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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

Elias Canetti - The Tongue Set Free

The Tongue Set Free - Elias Canetti

The die has been cast upon reading Gregor von Rezzori's 'The Snow of Yesteryear'.

Struck by the literary spell of that excellent specimen of Central European memoirs, I decided it was just the right time to go ahead along the same golden vein.
Thus, I picked 'The Tongue Set Free' up. This is the first volume of Elias Canetti's monumental autobiography and, probably, the one I'm going to like the most. I will explain you why in a minute.

To a superficial reader, Canetti and von Rezzori have much in common. Both authors were born in now remote corners of Central-Eastern Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, came from multiethnic and polyglot families, spent their childhood years moving from one country to another due to the First World War events, drammatically lost a family member, graduated in Vienna, and eventually chose German as their first language in writing.

However, for all the things they had in common (including the decision to publish their compelling memoirs in the 1980s), there is much more separating these two superb authors and intellectuals than what could meet the eye.

First of all, Canetti was nine years older than von Rezzori and came from a Jewish family. Whereas von Rezzori - despite or because of the antisemitism of his father - was fascinated by Jews and their culture to the point of learing yiddish, Canetti was essentially a cosmopolitan secularist who never accepted the notion of sacrifice attached to the roots of Judaism (Abraham being ordered to kill Isaac) and Christianity (Jesus dying for the sake of humanity) alike.

Not that von Rezzori flirted with zealous bigotry at any stage of his life; he actually led a rather worldly life playing in movies together with Brigitte Bardot, Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau as well as moving to Tuscany where he became an art collector.
And yet, compared with Canetti, von Rezzori was certainly more inclined to religious symbolism and spirituality (he was the author of 'The Death of My Brother Abel' while his last work - published posthumous - is entitled 'Cain') and a more prolific novelist.

Canetti's reputation as a successful author and the chief reason why he became a Nobel laureate is largely due to his essays even though it's his only novel, 'Auto-da-Fè', which is considered his masterpiece. Let's face it: none of the eight novels published by von Rezzori never reached the fame of that single one by Canetti.

One may say that it's the subject each author studied at Vienna University that influenced his own literary career. The flamboyant, dreamy von Rezzori graduated in art (after giving up medicine and architecture), thus ending up as a creator of works of fiction, while the more pragmatical and politically involved Canetti graduated in chemistry, thus becoming an essayist and an expert of social studies.

Now this distinction is true to some extent.
The funny thing is that if we take into consideration their memoirs/autobiographies the less analytical and more prolix of the two authors is Canetti, the chemist graduate and essayist. The ability to draw together his childhood and young adult memories in a convincing and precise narration belongs to von Rezzori, the playwright, novelist and art graduate.

Mind you, this doesn't mean that the first installment of Canetti's memoirs is not a wonderful accomplishment for most of 'The Tongue Set Free' is indeed a masterpiece. I just think that von Rezzori was better in recapping the early events of his life to their core so that he led me to be more emotionally attached to those pages.
Canetti's early life was as fascinating and eventful as von Rezzori's - if not more - and the writing is equally beautiful, but my impression is that the author does take himself too seriously once he hits his teenage years. Let's call it the Nabokov Syndrome, if you like it.

This said, 'The Tongue Set Free' is a must have and a must read for all those who relishes the golden vein of literary memoirs in a linguistically rich and multi-layered cultural environment and I loved it. I'm just slightly concerned for what is due to come in the second and third volume of this autobiography where Canetti is likely to focus on his own cultural struggle and Viennese milieu rather than giving voice to the dear ones who lived around him. I hope to be proved wrong, though!