographies specifically on grounds that most were somehow psychologically simplistic and no match for the unerring observations in his own portraits, of which there are many in his autobiographical books.

Not an easy task for Hanuschek then, but he manages his subject extraordinarily well, with great sensitivity, microscopic knowledge of the writings, and a skepticism of the genre worthy of Canetti himself. Besides Canetti’s works in print, it is primarily the huge, largely unpublished body of posthumous works — the hidden side of his relatively well-known publication history — which Hanuschek uses in his portrayal. A difficult challenge in light of Canetti’s own three-volume account of the first half of his life, considering the mountain of posthumous material that will remain sealed until 2024, the nearly indecipherable shorthand in the notebooks he kept on a daily basis from 1942 onward, and not least of all this cosmopolitan writer’s multilingualism and his extinct mother tongue, Ladino. “It will be impossible to capture Canetti,” Hanuschek states tersely — and sets about his work.

A central concept in Canetti’s life and work is “metamorphosis.” As he insisted in his 1976 address, “The Writer’s Profession,” it is the job of the writer to be a “guardian of metamorphoses,” and to “claim for his own the literary heritage of humanity, rich in metamorphoses.” Throughout his life that word remained at the heart of his self-awareness, repeatedly charged and guided by the foundational work of all stories of transformation, the Metamorphoses of Ovid. When Canetti describes the writer as guardian of the metamorphoses, he has in mind primarily the writer’s own potential for transformation, a capacity which must be preserved in a world of specialization and division of labor, in opposition to a production which, Canetti insists, “unhesitatingly multiplies the means to its own destruction and at the same time tries to stifle whatever might remain of human qualities already won.”

These metamorphoses of Canetti the writer, born to a family of Sephardic Jews in Rustschuk, Bulgaria, provide the pattern for Hanuschek’s study; thus he does not adhere strictly to the outlines set in Canetti’s autobiography. And fortunately, Hanuschek makes no attempt to recapitulate or to compete with Canetti’s own account, long recognized as one of the great autobiographies of the twentieth century. Rather, he maintains a critical distance from his subject and views the self-portrayal of his author in the light of his own years of research, interviews, and study of source materials, especially considering that only the first volume of Canetti’s work is autobiography in the strict sense. As Hanuschek describes it: “In the volumes which followed, the autobiographical subject recedes more and more in favor of a nearly omniscient observer about whom we don’t really learn very much at all.” With precise feel Hanuschek steers against the current of Canetti’s “fictionalizing narrative strategies” and goes on from the point where he can no longer rely on the writer’s recorded memories to lay out the results of his own research on Canetti’s life.

With the exposition of the opposing views and differing perspectives of Canetti’s friends and acquaintances, we are given a picture of the writer’s life no less precise and perceptive than the sharp-witted and sharp-tongued portraits by the “ferocious” Canetti himself, though Hanuschek abstains from the merciless treatment often practiced by his subject. He gives a central place to Canetti’s one novel; his plays; of course the autobiography; the 1960 landmark Masse und Macht (Crowds and Power), which the author himself regarded as his magnum opus; and the almost incalculable mountain of notebooks, of which only a few volumes of selections have been published.

On the other hand, it is good to note that Canetti’s many, seemingly countless love affairs are dealt with less prominently. Hanuschek treats this side of the biography with good taste and a discretion that may disappoint some readers, but will leave those primarily interested in Canetti the writer pleasantly undisturbed by the kind of lurid exposé that too often can spoil the serious study of a life-work. The biographer naturally concentrates first and foremost on Canetti’s relationship with his adored first wife, Veza Taubner-Calderón. (They were married from 1934 until her death in 1963.) Strangely, in his autobiography Canetti made no mention whatever of Veza’s career as a writer, but then happily followed her discovery by the literary world during the last years of his own life.

Hanuschek traces this marriage, as he does Canetti’s second — to the art restorer Hera Buschor (1933–1988), whom he had known since the mid-1950s — and his affairs with Friedl Benedikt and the painter Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, in the light of Canetti’s extensive “critiques of couples.” He had lost most of his own family but found a new one free of all erotic involvements in Veza, Friedl, and Marie-Louise, especially during the years of exile in London beginning in 1939. He lived with them in shifting arrangements, as did Johanna, his daughter with Hera, following Hera’s death of cancer in 1988.

Hanuschek traces the various strands of Canetti’s life and works in a lively yet utterly unpretentious style, never getting entangled in theoretical discussion or sterile speculation. By his objectivity and discretion, yet not sealing off his subject under a bell jar of veneration, he eludes the “translation into academic language” that Canetti feared for himself. In the epilogue to his biography he lets Canetti have the final word, quoting his declaration of love to his second wife, Hera, and their daughter, for whom he had written down the first part of his life: “For Johanna I will tell stories whenever she wishes. Hera must forgive me every suspicious impulse; I wanted everything between us to be perfect, and perfect it has been.”

Translated by Michael Ritterson

Vorname Name

By Oliver Jahn