Why read it then? one might ask; no one likes to be mocked. Good question that.
Originally published in 1935, in German, under the title Die Blendung (The Blinding or The Dazzlement or The Glare), it was first translated into English in 1947 and titled The Tower of Babel. It was Elias Canetti's first and, it turns out, only novel. I'm not sure it could be published in today's pop cultural, affirmational, commercial publishing climate.
It is heavily allusional and grounded in the culture of Weimar-era Vienna, an aspect (intertextuality) and an audience-response (dated) that will, unfortunately, escape most non-scholarly, contemporary readings.
Like Melville's Moby Dick and Gass's The Tunnel, it is monumental and controversial. Like Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, it delves into madness and delusion. Culturally, it belongs on the shelf alongside such modernist contemporaries as Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers, and Rainer Maria Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, among others.
Canetti won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. According to the Nobel committee,
"His oeuvre consists of a novel, three plays, several volumes of notes and aphorisms, a profound examination of the origin, structures and effect of the mass movement, a travel book, portraits of authors, character studies, and memoirs; but these writings, pursued in such different directions, are held together by a most original and vigorously profiled personality. ... The main scene of the macabre and grotesque events that [Auto-da-Fé] discloses is an apartment house in Vienna. It is an aspect of key importance when Die Blendung is regarded by several critics as a single fundamental metaphor for the threat exercised by the "mass man" within ourselves. Close at hand is the viewpoint from which the novel stands out as a study of a type of man who isolates himself in self-sufficient specialization - here, the sinologist Peter Kien surrounded by his many books - only to succumb helplessly in a world of ruthlessly harsh realities."The Nobel Committee's vague and passive thematic association of Auto-da-Fé with Canetti's later, magisterial Crowds and Power (1962) is not only anachronistic, it is too simplistic a read. It's almost as if they didn't quite want to have deal with it on its own, as if to say anything directly about it might somehow contaminate them. One can almost see the reviewer holding the soiled, reeking manuscript out at arm's length with one hand and holding his nose with the other as he decides what to say about it. After all, he simply couldn't ignore it.
And certainly, there is an element of intellectual elitism vs. ignorant populism in the situation of the novel, but this single opposition makes for an unsatisfying thesis—as, I would suggest, would any single such construction. The last chapter of the novel effectively throws all such attempts at structural explanations into disarray. It casts us back on our theories and imputations of meaning. But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Suffice it to say Auto-da-Fé avoids easy closure. In lit-crit jargon, it problematizes meaning itself.
Beware: Spoilers this way loom.
[to be continued]