The best part of translation is what is lost.
Elias Canetti hated prologues. When Viennese writer Stefan Zweig suggested he speak to James Joyce in the hopes that Joyce might write a preface to his novel Auto-da-Fé, Canetti responded:
“I would not request a prologue of anyone. The book must be read for itself, it does not need crutches.”
His body of work is vast and wide-ranging. His prose is versatile. Among his creations we find dramas, notes, aphorisms, travel logs, novels, and essays—the genre of Montaigne was the one he mastered the best.
The Swedish Academy granted him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981 for having displayed through his work “a broad vision, a wealth of ideas and artistic power.” That year’s nominees for the highest honor in letters formed a trifecta worth its weight in gold: Canetti, Borges, and García Márquez, who would win the Nobel the following year.
Canetti is an essential writer: an author who went from being the conscience of Mitteleuropa to becoming the conscience of humanity. At the same time, while it may seem contradictory, he was also known to be a renowned hater.
He was so cosmopolitan that it is impossible to assign him a specific nationality. He was born on July 25, 1905 in Ruschuk, Bulgaria to a family of Sephardic Jews with distant Spanish roots. In his first autobiographical novel, The Tongue Set Free, Canetti describes the diversity of his native city:
Ruschuk, on the lower Danube, where I came into the world, was a marvelous city for a child, and if I say that Ruschuk is in Bulgaria, then I am giving an inadequate picture of it. For people of the most varied backgrounds lived there, on any one day you could hear seven or eight languages. Aside from the Bulgarians, who often came from the countryside, there were many Turks, who lived in their own neighborhood, and next to it was the neighborhood of the Sephardim, the Spanish Jews—our neighborhood. There were Greeks, Albanians, Armenians, Gypsies. From the opposite side of the Danube came Rumanians; my wetnurse, whom I no longer remember, was Rumanian. There were also Russians here and there. (The Tongue Set Free, p. 8)
Although he spent time living in half of Europe, two cities truly captured his heart: Zurich and Vienna. In the first he earned his undergraduate degree, and in the second his doctorate in chemistry, only to please his mother. During his childhood he lived in Manchester, a city he remembered with sadness, as he lost his father there. The Tongue Set Free was an attempt to bind Europe together through the tale of his youth. Human beings are children not of the land where they are born, but of the culture in which their lives unfold.
Canetti spoke Ladino, the language of the Sephardim, a version of old Spanish. He learned Bulgarian in his childhood, only to soon forget it for lack of use. He mastered English, French, and German, the language he used to build his literary legacy.
He loved his father to the point of veneration. Sadly, death took him when his son was very young, just seven years old. This is why Canetti fell in love with German. It was his way of keeping his father’s memory alive—his father spoke German with his mother at intimate moments. To save German was to save his memory. To save a language is to save its customs and its culture. In short, to save a language is to save a life.
Canetti taught us the incalculable value of listening to the other. The central axis of his work turns on his ability to hear and his fascination with spoken language. While he was a hermetic and reserved man, he loved to spend hours and hours in the taverns and cafés of Vienna, listening to people’s voices. He wrote a chronicle of a journey to Morocco titled The Voices of Marrakesh, in which he tells how he would go to market squares to hear the beggars, not knowing a word of either Arabic or Berber.
“Respect for others begins with not ignoring their words,” Elias declared in The Torch in my Ear, his second autobiography. Words are the light of the ear. What would this author think if he had lived in the age of social media, when words have become bullets?
Canetti seems to describe himself in a text called “The Earwitness,” published in 1974:
The earwitness makes no effort to look, but he hears all the better. He comes, halts, huddles unnoticed in a corner, peers into a book or a display, hears whatever is to be heard, and moves away untouched and absent. One would think he was not there for he is such an expert at vanishing. He is already somewhere else, he is already listening again, he knows all the places where there is something to be heard, stows it nicely away, and forgets nothing.
He forgets nothing, one has to watch the earwitness when it is time for him to come out with everything. […] He does nothing else, he says it very precisely, some people wish they had held their tongues. All those modern gadgets are superfluous: his ear is better and more faithful than any gadget, nothing is erased, nothing is blocked, no matter how bad it is, lies, curses, four-letter words, all kinds of indecencies, invectives from remote and little-known languages, he accurately registers even things he does not understand and delivers them unaltered if people wish him to do so.
The earwitness cannot be corrupted by anybody. When it comes to this useful gift, which he alone has, he would take no heed of wife, child, or brother. Whatever he has heard, he has heard, and even the Good Lord is helpless to change it. (The Earwitness, pp. 43-44)
The earwitness takes part in the world through the words he hears. To listen is to know that life exists. This obsession with speech led Canetti to coin the term acoustic masks to refer to the set of characteristics that make up the outer form of people’s words: their pitch, tone, and velocity, the way they separate phrases, their pet words, etc.
The paradox to all this is that he never let himself be swayed into journalism, not even as a columnist. Nor did he grant interviews after winning the Nobel. “Those who knew him say he was not a man who allowed himself to be made uncomfortable. Short in stature, with thick hair and an intense gaze, Canetti knew how to demand respect, and he didn’t like people to get too close,” wrote Belén Couceiro, reporter for Swissinfo Channel.
It has always been said that the only subject worthy of literature is human suffering. Nothing could be further from the truth. Canetti was a child pampered by life. He was born into a family of appreciable means. Both his father and his mother had careers in business. He never wanted for anything. This did not keep him from becoming a prolific writer. “One does not choose where one is born. One does not choose one’s homeland, nor one’s culture, nor one’s socioeconomic stratum. One is simply born,” says José Guillermo Ánjel, professor of philosophy and an avid reader of Canetti.
Jacques, Canetti’s father, was known to spoil him with books:
A few months after I started school, a thing solemn and exciting happened, which determined my entire life after that. Father brought home a book for me. He took me alone into a back room, where we children slept, and explained it to me. It was The Arabian Nights, in an edition for children. There was a colorful picture on the cover, I think it was Aladdin and his magic lamp. My father spoke very earnestly and encouragingly to me and told me how nice it would be to read. He read me a story, saying that all the other stories in the book were as lovely as this one, and that I should try to read them and then in the evening always tell him what I had read. Once I’d finished the book, he’d bring me another. I didn’t have to be told twice, and even though I had only just learned how to read in school, I pitched right into the wondrous book and had something to report to him every evening. He kept his promise, there was always a new book there; I never had to skip a single day of reading. (The Tongue Set Free, pp. 57-58)
This was the starting point for the literary vocation that would go with him until the end of his life, and that reached its greatest heights of excellence when he wrote Crowds and Power, one of the finest essays of the twentieth century. This work warns us of the danger of authoritarianism and helps us to understand the behavior of multitudes. Crowds and Power, like all masterpieces, is many things at once, but it is, in essence, a book that shows how dangerous mankind can become.
Canetti knew the butchery of the two world wars firsthand, and, as a Jew, he was forced to leave his beloved Vienna behind. In his third autobiographical novel, The Play of the Eyes, he writes, “there is no such thing as a good war, since every war perpetuates the most evil and dangerous of human traditions.” I cannot help but agree. Every hero on the battlefield, no matter what side they may be on, is a criminal in civilian life. War is nothing more than scorn for life writ large.
While many German-speaking Jewish authors refused to continue writing in this language as a sign of their revulsion towards the atrocities of Nazism, Canetti made a nobler and more intelligent decision. He never gave up the German language, and he showed the compatriots of death that, while they might exterminate Jews on a massive scale in their concentration camps, they would never erase Jews from their libraries.
Death, which he hated so much, came to his bedside while he slept on the night of August 14, 1994. He was 89 years old. The scythe fell with no prior pain or illness. Nonetheless, Thanatos was not kind to him; he was not allowed to complete his Book Against Death, of which only a few notes are extant. His remains lie in Fluntern Cemetery in Zurich where, thanks to life’s coincidences, the great Irish novelist James Joyce is buried too.