23 JULY 2005, Page 25

The God-Monster of Hampstead

Ferdinand Mount

PARTY IN THE BLITZ: THE ENGLISH YEARS by Elias Canetti, translated by Michael Hofmann Harvill, £17.99, pp. 266 ISBN 1843432048 ✆ £15.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848 AUTO DA FÉ by Elias Canetti, translated by C.V. Wedgwood Harvill, £11.99, pp. 464, ISBN 1843432587 ✆ £10.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848 Some quite bad writers have won the Nobel Prize for Literature Pearl Buck is the most notorious. So have some great men who are better known for other, not strictly literary endeavours, such as Churchill and Sartre. Many more laureates have written in small-circulation languages which you wonder if the judges are qualified to judge.

But I can think of only one Nobel literary laureate of whom you might be tempted to ask: what exactly has he won it for? When Elias Canetti was awarded the Nobel in 1981, he had published only a scattering of assorted things, mostly rather slight: three farces, a travel book, a few essays, one novel published 45 years earlier, two-thirds of an autobiography (his most evocative and attractive work), plus what I suppose might be described as a work of popular social anthropology, Crowds and Power.

Yet nobody much at the time gainsaid Canetti’s claim to the Nobel. For it was tacitly (and sometimes openly) agreed that his supreme work of art was himself. When he arrived in England, as Jeremy Adler remarks in his introduction to Party in the Blitz, a posthumous montage of Canetti’s writings about England, ‘initially he did not owe his reputation to his publications but rather to the force of his personality’. And that remained the case even as his fame grew. For his lover Iris Murdoch, he was the magus, both the subject and the dedicatee of her second novel, The Flight from the Enchanter. Her husband, John Bayley, less enchanted by Canetti, particularly by his cruelty to Iris, christened him the GodMonster of Hampstead. Canetti himself says, ‘My chief trait, much my strongest quality, which has never been compromised, was the insistence on myself ... It may be a sort of virtue.’ Or it may not.

This self-centredness reaches marvellous heights in his contempt for other living writers. T. S. Eliot was a ‘miserable creature’. Kathleen Raine was a tedious whinger who committed the unforgivable sin: ‘Not for a moment did she see me as a writer, the little she was able to read of mine struck her as tasteless, though she was careful never to tell me so. I, however, always knew it, and thought with some satisfaction how little her poems did for me.’ As for Iris, ‘she has not one serious thought ... Everything I despise about English life is in her ... I don’t think there is anything that leaves me quite so cold as that woman’s intellect.’ Except perhaps her body — which he nonetheless took advantage of whenever she offered it. His descriptions of their lovemaking are so chilling that you have to read them twice to make sure you have read them properly.

There is one shining exception to these bilious denunciations of his literary contemporaries and supposed friends and lovers: the great Chinese scholar-translator Arthur Waley. No prizes for guessing why. Waley was the only man in England who had read Canetti’s novel before the war and loved it.

At times, Canetti reminds me disgracefully of the Russian novelist Vladimir Brusiloff in The Clicking of Cuthbert: ‘No novelists any good except me. Sovietski-yah! Nastikoff-bah! I spit me of zem all. No novelists anywhere any good except me. P. G. Wodehouse and Tolstoi not bad. Not good, but not bad.’ He was born 100 years ago this year into a cultivated Sephardic family of a line long settled in Turkey but more recently in Bulgaria. En famille, he and his wife Veza spoke Ladino, the Spanish dialect amazingly preserved among Jewish families expelled from Spain four centuries earlier. But English was the first language he learnt to read in, though he always wrote in German, and he first came to England in 1911, to Manchester where his father died of a stroke the day after his wife had told him she had fallen in love with her doctor — a crucial trauma in Canetti’s life and movingly recounted in his first memoir, The Tongue Set Free. After fleeing the Nazis, he and Veza finally settled in Hampstead in February 1939, amid the large refugee community which at that time constituted nearly half the borough’s population. Apart from a brief intermission in Chesham Bois during the Blitz, they lived there until Veza’s death. In his last years he moved to Zürich with his second wife, where he died in 1994.

Throughout the war and for some time afterwards, he was deeply admiring of the fortitude and tolerance of the English, and he became a British citizen. In 1951 he declared, ‘I now feel completely at home in England, especially in London. I can now become an Englishman with a good conscience.’ But this fellow feeling curdled with the passage of time. He began to detect ‘a smell of weakness’ in the English. He had come to loathe the insipidity of their conversation, the coldness of their manners, their awful stodginess. Even their famous tolerance was linked to their Gefühlsimpotenz. Above all, he loathed their parties, those appalling Nichtberührungsfeste. Professor Adler calls this term utterly untranslatable, but I think ‘non-contact sports’ will do quite nicely. These postwar gatherings in Hampstead or Chelsea or Kensington struck him as ‘senseless and heartless, every bit in keeping with such cold people’. There was no touching, no intimacy, no curiosity. Adler points out that Canetti failed to take in (or did not live long enough to see) the kissing, hugging, crying, confessing post-Diana England. One can, however, be sure that he would have abominated that too.

Canetti’s portrait of England is frozen in time, as most such portraits of national character tend to be. It took me a while to think what it most closely recalled. Then I realised that it was just like The British Character, that series of drawings by Pont of Punch first collected in book form in 1938. There they all are, the qualities first admired and then denounced by Canetti: Refusal to Admit Defeat, Importance of Not Being an Alien (the squat, underdressed Continental amid the horse-faced English in white ties even bears an eerie resemblance to the younger Canetti), Love of Keeping Calm, Absence of the Gift for Conversation, Importance of Not Being Intellectual, and above all Reserve.

The actual party in the Blitz took place in Roland Penrose’s house in Downshire Hill. It was a lascivious, unbuttoned affair, not at all a Nichtberührungsfest. On each floor there were couples embracing and dancing, while down in the basement sweating firemen were passing out buckets of sand to protect the houses that were burning in the neighbourhood. The firemen and the dancers seemed quite oblivious of each other. One can imagine one of Pont’s furiously crowded, smoky, cross-hatched drawings depicting the scene, entitled no doubt The Blitz Spirit.

This then is a period piece which suffers from being written at the end of Canetti’s life, half a century after the period it describes. It is assembled from a jumble of shorthand manuscripts, notes and diaries, although it excludes (wrongly, I think) those passages that Canetti explicitly classified as ‘Diaries’ and stipulated were not to be published until 30 years after his death. So the book has a thin, spatchcocked feel. Adler candidly tells us that there was some discussion as to whether the book should have been published at all. Moreover, Canetti himself in extreme old age confesses, ‘When I talk about England, I notice how wrong it all is.’ Wrong quite often in details. He speaks of a Church of England clergyman who begins to doubt the Thirty-Seven Articles of his Faith. He admires Bertrand Russell for nobly declining the dukedom of Bedford. He tells us equally breathlessly and erroneously that Enoch Powell was one of only two Tory MPs from humble backgrounds and had distinguished himself by his bravery as a brigadier in Montgomery’s Desert Army. No doubt Powell would have, given half a chance, but in fact he served out the war as a staff officer of Widmerpoolian assiduity.

For all that, Canetti’s description of Enoch discoursing unstoppably on Dante and Nietzsche at a staid Tory soirée has a bite and vivacity to be found in others of his vignettes of English intellectual life, of dinner with Bertrand Russell with his ‘goatish chuckle’, of visiting that tragic Professor Branestawm figure, Geoffrey Pyke, who almost persuaded Mountbatten to build battleships out of blocks of ice, to be known as Pykrete.

These portraits achieve that pithy, abrupt quality that Canetti so admired in Aubrey’s Brief Lives. And for them alone Party in the Blitz was well worth publishing, even though it is spoiled by Canetti’s irrepressible habit of generalising from insufficient evidence. For instance, he repeatedly curses the English obsession with saving time, giving as his prime example the Labour politician Douglas Jay saying to a woman, ‘I’ve got five minutes’ before taking off his trousers. But that is surely the impatience of lustful politicians the world over. Why else is President Chirac nicknamed ‘Fifteen-minutes-including-the-shower’? Marlene Dietrich claimed that JFK fitted her into a half-hour slot. Mussolini too was no slouch, given any convenient flat surface to lay a woman on.

In the end, Canetti only seems to like people in England to the degree that he can identify them as not English, for example, the historian C. V. Wedgwood, who, he says, had none of the sluggish reserve of so many English people, her dark looks, warmth and quickness coming from her Celtic ancestors. Of course, ‘I do not think much of her own writings, she was unoriginal, had no ideas of her own about anything’ and — this was the limit — she adored Mrs Thatcher (Canetti never quite abandoned his leftist politics, though he kept his prewar association with Brecht rather dark). However, Veronica could be forgiven much because she was an enthusiast for Canetti’s novel, persuaded Jonathan Cape to publish it and volunteered to translate it herself.

And it is her translation which Harvill has used in reissuing, for Canetti’s centenary, Auto da Fé as it was called when it came out in Britain in 1947. The book was first published in 1936 as Die Blendung — the Blinding or Deception — and later in the US as The Tower of Babel, this variety of titles suggesting a smidgeon of uncertainty as to what the book was actually about. Veronica Wedgwood’s translation is stilted and clumsy and now and then, I think, mistakes the sense. I doubt whether this matters. Even if Englished by a master craftsman like Michael Hofmann (who has done Party in the Blitz beautifully), Auto da Fé would still be unendurable.

I do not mean that it is impossible to be carried along for a few pages by Canetti’s prose, which is never less than lucid and fluent. It is just that the story is at the same time so whimsical and so crass, its allegorical subtext so leaden and brutish that it subverts its own subversion, or, to put it less politely, disappears up itself. A distinguished sinologist, Peter Kien, who lives a crazy, reclusive life obsessed by his enormous library, is tricked out of his inheritance by, among others: his housekeeper, later wife, a lubricious, greedy peasant woman; an evil, chess-playing, hunchbacked dwarf; and a lecherous blind man. From time to time he is abused and beaten up by a crowd of Bosch-like lumpenproles. And all this happens over and over again, quite relentlessly, for nearly 500 pages.

The blurb claims that Auto da Fé still ‘towers as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century’. I find it hard to believe that it towered as one of the greatest novels of 1936. The epithet ‘Kafkaesque’ will no doubt be trotted out for the occasion. But if Kafka had treated the theme, he would have done it in 20 light, haunting, allusive pages which would have left the reader dangling in an exquisite uncertainty. Another point much insisted on by Kafka’s compatriot Milan Kundera is that Kafka manages in some mysterious way to be very funny. Auto da Fé is no joke.

Those drawing up the Nobel citation obviously had some difficulty deciding precisely what Canetti was on about, referring cautiously to ‘his broad outlook’ and ‘his wealth of ideas’. In fact, I think that his outlook was quite narrow and his governing idea was a relatively simple one. In all his work he is haunted by the fear of the crowd.

In Crowds and Power, he purports to offer a typology of crowds, dividing them up into the open crowd, the closed crowd, the baiting crowd (or lynch mob), the lamenting crowd (or cortège), the flight crowd (or panic-stricken mob), the feast crowd and so on. Then he moves on to draw analogies between these modern types of crowd and the war packs of the Amazonian Indians, the rain dances of the Pueblo Indians, the kangaroo hunts of the Australian aborigines, the Bushmen etc. Except that he does not actually draw such analogies, but for the most part merely displays his examples alongside one another, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions. These examples are collected from a wide variety of sources — the book took more than 20 years to write, but despite this long gestation it is remarkably free from analytical thought. Large parts of it read like an upmarket version of Desmond Morris’s books in which the behaviour of chimps and hyenas is assumed to throw important light on human behaviour, but only by a loaded reasoning that selects only those features of animal behaviour that resemble human behaviour and discards those that do not.

‘The crowd is the same everywhere,’ Canetti asserts, ‘in all periods and cultures; it remains essentially the same among men of the most diverse origin, education and language. Once in being, it spreads with the utmost violence. Few can resist its contagion.’ This sweeping thesis is assumed throughout the book but never proved. Nowhere does Canetti bother to refute the possibility that evolution or history might have modified crowd behaviour. Nor does he offer proof that violence, panic or persecution is confined to men acting in crowds. Yet surely people also fight, lynch, murder, persecute, take fright, feast, mourn and hunt in one and twos and fours and dozens, according to time, circumstance and convenience.

Crowds and Power is in no sense a rational inquiry. It is a violently tendentious tract, inspired, like Auto da Fé, by the ghastly experiences of the mob which, quite understandably, obsessed the European intellectual in the 1930s. Although not actually published until 1960, it belongs on the same shelf as Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses (1929). You can find this fear of the masses almost anywhere you look in the highbrow English literature of the period, in Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley.

It would of course be possible to argue the precise contrary, that, then as now, it is small vanguards of pseudo-intellectuals, usually armed with some debased ideology, who inject the real poison and that crowds are a neutral phenomenon capable of just as wide a range of behaviour as individual human beings. But that is not what the intellectual wishes to believe. For him the only hope lies in the solitary, unillusioned mind, that is, in himself.

Need we look further for an explanation of the huge success that Canetti enjoyed in his later years? He was indeed a writer of some grace, wide learning and considerable critical acuity, and he had paid close attention to the terrible events of the century he nearly spanned. But none of this would have elevated him to the status of magus. What he illustrated as much by his life as by his work was that a solitary intellectual, without friends or funds or even a country to call his own, could come out on top, that the life of the mind was the life that mattered. What did the trick was his appeal to the self-esteem of intellectuals everywhere. He raised them above the dangerous, dull-witted crowd, and they in turn raised him.