I don’t think there’s any book I’ve been divided about so completely of late than Auto da Fé. (Well, ok, there was Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant – I’d forgotten about that – but let’s put that to one side for now). Parts of it are marvellous (he reminded me a lot of Dickens at times, the way he’d become carried away with his own clever linguistic ideas), but then parts of it are so tedious you don’t imagine it’s possible anyone has ever read them to their conclusion.
One of Canetti’s problems, it seems to me, is that his individual scenes go on and on and on. (There is a phrase for this, I believe: it’s “to labour the point”). This is fine if the scene is enjoyable (the long scene when Kien, his wife and the caretaker are arrested I found amusing); but becomes problematic otherwise (towards the end, for instance, when Kien is being held hostage in the caretaker’s room). The whole middle of the book – the section involving Fisherle – could pleasantly be excised. Nobody would miss it. One feels – considering what happens to end this episode – that maybe Canetti got sick of it too. With only seventy pages or so remaining, it took me several months to summon the fortitude to complete it, bogged down as I’d become in a certain section; but then once I’d got over it and found myself introduced suddenly to Kien’s brother, I found I could rush through the remainder in one session. It is that kind of book.
If you found, say, Onetti’s A Brief Life to be misogynistic, you’d probably best steer clear of Auto da Fé. There’s a passage towards the end, which goes on for about twenty pages, where our hero Kien demonstrates the evilness of women with examples taken from western European history (his usual subject is Eastern civilisation). This is really just the summation of Kien’s position throughout the text. OK, it’s easy enough to argue that it’s Kien who finds women hateful, rather than Canetti: he certainly has his reasons in the text – and perhaps you could justifiably claim he was rather misanthropic – but all the same, I imagine the relentlessness of it at times might get a little bit wearing.
Well, now that I’ve read this, I can go ahead and read the book I wanted to read, which was Canetti’s The Torch in My Ear – his autobiography of the time he spent writing this book. Canetti is at his best, I’ve found so far, on the subject of his own life.