After several interruptions (e.g., half marathon, Carolina in the NCAA tourney, MLB Opening Day) and diversions (e.g., the last several posts), I now plunge back into my look at Elias Canetti's fiction masterpiece Auto-da-Fé.
It's so easy, as a reader, to want to overinterpret literature. For those of us who grew up as 'people of the book', that is to say those of us of Judeo-Christian heritage, this was our mother's milk; we were raised to wring every ounce of meaning out of every Biblical passage we possibly could. "Who is the Son of God?" "What does the seven-headed dragon symbolize?" "666?" "What does it mean to 'honor' your parents and your God?" etc. What's hard in such a hyper-hermeneutic environment is to find the text's true limits and restrict reading to reasonable, legitimate inferences.
One problem is the tendency in literary criticism to universalize characters, and, lord knows, with Canetti's caricatures it's awfully easy to do so. But Barbara Johnson points us in one particularly fruitful direction in her discussion of Billy Budd. The great scandal of Herman Melville's unfinished novella was that it defied readers' expectations.
"No consideration of the nature of character in Billy Budd, however, can fail to take into account the fact that the fate of each of the characters is the direct reverse of what one is led to expect from his 'nature'. Billy is sweet, innocent, and harmless, yet he kills. Claggart is evil, perverted, and mendacious, yet he dies a victim. Vere is sagacious and responsible, yet allows a man whom he feels to be blameless to hang."People want to identify with the characters, their essences, and be comforted by their fates: the bad guys get their comeuppances and the good guys prevail. This—more than worries about capital punishment, law vs. justice, repressed homosexuality, good vs. evil, Adam vs. Jesus Christ, etc.—this deep irony accounts for the Literary outrage caused by this seemingly simple tale about men on a ship at sea.
It also provides us a good way of approaching Auto-da-Fé: how do the fates of Elias Canetti's characters match their essences, and what does that tell us about what Canetti is up to? [N.B.: Canetti spills far too much ink, at least to contemporary sensibilities, detailing the minutiae of his characters' backstories. My analysis will focus, for the most part, on their actions 'in scene': what we see them do, not what Canetti tells us about their pasts.]
Therese Krummholz begins as Peter Kien's illiterate housekeeper. She seethes with lower class resentment. Kien, deluded about her, marries her in the belief she will protect his library from fire when he is not there. In a great comedic scene, she tries to seduce the monastic Kien but is a failure.
"Therese approached swinging her hips. She did not glide, she waddled. The gliding was simply the effect of the starched skirt. She said gaily: 'So thoughtful? Ah, men!' She held up her little finger, crooked it menacingly and pointed down at the divan. I must go to her, he thought, and did not know how but found himself standing at her side. What was he to do now—lie down on the books? He was shaking with fear, he prayed to the books, the last stockade. Therese caught his eye, she bent down and, with one all-embracing stoke of her left arm, swept the books on to the floor. He made a helpless gesture towards them, he longed to cry out, but horror choked him, he swallowed and could not utter a sound. A terrible hatred swelled up slowly within him. This she had dared. The books!Over time, she takes over more and more space in his spartan library, further desecrating his sanctuary. She demands that Kien purchase furniture for her. She is over fifty, but believes she is a desirable young woman. When she goes to buy furniture, a flattering salesman fawns over her. She believes he is in love with her and fantasizes a new life with him. In her new position, she starts feeling entitled and demands that Kien provide for her in his will. She mistakenly believes he is much richer than he is. He mistakes her demand, believing she wants to include him in her will. Once Kien tells her he has very little money and that he invested practically his entire inheritance in his library, she beats him senseless and throws him out of his own apartment.
Therese took off her petticoat, folded it up carefully and laid it on the floor on top of the books. Then she made herself comfortable on the divan, crooked her little finger, grinned and said 'There!'
Kien plunged out of the room in long strides, bolted himself into the lavatory, the only room in the whole house where there were no books, automatically let his trousers down, took his place on the seat and cried like a child." (59)
Therese returns to the furniture store and disrobes in front of the flattering salesman. She is a spectacle and a laughing stock, but believes the people admire her beauty and dignity. She returns home, comforted in her delusional grandeur, meets up with Pfaff, the caretaker, a "real man," and they move in together in Kien's apartment. She and Pfaff decide to pawn all of Kien's books. Kien catches them, and mayhem ensues. Kien, believing her dead, refuses to recognize her for the rest of the novel. When Georg Kien comes to help his brother, he divines the situation with Therese and bribes her to vacate the apartment by promising to set her up in a dairy shop across town so long as she promises to steer clear of Peter. Happy ending.
After being kicked out of his own library/apartment/flat, Peter finds himself in a low-life cafe, the Stars of Heaven, filled with thieves, conmen, pimps, and prostitutes who fall upon him when he flashes the stacks of cash in his wallet. One of them, the Jewish dwarf Siegfried Fischerle, rescues him, primarily so he can poach Kien's fortune for himself. He is a chess-player, you see. Here we see him for the first time:
"Suddenly a vast hump appeared close to [Peter] and asked, could he sit there? Kien looked down fixedly. Where was the mouth out of which speech had issued? And already the owner of the hump, a dwarf, hopped up on to a chair. He managed to seat himself and turned a pair of large melancholy eyes towards Kien. The tip of his strongly hooked nose lay in the depth of his chin. His mouth was as small as himself—only it wasn't to be found. No forehead, no ears, no neck, no buttocks—the man consisted of a hump, a majestic nose and two black, calm, sad eyes. For a long time he said nothing; he was doubtless waiting while his appearance made its own impression. Kien accustomed himself to the new circumstance. Suddenly he heard a hoarse voice under underneath the table"Kien enlists Fischerle in his service, much as Don Quixote enlists Sancho Panza. Kien persists in the delusion that, even though he has been kicked out of his library, he is carrying around his entire library in his head. Like a cunning Panza, Fischerle buys into this delusion, even offering to help Kien by carrying around some the books in his hump. Each night Fischerle helps Kien unpack the 'books' from Kien's head and carefully stacks them in whatever hotel room they find themselves.
'How's business?'" (174-75)
Fischerle's own plan is to relieve Kien of his money, dandify himself, and go to America to defeat Capablanca for the world championship of chess. In pursuit of this dream, he comes up with an elaborate con: he hires four denizens of the Stars of Heaven, gives them a stack of books, and tells them to go to the city's pawnshop, the Theresianum. He alerts Kien to the dangers of the shop, telling him that there is a book-eating ogre who works there, and gets him to pay the dwarf's minions not to pawn their books, i.e., ransom the books. Kien worries that the top floor of the pawnshop where the books are kept is a fire hazard. When Therese arrives, as noted, chaos ensues.
Fischerle manages to con Kien out of four-fifths of his fortune. He obtains a false passport, buys a garish suit of clothes, a suitcase, and a train ticket to take him to Paris and closer to his goal of America. Just before his train is set to leave, Fischerle returns to his flat above the Stars of Heaven to retrieve his notebook which, among other things, contains Capablanca's address. His wife, a prostitute, is entertaining one of Fischerle's former employees, a beggar who pretends to be blind to increase his take. He is seething because Fischerle, the last time he'd seen him, had tipped the blind man with a button—the thing in this world he detests the most.
"'He's under the bed!' screams the woman. 'What!' bellows the double. Four hands drag the dwarf out; two clutch him by the nose and throat. 'Johann Schwer is my name!' someone introduces himself out of the darkness, lets go of his nose, not of his throat, and bellows: 'There, eat that!' Fischerle takes the button into his mouth and tries to swallow. For a single breath the hand lets go of his throat, until the button has gone down. In the same breath Fischerle's mouth attempts a grin, and he gasps innocently: 'But that's my button!' Then the hand has him again and strangles him. A fist shatters his skull.A bad, ironic end.
The blind man hurled him to the ground and fetched from the table in the corner of the little room a bread knife. With this he slit the coat and suit to shreds and cut off Fischerle's hump. He panted over the laborious work, the knife was too blunt for him and he wouldn't strike a light. The woman watched him, undressing meanwhile. She lay down on the bed and said: 'Ready!' But he wasn't yet ready. He wrapped the hump in the strips of the coat, spat on it once or twice and left the parcel where it was. The corpse he shoved under the bed. Then he threw himself on the woman. 'Not a soul heard anything,' he said and laughed. He was tired, but the woman was fat. He loved her all night long." (364-65)
(to be continued)