Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 21, 2010

Auto-da-Fé (1935), by Elias Canetti, translated by C.V. Wedgewood

Auto da Fe This book is bizarre.  It’s like a Grimm’s fairy tale with insane characters, or a cautionary tale with a moral that’s not a moral because it’s so nihilistic.  This, Canetti seems to be saying, is what happens if an intellectual dissociates from the real world and hears no voice other than his own.  He becomes dogmatic and he falls victim to the venality of the ignorant.  It’s sobering reading.

Elias Canetti was a Bulgarian-born Jew who spent most of his childhood in Germany and wrote in German, though he spent part of his life in England because of the Nazis (who banned his books).  He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981 although Auto-da-fé (1935) is his only novel.  It’s on many to-read shelves at Good Reads and has provoked both enthusiastic reviews and dismissive comments, (the latter mostly from people who failed to finish it).

Set in Vienna and Paris, the story begins with a chance meeting between Professor Kien and a clever little boy.  The boy has inadvertently stood between Kien and his view of the books in a bookshop.  The professor goes for walks early in the morning before the bookshops open so that he won’t be tempted to buy any more – he already has a library of 25,000 books and anyway, the books in the bookshops are inferior and not worthy of him.

He himself was the owner of the most important private library in the whole of this great city. He carried a minute portion of it with him wherever he went. His passion for it, the only one which he had permitted himself during a life of austere and exacting study, moved him to take special precautions. Books, even bad ones, tempted him easily into making a purchase. Fortunately, the great number of the book shops did not open until after eight o’clock. (p11)

But still, he’s not happy to have his view obstructed.

It turns out that the little fellow loves books too, and is equally intrigued by sinology.  (The professor is a renowned expert on all things Chinese).   The boy recognises a Chinese script even though he’s never seen it before.  He may even be the professor himself when he was a child – this book is kind of Kafkaesque and it’s hard to tell, but this chapter continues by recounting an episode from the professor’s childhood where he hides in a bookshop overnight – just so that he can be with the books.   So we know from the start that he’s a bit odd…

Chapter 2 introduces the housekeeper, a sturdy peasant type of fixed opinions and her eye on the main chance.  Therese, (the blurb tells us so this is no spoiler), marries the professor and brings about his doom.  It is her job to dust his shelves every day, each book individually, working her way through them so that she starts again every four days.  She’s convinced he’s barmy and during his morning walk makes a methodical search for a concealed body or some clue to his madness hidden behind the books…


After the wedding, a most perfunctory affair, Therese begins to take charge,  and before long she has manipulated him into buying new furniture and has pocketed half the money that he gave her to do it.  He begins to feel her intrusion more and more; he married her to protect his books in case something happened to him but naïvely he didn’t anticipate that she might be expecting more ‘husbandly’ sorts of behaviour.  She, on the other hand, has married him for financial security – and she’s not best pleased when he finally comes round to making a Will and she discovers that he’s spent nearly all his inheritance on the library.  When at the conclusion of Part 1 they both realise the truth about each other, there is violence.

In Part 2, Therese succeeds in throwing him out of his flat and Kien becomes homeless.   The narrative thread is harder to follow here because Canetti uses dreams and hallucinations to create a ghastly underworld.  Kien enters a bar called The Stars of Heaven in a red-light district and there he meets a chess-playing hump-backed dwarf called Fischerle.    (I really don’t like the way dwarves, or ‘little people’ as many prefer to be known, are stereotyped in literature.  Ever since I read Swords and Crowns and Rings by Ruth Park I feel angry on their behalf when I come across it.)

Anyway, Kien offers Fischerle a job cataloguing his library, a library that now exists only in his head.   He is, you see, determined to continue writing his thesis and he needs his books to do it, so he visits all the bookshops to issue the bemused owner with lists of the books he wants.  Alas, he has nowhere to put them because he’s sleeping in a different hotel each night.  His solution is to keep his books in his head.

In his single room he strews paper everywhere so that ‘the [imaginary]  books on the floor don’t get dirty’,  and there is a bizarre moment when he takes some of the books out of his head and passes them to Fischerle who plays along because (like the housekeeper before him) he thinks the gent has more money from which he can be parted.  At one stage Fischerle can’t resist the comic possibilities of warning Kien not to blow his nose in case all the books in his head come out, and ‘the state they’d be in, I don’t need to tell you! (p249)’

A con man by instinct, Fischerle makes some of his money by buying and selling pawned goods, and he and Kien go to a pawn shop together because neither trusts the other out of his sight.  This gives the narrator the opportunity to rail against the practice of keeping pawned books at risk of fire in the upper stories of the building while indestructible precious stones are stored with great care below.  Kien is horrified by this perilous state of affairs, and pays a student the purchase price of his Schiller collection to take it away again, thereby ‘saving’ the books. From then on Kien stations himself at the pawn shop doorway to preclude further depredations: he pays for the books of anyone who comes to pawn them and sends the would-be seller away with both the books and a lecture about caring for them properly.

The relationship between Fischerle and Kien is the same type of life-and-death struggle for supremacy as it is between Therese and Kien.  Kien paid Fischerle a reward for finding his wallet in the red-light district but regrets it and distrusts him.  His judgement is once again flawed: he thinks that Fischerle admires and respects him and he believes that he is in control of the situation.  Fischerle, like Therese, is out for what he can get and is street-smart. It doesn’t take him long to gather up some pals and some fake parcels of cheap books so that Kien ‘rescues’ those books from being pawned and the pals share the proceeds with Fischerle. Naturally, Fischerle is cheating his ‘staff’ too.

There’s an unexpected twist when Fischerle arranges for Kien to be told that Therese is dead.  He doesn’t go back to the flat to be with his books as you’d expect –  because of his mission to save books from the pawnbroker.   Imagine his shock when Therese turns up at the pawnbroker’s to sell a pile of his books!  (Should I have predicted this because the pawn shop is called The Theresianum?)

She’s been busy.  She’s searched the flat from top to bottom for Kien’s bankbook without success.  She’s tested out her erotic fantasy involving the salesman who sold her the bedroom furniture.   (No one other in this story than the caretaker’s daughter is honest with anyone else; everyone has an ulterior motive and his is to flatter her into further purchases so she thinks he fancies her).  She lucks out with him but forms an alliance with the caretaker Benedikt Pfaff at the flat instead, and there’s pandemonium when they meet up with Kien at the pawnbroker’s and Pfaff’s loyalty shifts back to his old employer.  One way and another they all get arrested, except for Fischerle (who makes off with most of the money but comes to a bad end anyway).

The scene at the police station is a farce.  The cops are a bunch of incompetent egomaniacs, and no one seems to have noticed that Kien has lost his wits.  Convinced that Therese is dead – and that he is responsible for her death since he locked her in the flat where he thinks she starved – Kien begs to be released from his hallucination that she is there beside him (which she is).  Pfaff, molester of his own child, thinks that the police want to question him about the unexplained death of his daughter, and Therese of course wants Kien charged with the theft of his own money.  Kien makes a long speech, most of which makes no sense, and finally they let him go in the custody of Pfaff, who takes him back to his flat (on the ground floor of the apartment block where Kien lived, and where Therese is still in residence above.)

While most of the book is written in a sardonic style, the story of the caretaker’s daughter is written with compassion.  Anna/Polly is a pitiful victim with no resources to defend herself against her father’s violence and corruption.  All the other women are vulgar and venal, but she submits to daily violence and sexual abuse because she is his prisoner.  It is quite awful to read, especially in the light of some high profile true stories of this evil happening in Europe and elsewhere.

There is a brief moment of hope when Kien’s brother George at last responds to the telegram Kien had sent him but he turns out to be almost as nutty as his brother.  (His speeches are certainly equally long).  His departure signals Kien’s final disintegration for, at the moment when he is finally restored to his library, hallucinations overcome him altogether and he sets fire to the books.  The book ends with his laughter as the inferno approaches.

According to The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature, Canetti originally planned to write this book as a series of eight novels  ‘examining mad visionaries’, and it seems to me that it can’t be any coincidence that the writing coincided with the rise of Nazism in Germany and the book-burning that came with it.  It’s a warning against the idea that ‘rigid, dissociated intellectualism and detached, dogmatic scholarship can prevail over evil, chaos, and destruction‘.  As intellectuals in Nazi Germany found out, brute force, ignorance and blind prejudice can transcend all forms of intellectual endeavour, just as foretold in this book, and Kien represents those who wilfully ignored the rise of Nazism instead of speaking out against it while there was still time to make a difference.

There are some illuminating reviews on Amazon (as well as the usual rubbish).  I was obscurely pleased to see that someone else was reminded of Grimm’s Fairy Tales!  For a really good concise analysis, see dylanwolf’s review on Library Thing.

Now, lest you think that reading this book has put me off the glorious state of librophilia, I urge you to visit this site, which showcases libraries of the world, of which this one is a fair sample.  (Alas, I did not know about this library when I was in Austria in 2001, and could have gone to see it. )

It’s included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Author:  Elias Canetti
Title: Auto-da-fé (Die Blendung)
Translator: C.V.Wedgewood
Publisher: Farrer, Strauss & Giroux, paperback, 1984
ISBN: 9780374518790
Source: Personal library

Fishpond: Auto da Fe


  1. I ve been meaning to read some canetti work at some point ,and from the review he seems to have been a influence on the book I am currently reading a modern collection of short stories by a bulgarian writer ,it seems beded in the folk tales and myths of central europe too like this and grimms are as well ,all the best stu


  2. Hi Stu, one of the things I’m trying to do this year is to patch the gaps in my knowledge of world literature, and German literature is one that I don’t know much about. This year I’ve read Thomas Mann and now Canetti, next I want to tackle Goethe. And you’re right, at some point, I need to revisit the old European myths and folk tales because I think they’re definitely an influence.


  3. Auto-de-fe is great, but I think Canetti’s best writing is his memoirs, of which there are several volumes.

    Also, on the topic of German literature (or, in this case, Austrian), Thomas Bernhard is one of the great authors of the German language, in my opinion…


  4. WHH, I am so glad you commented on this because now I have discovered your blog! I am about to dash off to my first sessions at the Melbourne Writers Festival so I don’t have time to explore it right now, but I have subscribed and will certainly be checking out those posts about Kafka and Nabokov etc – what a wonderful resource to help me and any others who are interested in the great writers of European literature!
    PS Which Bernhard should I start with?


  5. Enjoyed your review of the Canetti. I think there’s something important about that first scene with the boy I haven’t quite been able to nail down. Thanks for putting me onto it. I’ve begun a serial post about it over at my blog.

    It’s impossible to do a responsible job of reviewing without spoilers.


    • Hello, Jim, and thanks for taking the time to comment:)
      I agree about that scene being enigmatic, I’ll be interested to see what you come up with in your next post about the book.
      Too true about spoilers – I went through a phase of just journalling my reading here on the blog but gave up and went back to keeping a separate reading journal because there are responses too personal to share, and sometimes – even with a warning – there are plot points that would wreck the reading for others.


  6. I’ve never heard of this one but it sounds just up my street.


  7. I recently read this and just reviewed it on my blog. I immensely enjoyed it. It’s great novel. Your expose is very helpful. thanks for sharing.


    • Hello Nana, and thanks for your kind words. I checked your review out too, and *blush* I realise now how much more there is to this magnificent work.


  8. Thank you for de-mystifying this book. There is an excerpt from it in the book “Vienna: A Traveler’s Literary Companion” and it does not stand well on its own. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.


  9. […] Voilá! Professor Kien from Auto-da-Fé, by Elias Canetti, translated by C.V. Wedgewood. […]


  10. This is a very important book and I am glad it is read and reviewed and thought about…
    For me the main point is not the failure of the intellectual – Peter Kien (who is on the same level of absurd stereotype-parody as the other characters – the level of caricature is so high and unpleasant I’d even dare to say they are meant to force the reader to actively analyse one’s feelings about all of them), but the failure of reason itself, personified by Peter’s brother Georg: it is he who fails miserably to recognize the depth of madness at play; he is blinded by the arrogance of his own clear thinking and as a result underestimates the situation completely.
    Yes, the book is terrifying.
    The characters in the novels of the already mentioned Thomas Bernhard owe much to Canetti, I thing there is a clear connection between this novel and Bernhard’s work.


    • Thank you Zeter…
      I’ve read a little of Thomas Bernhard, but I’ve never made the connection between them. I shall remember what you have written next time I read something by Bernhard.
      Would you say then, that this book is part of a post-Holocaust reckoning with a failure of reason?


      • Well, maybe, to some extent, ex post – one has to keep in mind the manuscript was finished in 1931/32 and the book was published in 1935. It was written in difficult times, a lot was in the air. It seems to me Holocaust/WWII is somehow contained “within” the book rather than it should be taken as a frame of reference “for” the book. The book gives context to the war, not the war to the book, if that makes sense…

        I see you have already read Concrete and Correction, so I would probably recommend The Lime Works and his opus magnum, Extinction (his last book, and a long one, too, but a perfect sum of the whole body of work)… but with Bernhard one can enjoy the rare freedom of choice: I have read almost all his novels and there is not a single one not worth reading…


        • Thanks for your advice, Zeter, I do have Frost on the TBR so I should read that one first.


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