Thursday, March 30, 2017

Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti

I first read this novel – Canetti’s sole work of extended fiction – close to thirty years ago. I put it down perhaps ¾ of the way into it, turning away, I imagine because of the unremitting bleakness.  The outward plot concerns a reclusive and meticulous scholar, completely absorbed in his studies of the philosophies of the Orient who, in a spontaneous act of gratitude, marries his scheming and overbearing housekeeper, who proceeds to make his life (with a degree of collusion on his part) a living hell.

 The scholar, Peter Kien, escapes his apartment after a particularly bad episode of violence, which allows the story to move on to present a cast of largely grotesque characters, each entrenched in their own psychotic realities.  Each, in his or her own way, sees other human beings as objects to exploit or ignore, as the situation demands.  The emaciated, ascetic Sinologist Kien is a “living skeleton”, becoming more haggard as the tale moves on.  Therese, his housekeeper, is physically intimidating and abusive towards him.  She finds, for a time, in Kien’s absence an ally in Benedikt Pfaff, the caretaker of Kien’s modest apartment building.  He is a red-haired ape of a brute, an ex-policeman who has already abused his wife and daughter to death, and who obsessively spies on all who pass or enter the building.  He relies on a monthly stipend that Kien had established some time before in gratitude for chasing off unwanted visitors (Kien’s acts of gratitude tend to come back to haunt him).  Next, there is the hunchback dwarf (it’s German literature after all) Fischerle, a miserable creature who encounters Kien after he wanders into a low-life dive.  Kien has, unbeknown to his new wife, who is tearing the apartment apart looking for his bank book, cashed out his remaining funds and is ill-advisedly carrying it around in a thick wad in his breast pocket, a fact which does not escape Fischerle, who, having the wiles of a chess player rather than the strength of an out-and-out thug, immediately schemes to defraud Kien of his rapidly dwindling inheritance so that he may emigrate to America and fulfill his delusion of becoming the world chess grandmaster.  A generous cast largely composed of other misfits and freaks round out the personae dramatis.

Turned out of his library, Kien is a wispy shell of a man, catatonic and easily manipulated as the reality of a world outside his library edges him closer towards madness.  Bleak as the novel is, in the grotesque Germanic tradition that gave us Georg Letham, Steppenwolf, Professor Unrat, and the novels of Paul Leppin, amongst other dark masterpieces, it is underscored with a cruelly comic quality that I most likely missed on my first reading, and which might have propelled me towards finishing it on the first go-round had I been a bit more receptive to it.  Kien’s descent is never in doubt, the only question being when, and by what violent means he will hit bottom.  There exists, however, another character, a potential savior armed with psychological insight who just might salvage - if not redeem- Kien’s existence.  One must, however, read the novel to assess the success of that venture.

My old Penguin Modern Classics edition (published 1965) uses C.V. Wedgwood’s 1946 translation, as does my 1984 Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition.  Among his other works, I would highly recommend his 1960 study, Crowds and Power.

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