Those of you familiar with my Ur-story series of readings [see sidebar] will recall that I try to focus on the elements of the text from a writer's point of view, with special emphasis on the relationship of the work to something I call the Ur-story: an uber-theme in literature stretching from the Gilgamesh to Gillespie, from Jahweh to Gaddis. Briefly restated, the ultimate subject matter of serious literature (which I take to include comedy, by the way) has to do with the individual's coming to consciousness of the inevitability of her own mortality and the multiform variety of human (all-too-human) responses to this profound sense of existential loss.
How does Elias Canetti's Auto-da-Fé fit into this scheme, if at all? Let's take a look.
Instead of a cast of realistic characters, Auto-da-Fé presents the reader with a parade of grotesques. None of the main characters is remotely sympathetic or likeable. All are stereotypes. Most are insane or at least maximally delusional. Each has his/her own rather utilitarian agenda which is mutually exclusive and, in effect, incognizant of the humanity of any of the others.
The main character is Peter Kien. Peter (I'll use his Christian name to distinguish him from his brother Georg(-e)(-s) Kien) is a philologist and reputedly (at least according to him) the world's foremost sinologist, i.e., interpreter of Chinese texts. He is described as tall, skeletal, absent- and single-minded. He is reclusive and misanthropic. He possesses what is claimed to be the greatest private library in the city (let's call it Vienna), some 25,000 books, comprised mostly of original Chinese texts. He cares for his books more than for his fellow man. In fact, for part of the novel he is said to carry his library around with him in his head. When we first find him, he is engaged in scholarly research, but he refuses to submit it to professional journals or read it at academic conferences both of which he disdains. Thus, his reliability is suspect from the first.
The narrative revolves around Peter (though is not told from his perspective (more on that later)) and his interactions with the four other major characters. Therese Krummholz is the illiterate, 50-something housekeeper Peter marries because he believes she will take care of his library. She is lustful and vain and self-righteous and is always associated with a starched blue skirt. Siegfried Fischerle is a hook-nosed, hunchbacked, chess-playing, thieving, lowlife, Jewish dwarf who dreams of going to America and dethroning Capablanca to become world chess champion. Benedikt Pfaff is the thuggish, ex-cop caretaker of Peter's apartment building. His flaming red hair and expressive fists are the iconic leitmotifs of his character. He raises canaries in the small closet where his abusive behavior ultimately resulted in the deaths of his wife and his 'beloved' daughter the guilt for which he carries around with him throughout the novel. Georg Kien is a gynecologist-turned-psychiatrist (a joke in itself) who indulges the madnesses of his patients. He is handsome, well-meaning, and vapid. He is meant to be a sort of last hope, a deus ex machina whose efforts at redemption ultimately come to naught.
Reading Auto-da-Fé is like showing up at the proverbial convention of solipsists (and this includes the minor characters as well); the joke being whether there can ever be more than one person in attendance.
(to be continued)