The Tongue Set Free

tongueI’ve neglected my book blog this month as I have been busy taking part in, taking photos of, reading articles about and translating and proofreading texts for the Gezi protests. I finished reading The Tongue Set Free some time ago, but only now do I find the time to write about it.

I was given the second and third volumes of Elias Canetti’s autobiography as a viva gift. I leafed through them and decided that I wanted to read the first one as well, so I bought it on my next visit to the UK. I love many things about the book, but first of all, the title: who can resist a book with a clever title? The account opens with a childhood memory at a doctor’s office, which is painted red from floor to ceiling, the doctor threatening little Elias to cut off his tongue. It turns out that the boy only lived this scene in his imagination, fuelled by his nanny and her lover’s threat that they’ll cut his tongue if he ever tells anybody of their secret affair. Years later, the tongue has been set free, and here he is, recounting his childhood and his teenage years.

Elias Canetti was born in Ruschuk in 1905 and grew up in Manchester, Vienna and Zurich. He’s a true polyglot, and his parents have imbued him a passion for reading. As a small child, he was only fluent in Ladino. “When my father came home from the store, he would instantly speak to my mother. They were very much in love at the time and had their own language, which I didn’t understand; they spoke German, the language of their happy schooldays in Vienna” (23). Later Canetti masters the German language and writes books in this language that will earn him a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981.

The style is simply marvellous; vivid narration and rich vocabulary peppered with foreignization and archaisms: bagtché (from the Turkish bahçe, for garden), ménage à trios, hors concours, avaricious, vituperation, conciliant, sagacious, intransigent, imperturbable etc. Translator Joachim Neugroschel has done an excellent job; the book is filled with wondrous details and the adjectives, metaphors and idioms convey the atmosphere perfectly: “people didn’t have the foggiest clue”, “he almost flew off the handle”, “I was keen as mustard”, “like an intoxicated seer” etc. Little Elias is an intelligent and observant child, he takes everything seriously, and can be opinionated at times too. He makes detailed descriptions of his neighbours, classmates and teachers. The sophisticated language is a reflection of his intellectual strength. At times, the book made me smile, and later I noticed that this was due to the irony that arose from the discrepancy between his age and the high register of his language. (He wrote the books as an adult, of course.) Consider these sentences, for example:

“It was Mr. Arditti this, and Mr. Arditti that, our governess made a deferential grimace when she spoke his name, supreme shalt-nots were attributed to him […]” (50).

“From [the] balcony, we watched the setting of the big, red, sun, with which we became very intimate, and which attracted my youngest brother in a very special way. The instant the red color appeared on the balcony, he dashed out, and once, when he was alone for an instant, he quickly urinated and declared he had to put out the sun” (80).

“Dr. Weinstock, our family physician, was a small man with a monkey face and indefatigably blinking eyes. […] He was not at all severe; the very fact that he was blinking and grinning prevented any fear of him” (84).

“The two friends spoke together like young girls, they spoke French in a quick, jubilant tone, their voices rose and sank incessantly. They never paused for an instant; it was like a twittering, but of very large birds” (102).

As the book progresses, the child’s perspective matures into an adult point of view. In my opinion, pages 125-127, elaborating on how he feels about his mother’s friendship to Herr Professor, is a transitional period. Within these two pages, he goes from making childishly witty comments about people to considering the subtleties of social life: “His academic connections and his beard would not fail to impress the officials” (125). “Now he stood there – physician and flatterer, owner of a sanatorium, author of a magnificent three-volume medical opus, which had been standing in our Vienna library for several months now and which I wasn’t allowed to open – and he was sighing wretchedly” (127). Pages 173-175 represent another turning point: he becomes acutely aware of social hierarchy and sexual advances, makes nuanced assessments of his mother’s depression and her aspiration for prestige. Her mother is aware of the situation too: “Today I’m the child and you’re the mother” (175). These pages mark the end of Part IV in the book.

Young Cannetti approaches everything with a positive outlook. But it’s not all baby blue memories of his childhood, the sections titled “The Murder Attempt” and “The Discovery of Evil” contain self-criticism. Shortly after they move to Manchester, his father dies, which marks the beginning of emotional and financial struggles for the family. Canetti develops a close and volatile relationship with his mother, who is the topic of many insightful passages in the book. The book could almost be read as a biography of the mother as well as an autobiography of the writer. When he’s a teenager, he’s very active in class – “raises his hand too often” – and one day, in an effort to encourage a shy student, one of his teachers says “Just think, Erni, you’ll come upon it. We won’t let a Viennese Jew take everything away from us” (203). Instead of declaring the teacher racist, Elias interprets the event in terms of his relationship with his mother: at home, he’s desperate to impress his mother with his knowledge, and therefore has the habit of answering questions before they’ve been completed. He’s always self-effacing as he’s trying to excel in everything. The book ends with a confrontation with his mother, and I expect the tone of the second book to be different.

The only thing that I’m not happy about in the book is the line spacing. It’s already a dense text, and such economical use of space doesn’t help. The book is 268 pages long, I think it could easily afford to be one section longer.

Now I’ll read a book in Turkish. I started reading one but stopped because of the grotesque descriptions (I’ll spare you the details), I chose another one but found the descriptions too long and the language contrived. Let’s see what else has been sitting on my bookshelf.

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