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.

One by one the literary heroes of these Viennese years are summoned up, re-examined and found wanting in essential seriousness. Wittgenstein attracts only a passing mention, identified as ‘a philosopher, the brother of the one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein’. Robert Musil occupies the summit of Canetti’s esteem until he is demoted after a show of petulance at a tactless mention of his archrival Thomas Mann. Herman Broch was Canetti’s great friend at the beginning of the period but fades out of the narrative as it continues. As for poor Karl Kraus, the mentor who had urged and inspired Canetti to write Auto da Fé, his is the most summary dismissal of all. His offence was to support Dollfus, the Austrian Chancellor subsequently murdered by the Nazis, rather than the ineffectual Austro-Marxists. When Kraus dies, Canetti doesn’t bother to attend the funeral. ‘I didn’t feel that I was missing anything,’ he explains in a sentence anyone might be ashamed of.

The one man who is never diminished in Canetti’s eyes is the shadowy Dr Sonne. With Broch, Canetti has been conducting a ponderous game of going through the lists of everyone they know to see if they can light upon an absolutely good man. By ‘good’, Canetti makes it clear, he means untainted by any trace of levity, self-interest or obeisance to fashion.

Broch finally remembers Dr Sonne and suggests how the other can meet him. Canetti does so and is captivated. Henceforth he meets this hero of heroes for two hours every day in the Café Museum. They talk and talk – or rather, Dr Sonne talks and Canetti listens. Sonne is lucid, penetrating and knowledgeable about everything. He is exhaustive but concise. ‘He spoke with the ice-cold clarity of one who grinds perfect lenses, who will have nothing to do with anything murky until it is clarified. He examined an object by taking it apart, yet preserved it in its wholeness. He did not dissect; he irradiated.’

Most prized of all the good doctor’s qualities is his aloofness. He will not talk about himself, never makes use of the first person, rarely addresses his hearer in the second person. Canetti knows nothing of his past, his present circumstances or where he lives. He can’t even be sure whether Dr Sonne really is a doctor or – in line with local custom – chooses to call himself one. When he learns by accident that Sonne wrote Hebrew poetry in his youth, he is so ashamed of this inadvertent violation of the admired one’s privacy that for a whole week he avoids the Café Museum. Then he starts to imagine the doctor sitting there behind his newspaper wondering what has happened to his disciple, and in this shaft of fellow-feeling the whole pretence of an impersonal, purely cerebral affinity tumbles like a house of cards.

Canetti and Dr Sonne have become friends, for heaven’s sake: why won’t either admit it? You begin to wonder exactly what empyrean topics, what proofs of the existence of God or the General Theory of Relativity, they could have discussed so memorably. Canetti doesn’t say at the time, but later in the book he lets slip – and really it comes as no surprise, if rather a let-down – that the day’s news from the newspaper, particularly of the Spanish Civil War, furnished the stuff of most of their conversations. You are also aware by now of the cunning with which Canetti is presenting this impersonal person Dr Sonne. As in a screenplay, he has first been glimpsed behind his paper in the Café Museum, a solitary, mysterious, but at this stage unidentified figure. When he is formally introduced, it is as a disembodied intellect. Then gradually, and against Canetti’s professed intentions, the bits of information emerge which flesh him out as a human being: what Veza thinks of him (not a lot), a story about his giving away a legacy, the accident in his youth which left him with a stiff-legged gait, his mute despair at the bombing of Guernica, and finally, Hashed up this once and immediately withdrawn again, as if revealing it were the ultimate presumption, the doctor’s first name: Gabriel.

The notion of true wisdom confined in a truly private, inviolate life is always attractive, and doubly so when all around you – as on the radio and television in our day or in the coffeehouses of Vienna in the Thirties – is endless, self-promoting chit-chat. Canetti makes the society in which he moves sound very much like a perpetual version of Melvyn Bragg’s Start the week on Radio 4. But he is part of it, and for all the austerity of his views, a party to it. Disdainful of gossip, scornful of show-offs, he is not averse to showing off himself, always ready to give readings from his unpublished novel or unperformed plays; and as for gossip – wow! up in the class of Richard Aldington, particularly when the target is someone he doesn’t like.

Alma Mahler is that ‘noisy, witless woman’ who ‘dominates the scene through boasting, greed and liquor’. At the funeral of her daughter Manon Gropius, she produces giant, perfectly-formed tears like pearls. Her new husband Franz Werfel sighs and fidgets through one of Canetti’s readings before finally stalking out, to be damned as a philistine as well as a non-stop, vacuous talker and, worst of all, a popular novelist. James Joyce makes a brief appearance at another reading, in Zurich. Canetti declaims his Expressionist play The Comedy of Vanity, in which mirrors are smashed as forbidden objects, though one character raises the problem of men who shave with open razors. Joyce’s sole observation in the interval is that he shaves himself with a cut-throat razor and no mirror, whereupon, like Werfel before him, he departs. Canetti broods and broods over the remark. It seemed distinctly hostile in tone. Was this because Joyce was nearly blind, and therefore touchy about the need for a mirror? Or was he only bragging of his courage in risking his jugular every morning? Later, the razor is forgotten and the theory is that, in common with most of the Swiss who were present, he was unable to understand the Viennese patois and thick Viennese accent which Canetti had obstinately retained in his performance. By the end of the book the author is half-convinced that he was being paid a mysterious compliment.

Throughout the period covered in The Play of the Eyes, Canetti has been pondering a study of the behaviour of crowds: how they exercise power, how they can be manipulated. He discusses the subject with Dr Sonne. It’s a timely idea, and what better vantage-point from which to pursue it than a country caught between two populist dictatorships? Alas, when it appeared more than twenty years later, Crowds and Power turned out to be mainly a compendium of bits of this and that from the History and Anthropology and Zoology and Psychology shelves. Some three hundred and fifty sources are listed, and they are only a part of the books and papers he consulted, the author claims. There are chapters on the finger language of monkeys or self-castration among the Skoptsy, but of Nuremberg Rallies, Goebbels at the Sportpalast, or Hitler’s very pointed theories in Mein Kampf about the theatre and theatre audiences, not a word. When Canetti does offer original observation, as in a piece on the power of an orchestral conductor, or a set of national characteristics (the Dutchman, the Spaniard etc), he presents it as bare assertion, without illustration, without evidence and, come to that, without any remarkable perception.

I was going to say that in England we’ve never bred writers of such relentless, uncompromising, Nobel Prize-winning seriousness – our only novelist to be tagged an intellectual was Aldous Huxley, and by the side of Canetti he was Fred Astaire. I was forgetting that not only did Canetti live in Hampstead from 1939 until quite recently (he’s still in the London telephone directory) but he also spent – as related in his first volume of autobiography, The Tongue Set Free – a couple of childhood years in Manchester. So we must own up to being partially responsible. This is not just flippant English resistance to seriousness. I am seriously suggesting that when Canetti, who writes in German, took his Teutonic regard for gravitas to its logical extreme he ended up with a lost opportunity and an unreadable book. The autobiographies are saved from that by the very ingredients which he affects to despise but which make the world a more interesting place: gossip, vanity, inconsequential stories and a modicum of spite. There is even a joke somewhere in The Play of the Eyes, or anyway a pleasantry, a bit of British self-deprecation, though I can’t find it again to quote chapter and verse. It comes when Veza reads Auto da Fé and like many other readers of that book, says Canetti wrily, is greatly relieved to get to the end.

Veza, otherwise Venetiana Taubner-Calderon, who came from the same Balkan-Sephardic mix as Canetti, and died in 1963, wrote vignettes for the Arbeiter Zeitung, or Viennese Daily Worker. They have at last been strung together, as she always wished, to make an episodic novel. Yellow Street, with an introduction by her widower. The style is reminiscent of the terse little Middle-European stories which Stefan Lorant used to publish in Lilliput in the Thirties when he’d only just arrived from Hungary and didn’t know any English writers, nor much English for that matter. Characters are consumed by their defects, whether physical or temperamental: the smiling young businessman who is so generous to strangers starves his family and beats his wife; a street chorus looks on without seeing the truth. But the bustle of the quarter is vividly caught, and there couldn’t be an apter companion to The Play of the Eyes, because in reality Yellow Street was Ferdinandstrasse, where Veza lived and whither Canetti ran that morning to wake her up and tell her about Wozzeck. A wonderfully evocative photograph of Ferdinandstrasse fills the dust-jacket. There’s the leather merchants at the corner, a horse and cart across the pavé street, a pinafored young woman out shopping, an old man with his walking-stick and a little squat, furtive dog picked out by fate to live again, at least in the eyes of anyone who picks up Veza Canetti’s book.