Elias Canetti

Elias Canetti
(1905 - 1994)

Bulgarian novelist and playwright whose works explore the emotions of crowds, the psychopathology of power, and the position of the individual at odds with the society around him. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981.
Canetti was descended from Spanish Sephardic Jews. He wrote in German, his third language, his first two being Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and English. He learned the latter when his parents settled in England. After his father's death in 1913, he moved with his mother to Vienna. He was educated in Zurich, Frankfurt, and Vienna, receiving a doctorate in chemistry at the University of Vienna in 1929.

Canetti's interest in crowds crystallized from the witnessing of street rioting over inflation that he saw in Frankfurt in the 1920s, which culminated in 1927 with the burning of the Vienna Palace of Justice by an angry mob. A planned eight-novel saga of the madness he saw around him was reduced to Die Blendung (1935; Auto-da-Fe, or The Tower of Babel). It tells the story of a scholar's degradation and destruction in the grotesque underworld of a city.

Shortly before World War II, Canetti immigrated to England and put aside literature to devote his time to research on mass psychology and the allure of fascism. The book-essay Masse und Macht (1960; Crowds and Power) is an outgrowth of that compelling interest, which is also evident in Canetti's three plays, Hochzeit (1932; The Wedding), Komodie der Eitelkeit (1950; Comedy of Vanity), and Die Befristeten (1964; Life-Terms). The first two were first performed in Braunschweig, W.Ger., in 1965 and the third in Oxford, Eng., in 1956. They were published as Dramen in 1964.

In addition to novels and plays, Canetti also published Die Provinz des Menschen: Aufzeichnungen 1942-1972 (1973; The Human Province) and Das Geheimherz der Uhr: Aufzeifnungen 1973-1985 (1987; The Secret Heart of the Clock), both excerpts from his notebooks; Der Ohrenzeuge: Funfzig Charaktere (1974; Earwitness: Fifty Characters), a book of character sketches; and three volumes of his autobiography, Die gerettete Zunge (1977; The Tongue Set Free), Die Fackel im Ohr (1980; The Torch in the Ear), and Das Augenspiel (1985; The Play of the Eyes).

Canetti's life and works are discussed in Richard H. Lawson, Understanding Elias Canetti (1991), an advanced study; and Thomas H. Falk, Elias Canetti (1993), an introduction.

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