“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and Nextbook.org’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!
Earlier this week, 106 years ago, Elias Canetti was born in Bulgaria. The writer would be rather peeved that you didn’t know that, such was his irritation at his enduring anonymity. “What seems to have mattered above all to Canetti in his early London years (and plenty of his later ones as well),” Jonathan Wilson wrote in 2005, “was the fact that nobody appeared to have any idea who he was.” Canetti, who fled Austria for London in 1938, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981, an accomplishment which still failed to cement his professional reputation.
Wilson described Canetti as an “odd-bod” who was driven by what he saw as the perpetual societal snubbing of “everybody’s favorite refugee, a Central European intellectual with an untested literary pedigree and a vague reputation for something or other.” Canetti struck back at his formidable list of foes, which apparently included Margaret Thatcher, Oxford arrogance (no word on commas), and T.S. Eliot, in Party in the Blitz: The English Years, the fourth addition to his memoirs, published one year before his 1994 death. It’s been available in English since only 2005, when Wilson hailed it as sharp, vivid, and utterly honest.
Canetti, who died at the age of 89, was a onetime neighbor of Sigmund Freud in Hampstead, England, though he wasn’t much interested in the psychoanalyst’s work or theories. Indeed, for all the recognition he craved, Canetti seemed to dismiss many of the London literary establishment’s conventions. “Canetti deserves close attention,” Wilson explained, “precisely because of the way that he bucks more or less all trends and resists most ‘isms.’”
Read The Odd-Bod, by Jonathan Wilson