This extraordinary novel, first published in German in 1935, is a COMEDIE HUMAINE of madness. It tells the story of Peter Kien, a distinguished scholar in Germany between the wars. With masterly precision, Canetti build up the elements in Kien himself, and in his personal relationships, which will lead to his destruction. AUTO DA FE explores in fiction the theme of Canetti's other major - non -fiction work, CROWDS AND POWER: the relation of the individual to the mass, an issue especially relevant to any survey of fascism.
The story concerns the obsession of a recluse, apparently with a bit of Asperger syndrome, for his library, his library, and only his library - but that's like saying Kafka's "The Trial" is about a law case. This novel is like a lengthy masterpiece written by a madman on the back of matchbook covers with ink made from tobacco ashes and his own blood. Canetti's prose is very reminiscent of Kafka, clear, but mono-toned and monochromatic. Then again, I never finished "The Trial" either.
But I encountered some funny moments and one very brilliant and comedic image before I expired in the sand. The protagonist, in one of his flights of dementia, imagines he is a general preparing his army of books (his soldiers) for an onslaught by his malevolent hausfrau. So, in a sort of infantry phalanx tortoise defense, he turns all his thousands of books with their spines towards the wall. I found this outrageously funny, and imagined the effect if I did the same, and then invited a group of friends and acquaintances for a large housewarming. And if, by way of explanation to my bewildered and worried guests, I offered only his one word, which was "Kung!".
In short, I think everyone with a library should own this book if only to be aware of the dangers of bibliophilomania. Just as every fisherman after the "big one" should have a copy of "Jaws".
Canetti’s novel deals with the world that we all create in our minds, and how everything that happens – or should happen – is filtered through this world view. Taking this to its logical – and extreme – conclusion, Canetti’s protagonists are the central figures and righteous heroes of their worlds, in which all their actions are totally justifiable and moral, irrespective of the consequences of those actions, whether – as in the case of the central character, Peter Kien - they are self-destructive, or whether destructive of other people.
Peter Kien is an obsessive misanthrope who lives with and for books – primarily his own library of books on ancient Chinese literature, a subject on which - the reader is led to believe - he is the most eminent and acclaimed authority in the world. He loves books more than anything else, and - to the extent that other people impinge at all on him - he judges them purely on the basis of their relationship to books. Thus it is that, mistakenly interpreting the behavior of his housekeeper as evidence of a love and reverence for books – she wears gloves to dust them in order to keep her hands clean – he impulsively decides to marry her; this is the beginning of his downfall.
The housekeeper, Therese, is equally obsessed, but her obsession is money – her lack of it throughout the whole of her life. In her own eyes, she is a women of extraordinary virtue, which makes her lack of financial security even more unjustifiable. The symbol of her virtue is the long starched blue skirt that she always wears; for her new husband the skirt will become the symbol of all that is evil. The lack of affection shown to her by Kien – he expects nothing at all to change in their relationship; he had married her purely as a reward for her imagined esteem for books – soon leads Therese to see him as the major obstacle to her security. She begins to demand changes in their living arrangements – in the rooms that are “her’s” and in the furnishing of the apartment – which Kien, in order to escape her intrusions into his inner world, accedes to. Her goal in life becomes getting hold of his money; she skims the housekeeping money all the time and banks it, but that is not enough; she makes sure that she is named in his will, but – waiting for him to die is too remote a consummation - eventually resorts to physical violence in order to gain access to his bank account – all totally justifiable in her eyes.
Kien escapes from Therese physically – although, by this time, she has become an indelible part of his mental furniture – when she throws him out of his apartment. He starts living in hotel rooms, having taken his beloved library with him – in his head. Each night, he carefully “unloads” each volume and stacks it carefully with all the others on the floor on paper that he carries with him in his valise. He spends his days visiting book shops where he enquires about books that he already owns and which we – and the bookshop owners – understand that he is never going to buy. He had finally understood that Therese was after his money, and – in order to thwart her – he has emptied his bank account and carries the cash around with him.
Kien encounters a humpbacked dwarf, Fischerle, who lives on the fringes of the criminal underworld and who becomes his living companion and “servant”. Fischerle is obsessed with chess – he plays it all the time in his head against himself – and knows that – if only he can get to America – he will become the world chess champion. He sees in Kien his ticket to America, and devises a scam to exploit Kien’s obsession with books in order to get hold of his money. The dwarf had his hands on Kien’s money a number of times, and could have just stolen it, but – whether out of a warped sense of integrity or fear of getting entangled with the law – he has to do it “legitimately”. He recruits three of his acquaintances in order help him with his scheme. Thus we meet another group of characters each with their own obsessions; the newspaper seller who for some reason adores Fischerle and will do anything for him, even though he despises her; the beggar who poses as a blind man - and who hates buttons, because he has to maintain his disguise and thank people even when they put buttons instead of coins in his bowl - and who dreams of nothing but a world of women whom he can possess; the insomniac salesman who becomes convinced that Fischerle and Kien are dealing in drugs that will give him the sleep he craves. There are many other characters, whose inner worlds - and how these shape their actions - we get a glimpse of. We also see the joint delusions that groups of people and mobs can create, and how easily group think and group action can result from and be justified by very diverse individual delusions.
When Fischerle’s scheme – and Fischerle himself – comes to an end, Kien becomes convinced that Therese has starved to death, as a result of him locking her up in the apartment, but knows that at his trial for her murder he will be totally vindicated and found innocent. Even when she shows up, he refuses to believe that she is more than a figment of his imagination. Kien ends up in the custody of the caretaker of his apartment – a vile character for whom physical violence is both and end and a means – and who involves him in his obsession with spying on people.
Eventually, Peter’s brother George, who is a very successful gynacologist- turned-psychologist in Paris, gets to hears of his brother’s plight and comes to Vienna to help him. George too has his own obsessions; he admires the minds of insane people so much that he feels guilty when he successfully treats them. He rescues his brother from the clutches of the caretaker and via his skill at communicating with the insane, gets to understand that Therese is the root of Peter’s problems. George charms Therese - he became a psychologist to escape the attentions of women, who find him irresistible - out of his brother’s apartment; he reinstalls him there, arranges to support him financially, and returns to Paris, with a sense of satisfaction at having – for the first time in their lives – communicated with his brother, who is by now totally detached from reality.
The totality of the obsession of each protagonist leaves no room for any insight into the minds of others, making each of them vulnerable to becoming instruments of the others’ obsessions; Kien – serially - to Therese, the dwarf, the caretaker, and ultimately his brother; after throwing out her husband, Therese soon succumbs to the violence of the caretaker; the dwarf can only influence the world by the deviousness of his chessboard-honed wits, and eventually becomes a victim of the type of direct action that he is too small and weak to even think of using. Even George, who knows only how to be charming – whether it be with women or the insane – is a slave to both.
There is nothing redeeming in this novel; in vain you keep hoping for a “happy ending” or someone who seems to live in this world, rather than the one inside their head. It is a caricature – but not an unrealistic one - of what it is to be human. It is also a remarkable work of imagination.
the sort of style that could only be written once,cause afterwards every imitation of it will look like an embarrassing joke.
with it's bleak absurd humour and big,strong (though transparent) symbols on which Canetti manages to exlain the roots for the nazism ,it is written like an avant-garde Kafka to the mainstream.
still unique, it's a must.
Dr Peter Kien, leading the quiet, settled life of a bachelor bibliophile and amateur scholar of Asian languages, unwisely decides to prevent his reliable housekeeper Therese from leaving by marrying her, and as a result finds himself dragged down into a nightmareish low-life world that could have come straight out of Otto Dix or George Grosz. It's a savagely funny book, but also an incredibly bleak one, in which civilised, humanist values and selfish ambitions are trampled indiscriminately into the dirt by the brutish forces of human nature. The only person who seems to be able to pass through the global shitstorm unscathed is Kien's brother, a clinical psychiatrist who is so insulated from reality in his lunatic asylum that he never really perceives the full horror of what is going on around him.
When people finally started to take notice of this book, thirty or forty years after it was written, it's obvious why it caught their attention: Canetti's view of Europe in the early thirties leaves us in no doubt that there is something seriously bad on the way, and with hindsight we can only see it as prescient. But it seems to be more than a book about one particular historical mooment: despite the bleakness, despite the folly of both Kien brothers' attempts to escape from the world into their intellectual pursuits, Canetti is evidently writing from a humanist perspective - rather like Kafka, he wants to show us the importance of our values by showing us what happens when we lose them.
Worth reading, but a very emotionally draining book - especially for those of us who happen to own large libraries. Canetti meant it to be "merciless towards both the writer and the reader", and I think he achieved that...
But then I haven't won a Nobel Prize for Literature, have I.
1935 is the middle of the depression years and the rise of Hitler. Canetti, born in Bulgaria, moved to England in 1938 to avoid Nazi persecution and became a British citizen in 1952. His ancestors were Sephardi Jews. The author also won the Nobel prize for literature in 1981.
Politically leaning towards the left, he was present at the July Revolt of 1927 – he came near to the action accidentally, was most impressed by the burning of books (recalled frequently in his writings), and left the place quickly with his bicycle. He gained a degree in chemistry from the University of Vienna in 1929, but never worked as a chemist.
I add all of the above because I think it is important in thinking about this book. Canetti is writing about obsessions, mob action, and group think. This work was his only novel.
Part I (a head without a world) was mostly engaging. I did not necessarily like our protagonist Peter Kien, but I did love the idea of living in a library but he was a bit of an egoist from the start. This first part tells how a man living in his head, interpreting things according to his own interest makes some disastrous decisions that literally ruin the man. At this part of the book, I am engaged in wanting the man to see the danger and escape and save his library.
Part II, (Headless world) the man escapes the disaster and so to speak, jumps from the fire pan into the fire. He goes to a dive called stars of heaven. Our narrator becomes a victim of a crooked dwarf who continues the abuse of the wife that the man recently escaped. The dwarf has his own obsessions and that is to be a world champion chess player in America. In the end of this section, the button serves the dwarf right.
Part III, (The World in the Head). In this section; the brother of Peter, the psychologist, comes to be the hero to rescue his brother and return all back to normal which is what this reader wanted but knew that this would not be how it ended.
I grew weary of reading this absurdist, modernistic work by the third part and wished that the author would have taken a lesson from Beckett and spare the reader by writing less words. But then Beckett wrote later than our author so maybe Beckett took a lesson from Canetti. But I was pulled out of the morass by the section on the evils of women through mythology and history. This book could be attached for its misogynist bent, it's feel of antisemitism, its use of cripples, hunchbacks, and dwarfs. That is why I needed to think about this book from the time period it was written. I needed to know that the author was actually a bit of a ladies man, that he had Jewish roots, and that he had experienced the burning of books in the revolt of 1927. I actually found the section about the women through history to be quite interesting.
pg 57 "Every human creature needed a home, not as home of the kind understood by crude knock-you-down patriots, not a religion either, a mere insipid foretaste of a heavenly home: no, a real home, in which space, work, friends, recreation, and the scope of man's ideas came together into an orderly whole, into--so to speak--a personal cosmos."
Pg 396 "madness, he said with great emphasis, and looked at his wife with penetrating and accusing gaze (she blushed), madness is the disease which attacks those very people who think only of themselves.
pg 416 "He loved his library so dearly; it was his substitute for human beings."
Themes/symbols; themes of obsession, blindness, fire. mussel shell, blue
This is an extremely strange work, and though I was intrigued by the storyline and the writing, by the time we start part 2 it's moving beyond strange to Kafkaesque.
Peter Kien is obsessed with his vast book collection and the pursuit of knowledge. An eminent sinologist, he eschews the world of academia and lives alone, poring over his tomes. His books are constantly dusted and even addressed as if they're people. The only person who shares his world is housekeeper Therese. Ugly, poor, money-hungry and small-minded, but Kien sees some imaginary quality in her - a carer for his books - and marries her.
I liked how Canetti brings her alive by describing her thoughts in the trite, repetitive, meaningless phrases that characterize her:
"If she sees anything she knows how to make use of it. She doesn't see many things. She hasn't ever been outside the town, She's not one for excursions, a waste of good money. You don't catch her going bathing, it's not respectable. She doesn't care for travelling, you never know where you are. If she didn't have to go shopping, she'd prefer to stay in all day. They all try to do you down. Prices going up all the time, things aren't the same any more."
But as married life becomes monstrous and Kien is forced to consort with a hunch-backed chess expert at a lowly hostelry, it all got a bit too surreal and I gave up...