Saturday, October 16, 2010


by Elias Canetti

The author shakes you with the first scene in the book, one of the best openings of any novel that I've ever read. And he continues to challenge you with a riveting account of the travails of a fascinating scholar recluse, Peter Kien. Canetti created in Peter Kien an indelible image of a man with a library in his head. His only novel is both modern in conception and emotionally draining. It is also one of my favorites.

Auto da Fé is a 1935 novel by Elias Canetti; the title of the English translation refers to the burning of heretics by the Inquisition. The book was banned by the Nazis and did not become widely known until after the worldwide success of his Crowds and Power (1960). The protagonist is Peter Kien, a middle-aged philologist. He himself was the owner of the most important private library in the whole of this great city. He carried a minute portion of it with him wherever he went. His passion for it, the only one which he had permitted himself during a life of austere and exacting study, moved him to take special precautions. Books, even bad ones, tempted him easily into making a purchase. Fortunately, the great number of the book shops did not open until after eight o'clock.
Kien is absorbed in his studies of Chinese and fears social and physical contacts, but he is pressured into marrying his ignorant housekeeper, Therese Krummholz, who robs him with the help of Benedikt Pfaff, the proto-fascist apartment manager. Kien descends to the depths of society as his brother tries in vain to cure him, reaching an apocalyptic end amid his books.

Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 1984 (1935)

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