Serious Dr Sonne

Philip Purser

  • The Play of the Eyes by Elias Canetti, translated by Ralph Manheim
    Deutsch, 329 pp, £14.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 233 98570 0
  • Yellow Street by Veza Canetti, translated by Ian Mitchell
    Halban, 139 pp, £11.95, November 1990, ISBN 1 870015 36 3

At the beginning of the third volume of his autobiography, Elias Canetti is still in his twenties. He has been cooped up for a year in a bed-sitter on the outskirts of Vienna with only a print of the Isenheim altar as company, working on the grim novel that was eventually to be called Auto da Fé. Early one morning he catches the first workman’s train into town, dashes through empty streets and lets himself into the apartment of his loved one, later his wife, Veza – she has given him a latchkey against such an eventuality. Is it the old Adam stirring? With the manuscript finished at last is it time for a little Beinüber? No such luck, if that is what Veza has been hoping: Elias is bursting to tell her about the book he’s just discovered and been reading all night, Büchner’s Wozzeck. When Veza sleepily says it’s been one of her favourites for ages, and rolls out of bed to find her copy, there’s an almighty row. What does she mean by having known Wozzeck all these years and never even mentioned it? It’s as if she has been unfaithful – no, worse! Because in Canetti’s estimation, or anyway in the estimation which he applies so rigorously to every figure he encounters in The Play of the Eyes, affairs of the mind are far more important than those of either body or personality.

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