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Multilingual Elias Canetti, who Resolutely Wrote in German

Ido Vock By Ido Vock Published on July 3, 2017
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Elias Canetti’s earliest memory, he recounts in The Tongue Set Free, the first volume of his memoirs, is of a man ordering him to stick out his tongue. He obeys, and the man pulls out a knife, holds it up to Canetti’s face, threatening to cut out his tongue if he talks, a torment which is repeated daily for some time. The ploy works: Canetti literally holds his tongue for ten years. Finally, Canetti asks his mother about the episodes; they come to the conclusion that the man must have been the lover of the maid who cared for him as a young child. The experience must have been scarring, but it clearly impelled the use of that esteemed tongue for the rest of his life.

Canetti was born in Rustschuk, Bulgaria, in 1905, to a Sephardic Jewish merchant family. The German-language author grew up speaking Ladino, a Jewish offshoot of Spanish, in a relatively traditionalist household–in his memoirs he describes marriage to an Ashkenazi Jew as out of the question. Canetti mentions learning Bulgarian from the family help, local to their area, and dabbling in Latin, Greek and French too. He began to learn English after his family moved to England in 1911, where Canetti started attending school. But for the early years of his life, German remained out of bounds to him, being reserved for intimate communication between his parents.

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Café Imperial in Vienna

That all changed at the age of seven, when his father died. Canetti’s mother moved the family to Switzerland, and then Vienna, where his mother expected the young child to learn German in a matter of months. He writes in his memoirs that his mother “had a profound need to use German with me, it was the language of her intimacy”. Her marriage had been in German; the language was the medium through which her most sensitive and personal thoughts were expressed. She needed someone to continue those conversations with, and the task fell to Canetti.

After a few months of “true pain”, the language became a source of happiness that tied him ‘indissolubly to the language’. Though multilingualism had been a part of Canetti’s life since his earliest days, German became a “belated mother tongue” for him, and one he would write all of his literature in for the rest of his life. His family, meanwhile, migrated to Zürich and then to Frankfurt, where Canetti graduated from high school in 1924.

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Canetti first began writing in Zürich, but it was his time at the University of Vienna that truly introduced him to literature and cultural criticism. Despite his chemistry studies, he moved in élite Viennese literary circles, in particular becoming fascinated by Karl Kraus, the editor of the magazine Die Fackel (The Torch). He met his future wife, Venetiana Taubner-Calderon, at a Kraus reading.

The 1927 street fighting between the Social Democrats and right wing reactionaries, which marked the beginning of the end for the interwar Austrian republic and set the scene for the emergence of Austrian fascism, made a profound impression on Canetti. In his writing, he would frequently refer to the book burnings he experienced. His novel Die Blendung, for instance, was published in translation as Auto Da Fé, a title that specifically referred to the burning of heretics during the Inquisition, but also more generally to destruction by fire. 

Canetti completed a doctorate in chemistry in 1929, but never worked as a chemist, instead supporting himself by translating Upton Sinclair into German once he left university. When the Nazis came to power, Canetti became friendly with Abraham Sonne, who published poetry in Hebrew. Canetti was fascinated by the difference between his own subjective opinions and Sonne’s altogether more rational predilections. In 1934, he married Taubner-Calderon, who was also a writer who published short stories until antisemitism made it impossible for her to continue.

In 1937, Canetti visited Prague for the first time, fascinated not only by the grace of the architecture but also by the unfamiliar language that surrounded him. After Austria’s annexation into Germany, he moved briefly to Paris and then to Hampstead, in north London.

Despite his status as a Jewish refugee, Canetti consciously defended a German language unspoiled by fascist influences. He began to write at length on crowds and power, publishing a book by that title in 1962. He was sympathetic towards all who had experienced hardship during the war, including Axis civilians, but remained fully aware of the atrocity of the Holocaust. He became a British citizen in 1952.

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in Marrakech

In 1952, he travelled to Marrakesh, describing the experience in The Voices of Marrakesh, once again making his love for the spoken word clear. In the short book, he describes his delight at hearing the simple sound of the calls of the inhabitants resonating through the souk. Canetti continued to publish, and as his repertoire grew, so did his international renown, which included his affairs with women, such as the painter Marie-Louise von Motesiczky and the novelist Iris Murdoch. In 1981, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, which helped propel his writing, which had, until then, primarily influenced alternative scholarship, to the literary mainstream. Elias Canetti died in 1994, at the age of 89. He is buried near James Joyce in a cemetery in Zurich, Switzerland. 

cover image self portrait of Marie-Louise von Motesiczky and Elias Canetti Copyright © Marie-Louise von Motesiczky Charitable Trust

Ido Vock is a student and writer. He tweets @idvck