I’ve been somewhat obsessed by the work of Elias Canetti of late. I’ve written a little about his book Crowds & Power already, but have not said too much about his novel, Auto-da-Fé. Let me remedy that now.
Written in Vienna in 1935, Auto-da-Fé feels dated, other-worldly even, but not in a necessarily bad way. Perhaps it is best instead to say it feels like a fable, for that is what it effectively comes out as being. That is to say, it is a modernist fable: a skewering and embodying of high modernist sentiment. The novel’s protagonist, Peter Kien, the world’s leading sinologist and owner of a massive library subject to much envy and object of pride, fits the prototype of most modernist literature. For every action he takes–be it his writing of erudite papers on Confucius and Aristotle, his foolhardy marriage to his greedy housekeeper, “rescuing” books from their doom at the hands (& stomach) of an unseen pawnbroker, and even his incendiary actions in the novel’s climax–is more than offset by actions taken upon by him. Most notably is the physical and mental abuse Kien suffers throughout the novel. Indeed, each of the three acts–“A Head Without a World,” “Headless World,” & “The World in the Head”–highlights at least one new mode of assault & degradation. Read the rest of this entry »