Auto da Fé, by Elias Canetti

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.

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9 thoughts on “Auto da Fé, by Elias Canetti

  1. Since I was the only “readalonger” who found Onetti misogynistic I’m the only one who has to steer clear, right?
    I read a newspaper article not to long ago about Canetti and he seesm to have been a very problematic and misogynistic person. Not sure where I read it Berliner Zeitung, I suppose.

  2. I thought probably Onetti is quite misogynistic (I haven’t, after all, expressed my opinion – or even got near to finishing – the book yet); although in fact, I think, from the 3 Onettis I’ve read so far, the character of Gertrudis is probably the most sympathetic of his female characters.

    I think we can safely then put aside this popular notion that a differentiation should be made between narrator and author when it comes to misogyny, since it clearly seems not the case. In fact, let’s go so far as to say that, in general, authors have narrators whose opinions are much the same as their own.

    Anyway, shall report back on Canetti’s autobiography on this point. I seem to remember he has a relationship with a woman during the course of writing Auto da Fé, so we can see how life has transferred across.

  3. I read somewhere that he treated Iris Murdoch – I think they had a romantic interlude – very badly. Her books tend to go on a bit as well. I don’t suppose that was the source of their attraction to each other, though.

  4. I used to think that I wanted to read this, but I’m probably now decided that I don’t.

    If I’m remembering correctly, I read a review of his autobio (or one volume thereof) that had fun with the fact that a writer of such high-minded and difficult novels was also a stunningly bitchy gossip.

  5. My copy of Auto da Fe has a quote from Iris Murdoch, “one of the few great novels of the century”. I imagine this was said in happier times.

    The gossipy book is undoubtably Party in the Blitz. I’ve read it but don’t remember so much about it, except that he despised most of the British literary scene.

  6. That rings a bell alright.

    The quality of on and on and on is not a welcome one. I’m starting to encounter that in my first excursion into longer Bolano. “Summoning the fortitude” about sums up where I’m at.

  7. Yes, Bolano is a bit like that, which is perhaps why I gave that. I am currently reading the master of on and on and on – Franz Kafka.

  8. Thanks to Obooki, I just read my first Bolano, Monsieur Pain, which I rather liked. A touch of Kafka there, perhaps, though short enough not to be irritating. I can only handle a limited amount of mystification.

  9. Yes, I remember once upon a time being a great cheerleader for Bolaño. That was, of course – in typical Obooki fashion – before I’d read any of his books. I’ve not read Monsieur Pain, but his short novels in general are ok. “Limited amount of mystification” seems right.

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