Party In The Blitz: The English Years

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

"He knew everyone. And everyone knew him. This is all the more remarkable since initially he did not owe his reputation to his publications, but rather to the force of his personality. As he laments in this memoir, when he arrived there was not a soul in England--with the single exception of Arthur Waley--who knew his writing. No doubt the complaint smacks of vanity. But Canetti uses his personal perspective to make a point about English society."
Jeremy Adler's comment is from his Afterword to PARTY IN THE BLITZ: THE ENGLISH YEARS, the fourth volume of Elias Canetti's memoirs. Canetti, the Bulgarian-born author of the novel Auto-Da-Fe and the psychological study Crowds and Power, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981. He had moved to England in 1939 and settled in Hampstead, along with many other European intellectuals fleeing Hitler, including playwright Ernst Toller and painter Oskar Kokoschka.
Canetti wrote the first draft of PARTY IN THE BLITZ in 1990, after having left England for Switzerland (where he died in 1994). His look back at his London years is anything but serene and benevolent. On the contrary, the author wields a pen dipped in bile. After praising England for its love of freedom and fairness--and especially for the way it stood up to Hitler, giving "to the world the best of itself"--Canetti rips into the country for the way it betrayed its history and values in the post-war Thatcherite years.
"Thatcher is a respecter of the existing structures, but the top one, the one to aspire to, is that of wealth. It starts there--the nauseating indifference of wealth, that, as a parvenu, she has in her blood," he writes scornfully.
Another of his enemies is T.S. Eliot: "I can't form the letters of his name without needing to inveigh against the man."
Canetti denounces the poet as "a miserable creature who kowtows to any order that's sufficiently venerable; tries to stifle any elan; a libertine of the void, a foothill of Hegel, a desecrator of Dante (to which Circle would Dante have banished him?); thin-lipped, cold-hearted, prematurely old, unworthy of Blake or of Goethe or of anything volcanic--his own lava cooled before it ever warmed...armed with critical points instead of teeth, tormented by a nymphomaniac of a wife--that was his only excuse--tormented to such a degree that my Auto da Fe would have shrivelled up if he had gone near it."
Canetti, "the godmonster of Hampstead," as the critic John Bayley called him, was equally contemptuous of the novelist Iris Murdoch. Married to Bayley, she was one of Canetti's many mistresses. "I don't think there is anything that leaves me so cold as that woman's intellect. She is a passionate schoolgirl, of the kind that likes nothing better than studying systems...And then she's the schoolmarm who likes to explain these systems."
Canetti didn't even like the way Murdoch made love. "She lay unmoving and unchanged, I barely felt myself enter her. I didn't sense that she felt anything, perhaps I might have felt something if she had resisted in some form. But that was as much out of the question as any pleasure."
Canetti's memoir is noteworthy for its ferocious honesty and bleak humor. (New Directions Paperbook, $13.95)