Friday 28 July 2023

Canetti, Elias "Auto-da-Fé"

Canetti, Elias "Auto-da-Fé" (German: Die Blendung) - 1935

For the The Classics Spin #34, we were given #13, and this was my novel.

What a book! Did I like it? Hm, hard to tell. It is described as grotesk, obscure, weird, … And weird it is.

The book tells the story of Peter Kien, a sinologist and philologist who lives very reclusively in his apartment with his books. He marries his housekeeper but he slides more and more into madness.

Peter's brother Georg is a famous psychologist in Paris. Alerted by one of Peter's acquaintances, he comes to Vienna in order to help but, alas, is not successful.

This is a very complex book that cannot possibly be explained in a few words. Its a book of obsession and criticism, of society at the time but also a warning about what was to come. After all, this was two years after the nazis gained power in Germany and many people, like the author, feared for the future. And they were right, as it turned out.

The meaning of the English title is explained in Wikipedia:
An auto-da-fé (/ˌɔːtoʊdəˈfeɪ, ˌaʊt-/ AW-toh-də-FAY, OW-; from Portuguese auto da fé [ˈawtu ðɐ ˈfɛ], meaning 'act of faith'; Spanish: auto de fe [ˈawto ðe ˈfe]) was the ritual of public penance carried out between the 15th and 19th centuries of condemned heretics and apostates imposed by the Spanish, Portuguese, or Mexican Inquisition as punishment and enforced by civil authorities. Its most extreme form was death by burning.

The book was first published in English with the title "The Tower of Babel".
The translation of the original titel "Die Blendung" would be translated into "Blinding as a punishment", "Glare", "Deception", or even in the sense of "Verblendung" as "Infatuation". All these words could be used as the title of the book. In the German book description, it is said that "like Joyce's 'Ulysses', 'The Blinding' is a powerful metaphor for the lonely reflective mind's confrontation with reality." Sounds correct to me.

Book Description:

"'Auto-da-Fé' is the story of Peter Kien, a distinguished, reclusive sinologist living in Vienna between the wars. With masterly precision, Canetti reveals Kien's character, displaying the flawed personal relationships which ultimately lead to his destruction.

Manipulated by his illiterate and grasping housekeeper, Therese, who has tricked him into marriage, and Benedikt Pfaff, a brutish concierge, Kien is forced out of his apartment - which houses his great library and one true passion - and into the underworld of the city. In this purgatory he is guided by a chess-playing dwarf of evil propensities, until he is eventually restored to his home. But on his return he is visited by his brother, an eminent psychiatrist who, by an error of diagnosis, precipitates the final crisis...

Auto-da-Fé' was first published in Germany in 1935 as 'Die Blendung' ('The Blinding' or 'Bedazzlement') and later in Britain in 1947, where the publisher noted Canetti as a 'writer of strongly individual genius, which may prove influential', an observation borne out when the author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. 'Auto-da-Fé' still towers as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, and Canetti's incisive vision of an insular man battling agianst the outside world is as fresh and rewarding today as when first it appeared in print."

Elias Canetti received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981 "for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power".

I contribute to this page: Read the Nobels and you can find all my blogs about Nobel Prize winning authors and their books here.

Since this book takes partly place in Paris, it can also go with the project #parisinjuly2023.


  1. I think I read some Canetti decades ago, but not this one. Intriguing!

    1. It is quite interesting, Emma, though you will find a much better description by Mel u below.

  2. Fascinating review! I haven't read much of this author. I'm afraid that the title only makes me think of the Mel Brooks film with the following interchange (sung in a lilting style):

    I just got back from the auto-da-fé

    Auto-da-fé? What's an auto-da-fé?

    It's what you oughtn't to do but you do anyway


    1. I have not seen that film, Mae, but the quote fits perfectly. Thanks.

  3. Elias Canetti is in the tradition of deeply cultured Pan-European writers. He was born in Bulgaria in 1904, died in Zurich 1994, received the Nobel Prize in 1981, wrote in German, he moved to England when Austria joined Germany and became a British citizen. I enjoy visualizing him in the lobby of The Grand President Hotel. I wonder what he might have read while there.

    The alleged theme of The Reading Life is the literary treatment of people whose lives center about their reading. Set between the world wars in Germany, the lead character Peter Kein is an internationally recognized authority and translator of Chinese literature. His life centers around his magnificent personal library. One day he makes a bad mistake, he marries his housekeeper. A nasty shrewish woman non-reading woman who has no respect for his vast erudition and looks upon the books just as dusty commodities. He knows almost from the start it was a mistake but loneliness drove him to it. His life turns into a living hell as his wife tries to steal all his money, from an inheritance that long ago allowed him to follow his passion for books and reading. (Loving books and reading are not the same thing but in the bests cases they are.)

    He enters a bizzare world outside his library, a world he knows little about. (Side note, why so many hunchbacks in European literature of the era? Why are they always evil or feeble minded?)

    The conclusion is shocking. I am sure there are period cultural refrences and allusions that went over my head. I greatly enjoyed this book and could see rereading it in 2023

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book

    1. Such a wonderful description, Mel, thank you so much for adding it.

    2. Thanks for your kind words,

    3. I always tell the truth!

  4. I have never read anything by him. It sounds intriguing though so might give it a go.

    1. This was my first "meeting" with him, as well, Lisbeth.