by Elias Canetti
"For what happens in that kind of book is not just a game, it is reality; one has to justify it, not only against criticism from outside but in one’s own eyes as well. Even if an immense fear has compelled one to write such things, one must still ask oneself whether in so doing one has not helped to bring about what one so vastly fears." - Elias Canetti, The Play of the Eyes
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. With the hermetic figure of Peter Kien, Canetti created 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. However, a more literal translation of the German title would be "The Blinding". Not surprisingly, the book was banned by the Nazis. Thus it did not become widely known until after the worldwide success of his massive study Crowds and Power (1960). It is both complicated and modernist in approach; it may be classed with the works of James Joyce, Robert Musil, and Hermann Broch. One may read it as a social satire depicting Europe on the brink of Fascism in the early 1930s.
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." (p 11)
Kien is absorbed in his studies of Chinese and fears social and physical contacts, but he hires an ignorant housekeeper, Therese Krummholz. The naive scholar is easily entrapped by her, leading him into a nightmare marriage and eventually propelling him out into the streets where he meets and is further victimized by a series of grotesque and colorful characters almost of a Dickensian or Balzac-like mode.
More important than the details of the plot are the ideas indicated metaphorically and the resonance with archetypal ideas of humanity. For example, in the opening section of the novel Kien falls from a ladder while in his library and his wife finds him on her return home. Thinking he is dead she summons a neighbor and upon their return they find him injured, but alive. This moment, suggesting a death and rebirth (spiritual in the sense that Kien worships his books and the learning they represent), is a critical juncture in his journey through life just as the mythical story of death and rebirth (cf. Lazarus, Joseph, et. al.) has become central to humanity since the beginning of history.
Kien's journey takes him through the depths of society and beyond as his brother tries in vain to cure him, while he moves inexorably towards an apocalyptic end.
(This is an opening selection of notes on my reading of Auto da Fe and more commentary will be forthcoming.)
Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti, trans. by C. V. Wedgwood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984 (1935)