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Elias Canetti: Blendung (UK :Auto da Fé; US: The Tower of Babel)

The German title of this novel means something like dazzling or blinding and, interestingly enough, has more or less the same meaning as Mircea Cărtărescu‘s Orbitor, Corpul [Dazzling, Body], though they are very different books. Canetti intended to write a series of novels about madmen or, more specifically, about people obsessed with a single idea. Peter Kien, the protagonist (but certainly not hero) of this novel, is obsessed with books. I have to say that this may be one of most unpleasant novels I have read. Not only is there no positive character, none of the characters, major or minor, has a single redeeming feature, with just one exception. Several of the characters die violent deaths and we do not regret any of them.

At the start of the novel Peter Kien, who has inherited a lot of money, lives in a rented apartment with his twenty five thousand books. He has always been obsessed with books and, as a child, got himself locked in a bookshop overnight. He told his mother it was an accident, the only time he apparently ever lied to her. He is now a leading sinologist, writes scholarly articles for scholarly publications and routinely turns down university chairs offered to him. He is eminently happy acquiring books, though, without fully being aware of it, he is running down his capital. He has a housekeeper – Therese, who is fifty-six – who carefully takes care of his books and looks after him, though he needs little looking after, sleeping on a couch in his library and washing only at a portable wash-stand. There is minimal communication between them. He only has concerns for his books, talking to them and even caressing them. He is therefore worried that Therese’s care might be lost and decides to marry her to keep her and the books together. She, for her part, is worried about her old age and, thinking him to be much richer than he is (as he pays her very well) accepts.

However, from both perspectives, a wife is not the same as a housekeeper. She gradually encroaches on what he considers his space, taking over his rooms one by one, buying a proper bed and gradually making a variety of changes which cause him much grief. When he is out, she looks both for his will (there isn’t one) and his bankbook (which he keeps on him). When she buys the bedroom furniture (for which he gives her a large amount of cash, being totally unaware of the price of items), she starts flirting with the salesman, pretending that she is thirty and starts fantasizing that, using Kien’s money, she is going to set the salesman up in his own shop. She continues this fantasy throughout the book.

Eventually Kien cannot stand his wife’s behaviour any more and he moves out and his troubles really start. He is completely naïve about the ways of the world. More importantly, he has the idea that he is carrying all his books in his head and will increasingly need more space to store them. The Jewish dwarf, Fischerle, is all too happy to help him and take his money to finance his own dream of travelling to the United States to become a chess champion. There are armies of others who are all too willing to take Kien’s money and who, indeed, expect that it is their right to do so. Therese even comes back on the scene, accusing him of stealing her bankbook. Eventually, Kien’s brother, Georg, a psychiatrist practicing in Paris, shows up and more or less sorts things out but as soon as he leaves, the inevitable tragedy occurs. Whether Canetti intended this work as a diatribe against obsession or greed or whether it is just an overarching misanthropic novel, it is powerful but not pleasant.

Publishing history

First published 1935 by Fischer
First published in English 1946 by Jonathan Cape