Party in
The Blitz

The English Years
Elias Canetti
Michael Hofmann,

(New Directions)
I'm trying to think what it would be like if the country that I call home --- with all the warmth and comfort that word implies --- had been suddenly overrun with hoodlums bent on destroying me and my kin. What would it be like if I woke up in my house and there were these virulent terrorists who owned the state that oversees all of our lives; to be ruled by those whose creed was not liberty and justice but wanton murder? What would I do?

That is what happened to Elias Canetti. Born in Bulgaria, citizen of Vienna, writer, philosopher. One night he found his second homeland Austria in the hands of the Nazis, and, to survive, he and his wife had to emigrate to England.

They settle in Hampstead, in 1939, forced to live with people they didn't know, and didn't especially care for. They had almost no resources, except the fact that they spoke English (Canetti learned to read Shakespeare when he was seven).

Within the next six years, he was to bloom as a literary figure, befriending and being befriended by the likes of Bertrand Russell, Arthur Waley, Iris Murdoch, Henry Moore, Ralph Vaughan Williams, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and Bertrand Russell. Of the last, he wrote:

    A very short man, who, in spite of his age, held himself terribly erect, with a thoroughly intellectual face, his conversational English like that of an educated gentleman of the eighteenth century. He spoke in roughly the style in which Horace Walpole wrote his letters. In his mouth, English sounded serene and immaculate...

    But he ended his speech with a goat-like laugh that was so wild and dangerous as to be shocking. He refused to end it, drew it out, one could sense how hard it was for him to part with this laughter.

Canetti, no slouch in the story-tell department himself, admits to feeling "lame and excluded" in the midst of all of Russell's story-telling:

"There was nothing left for me but to tell a few stories, and one, about the Spanish Duke Dantin and the stolen locomotive, enchanted him to such a degree that he several times said: 'You delight me!' with full emphasis. That too, so directly, was something I had never yet heard from any Englishman.

    I had run into Duke Dantin when he was a refugee in Paris, during the Spanish Civil War, he had fled from the Republicans, bringing nothing with him except a locomotive, and asked me --- we had just been introduced by a mutual friend in a café --- whether I knew anyone who might be interested in a locomotive, una locomotora.

    He had the face of a tiger, in a scaled-down version, and, having made the offer of the locomotive, added in the same breath, that he was going to shoot his brother in Madrid, a traitor. This brother, a famous geographer, had set aside his title of nobility, called himself Dantin Sereseda, and was a Professor at the University of Madrid. He was on the Republican side, and had stayed in Madrid. My new acquaintance regretted his flight on just one ground, namely that he had not got around to shooting his brother first. It had been the last wish of his dying mother that he shoot his brother, that miserable Republican son of hers. He was penniless, but with the help of the locomotive he would get by.

    As soon as he had sold it, he wanted to get over to Venezuela. He had a friend in the government there, and he would take a ministerial position from him, and as soon as he had embezzled enough money, he would head back to Spain, liberated Spain. Perhaps he would be able to shoot his brother then.

§     §     §

Party in the Blitz is less of a memoir of these hard years than a sketchbook (left unfinished at his death) of the people he knew, and, in a couple of cases, loved.

Or maybe hated. For the picture of the country and its people that took him in and fed him and housed him is virulent, bitter, at times coarse. There is a wild --- in no way sullen --- hatred for T. S. Eliot, Margaret Thatcher, Iris Murdoch: the latter being his lover. Her clothing, he reported, "was all woolen and ungainly, but in no time it was in a heap on the floor, and she was under the blanket on the couch."

    I barely felt myself enter her, I didn't sense that she had felt anything, perhaps I might have felt something if she had resisted in some form. But that was as much out of the question as any pleasure. The only thing I noticed was that her eyes darkened, and that her reddish Flemish skin got a little redder ... No sooner was it finished, she was still lying flat on her back, than she became animated and started to talk.

It's the dry cold English that get him, no? Eliot, for example, "the stoical side he had probably acquired in the course of his time in England."

    He kowtows to any order that's sufficiently venerable; tries to stifle any élan; a libertine of the void, a foothill of Hegel, a desecrator of Dante (to which Circle would Dante have banished him?); thin lipped, cold hearted, prematurely old, unworthy of Blake or of Goethe or of anything volcanic --- his own lava cooled before it ever warmed ... armed with critical points instead of teeth, tormented by a nymphomaniac of a wife.

("Wow!" I write in the margin: "How many Nasty Pills did Canetti take before writing this one?") The country and its people saved him, and he savages them.

But ... but there are three things that save him ... no four.

  1. He's a good writer. The words come as naturally as breathing --- graceful, natural and, when he in a dust-up, just as powerful.
  2. He's probably right about Murdoch, Eliot et al --- and this is coming at you from a one-time Eliot fan. I can still recite parts out of the dust-heap of my brain: "She reads much of the night/And goes south in the winter..." "Revolving like old women in empty lots."
  3. Those Canetti hates, he hates unconditionally; those he loves, he loves unconditionally. "It is not easy for me to go on writing about these English things. I often find myself shaking with rage when I think of them," Then:

      The most wonderful pure man, Ralph Vaughan Williams, the composer and pride of the nation, great-hearted, independent, with no notion of aristocracy, submissive, but without acute rebellion, a man one would like to cover pages and pages about.

  4. Finally, we know that this is the last thing that Canetti wrote, and he was eighty-five years old, and many of the characters he was writing about were dead (or mad: Murdoch died of Alzheimer's, recently documented by her late husband.) That gave him the freedom to write as he wished, with no restraint.
The surprise, to this reader, is that, rather than being a study in curmoudgeonly excess, Blitz --- after the first two or three dollops of spleen --- is a piece of art 'in its own write,' as John Lennon would have it, filled with paradoxes, passions, astounding set pieces, put-downs, the artistry of a critic's critic, and one who can make us green with envy that we were not where he was so fortunate to be, at a poetic read-off between Eliot and Dylan Thomas, the cemetery in Hampstead Heath ("a peaceable feeling, one that was shared in some way with the denizen of the grave,") a meeting with Enoch Powell, and a fabled Party in the Blitz, literally watching British and German planes going after each other as one stood safely at the window, sipping cocktails.

And Dante, Dante who Canetti loved, loved so because he saw himself in the great poet's Divine Comedy, being the true example of a reënactment of his own life, forced into becoming an émigré, forged by memory into never forgetting:

    In Dante's day, people were burned at the stake. When the other side came to power, you had to leave the city, and not come back as long as you lived. Hatred of the enemy burned. Dante's Commedia was full of this, he was a man who neither forgot nor forgave. The great thing about his poetry in particular was that he forgot nothing.

--- Lolita Lark
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