It was over twenty years ago that I read Auto da Fé, Elias Canetti‘s masterpiece. A while after that I read one of the volumes of his autobiography, in which I discovered that he’d lived in West Didsbury for part of his early childhood. It seemed odd that a Nobel Laureate should have such a (to me) parochial aspect and he rumbled away in my mind, the presence continuing even after I’d moved away.
During one of several recent Foyle’s splurges (a counter-balance to commuting e-books habits of new) I saw Party in the Blitz, not having realised that he’d been an emigre in England for quite a time. Thus he adds to the layers of literary sheen attaching themselves to my view of London.
He died before finishing the book, which in part explains its chaos and waywardness. Clive James seems to have strongly disliked it for the negative impression it leaves of Canetti’s personality. While he is pitilessly critical and merciless, notably about Iris Murdoch and T S Eliot, he always seeks to explain his positions and embraces the fact that he’s adopting them, allowing that this has consequences. The book provides a startling depiction of literary and intellectual life in the 1940s. He seems either to have known or met most of the significant figures of the time. He is quite scornful of the English, while being grateful for some that breed’s most characteristic members.
Canetti clearly wanted to depict the English character and society, and the decline of both, using his own history as the substrate. It’s frequently splenetic and self-indulgent, wayward and contradictory. It’s also an invigorating ride through a restless mind, unafraid of its own faults and obsessions.