The Play of the Eyes

I finished the third volume of Elias Canetti’s autobiography the other day: The Play of the Eyes. This third one was translated by a different person; Ralph Manheim, and I think I prefer the previous translator; Joachim Neugroschel. I liked Neugroschel’s choice of words better, and I found some sentences in Manheim’s translation difficult to follow. And these sentences with the impersonal subject “one”… I understand the need for archaism and the decision to produce a transparent style, but they don’t look that good when they’re that many. As in:

“Perhaps one defends oneself against the hostility of one’s contemporaries by unhesitatingly appointing posterity as one’s judge” (205).

I counted, and there are 13 one’s in this paragraph. Like, in this sentence for example, I don’t understand why he couldn’t say”I”: “One had a good view of them from the terrace of my room at the Hotel Juliš” (314).

The other thing I noticed in this book is that somehow, this one relied more on description whereas the first two had more plot, which is fine, because Canetti is good at relating his observations. He dissects dialogues, attitudes and feelings very carefully, but he’s not judgmental or didactic. His description of events when he first met sculptor Fritz Wotruba, for example, is so typical of him…

“[…] a young man who, kneeling beside the figure, was working on the lower part of it with his fingers. He had his back turned to me and didn’t stand up when I came in. He didn’t remove his fingers from the clay but kept kneading it. Still kneading, he turned his head toward me and said in a deep, full voice: ‘Do you kneel at your work too?’ It was a joke, a kind of excuse for not getting up and giving me his hand. But with him even a joke had weight and meaning. With the word ‘too’ he bade me welcome, put his work and mine on the same level; with ‘kneel’ he expressed the hope that I took my work as seriously as he took his” (93).

Later he describes Wotruba’s hands as “long, sinewy, powerful, but wonderfully sensitive hands that seemed to be creatures in their own right” (94). After reading Canetti’s portrayal of Wotruba’s personality, I thought that I would have liked to be befriended by someone as attentive as Canetti; he must have made his friends feel really special.

He makes funny and colourful remarks in this book as well. Here are my favourites:

“When I did see her, I was monosyllabic and morose” (10).

“The legendary educator was an enormous talker; the first time she saw me she pressed me to her bosom as if I had been her pupil from infancy and had poured out my heart to her innumerable times. But despite her overflowing friendliness, I preferred the taciturn Dr. Schwarzland, a small, slightly crippled man, who hobbled in on a cane and then sat morosely in a corner, where he submitted to the visitors’ interminable, and the Frau Doktor’s even more interminable, chatter” (187).

“When the door opened, everyone hoped it would be she, and some of us, I’m afraid, would have been slightly disappointed if it had been God the Father instead” (187).

“He put out his hand, and instead of merely smiling he positively beamed, which delighted me because I had been led to believe that he didn’t permit himself to beam in public” (270).

My favourite chapter is “The Funeral of an Angel”; (198-203) although it tells about a sad event, it’s so sarcastic in some respects. Canetti must have kept excellent diaries.

On the flip side: Canetti is interested in sociology, philosophy, psychology, ethnology as well as writing plays and novels and taking part in musical activities. I envy this multidisciplinarity; as a young aspiring academic in the 21st century, I also feel a certain resentment at his sense of entitlement towards several branches of science and art. I’ve also noticed that he doesn’t mention a day job in this volume, and has the luxury to spend two hours of each day at cafes. (What I’ve read in the first two volumes leads me to think that perhaps he could afford that thanks to his wife Veza.) OK, some more ranting: I wouldn’t expect adultery from someone so rational and so committed to concerns of ethics. This book’s title is a reference to Anna’s eyes; (55, 252) Anna, whom he fell passionately in love with, despite his calm and measured character. You might say things were different back then, but in my opinion, having a fist fight in the middle of a Baroque square in Vienna due to uncontrollable levels of testosterone is not a lot more outrageous than cheating on your wife/partner. Especially when he can clearly see the subtlety of what went on between his mother and father… But, maybe he’s justified that within his all-encompassing conception of aesthetics, and it’s probably not up for me to judge.

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