Party in the Blitz


A New Directions Book

Copyright © 2003 Elias Canetti Estate
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8112-1636-5

Chapter One


I am confused about England, it was the whole of a life, inserted between a before and a since, and it would have been enough on its own.

After the chaos, I need to think what can be salvaged from such seeming order. Oh, what order. I was all ready to think: an order that would last for ever. And then, no sooner had the War been won, the victory celebrations, the bonfires on the Heath, than the collapse began. For a little while yet, people kept their wartime discipline. There was still rationing, but they were phlegmatic about it. It's a country where people like to grumble, but it's never serious-or so it appeared. It must once have been serious, when the religious wars broke out, back in the seventeenth century. I still can't quite bring myself to believe there ever was such a time, with so much agitation, and those wonderful eyewitness reports. A language that was derived from the biblical translations, or from the great drama. How tightknit was England then! Scotland was still Scotland, and Ireland only appeared to have been conquered. But the English were already putting themselves about on the seven seas, plundering from the Spanish, fighting the Dutch, beheading their own King-barely a year after the end of the Thirty Years War. How did that go together? Did the war adjourn to the island, the moment it was finished on the continent?

I think of the great poets after Shakespeare, who shared the seventeenth century with him: Ben Jonson, John Donne, Milton, Dryden, and the youthful Swift. And the prose of the first half of that century! Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, John Aubrey, I will never have read my fill of those men. Bunyan, George Fox, Hobbes-on his own, a titanic figure. How abject Germany looks by comparison! Spain better. France alright, but the greatest literature in that century was English.

And in the following century, it is still greater than all the others. In the nineteenth, likewise. But what happened in this century! I was living in England as its intellect decayed. I was a witness to the fame of a T. S. Eliot. Is it possible for people ever to repent sufficiently of that? An American brings over a Frenchman from Paris, someone who died young (Laforgue), drools his self-loathing over him, lives quite literally as a bank clerk, while at the same time he criticises and diminishes anything that was before, anything that has more stamina and sap than himself, permits himself to receive presents from his prodigal compatriot, who has the greatness and tenseness of a lunatic, and comes up with the end result: an impotency which he shares around with the whole country; he kowtows to any order that's sufficiently venerable; tries to stifle any ��lan; a libertine of the void, a foothill of Hegel, a desecrator of Dante (to which Circle would Dante have banished him?); thin lipped, cold hearted, prematurely old, unworthy of Blake or of Goethe or of anything volcanic-his own lava cooled before it ever warmed-neither cat nor bird nor beetle, much less mole, godly, dispatched to England (as if I had been delegated back to Spain), armed with critical points instead of teeth, tormented by a nymphomaniac of a wife-that was his only excuse-tormented to such a degree that my Auto da F�� would have shrivelled up if he had gone near it, drawing-room manners in Bloomsbury, countenanced and invited by the precious Virginia, and escaped from all those who rightly chid him, and finally exalted by a prize that-with the exception of Yeats-was bestowed upon none of those who would have deserved it-not Virginia, not Pound, not Dylan.

And I witnessed the fame of this miserable creature. I first heard of him-I didn't know his name-when I was living in Hyde Park Gardens in the very early days. Jasper Ridley, a young man just out of Oxford, married Cressida Bonham-Carter a few months before the beginning of the War, put me onto him with kindly condescension as the one, true poet, and "inducted" me by giving me a copy of his Elizabethan essays. A few years later, very young still, he died on the battlefield, and left Cressida a widow and their young son half orphaned. It is to this friendly, eager, open, cheerful, weak man, of whom I retain the fondest memory, that I owe the name of the driest figure of this century, of whom-later on, as the War ended, and he turned to the religion of his forefathers, only to give it up for that of the kings-I heard more and more, until finally there was nothing else.

That figure should have taught me what was happening to England. But the War intervened, the war in which England finally gave the world the best of itself, the first resistance against the maniac who threatened to stop at nothing. People have much for which to be grateful to this country, it cannot be left out of the essential story of mankind, any more than Florence, Venice, Athens or Paris. But the fact that in wartime I was delighted to receive its ... made me unreceptive to the stink of enfeeblement that emanated from Eliot.

It is not in me to be luke-warm, least of all about England. There were slave owners all over, but where, except in the plantations of England, was there such an implacable urge to freedom? Where was there the refusal, the dissent, that began with the Quakers? Where did anything amount to more than conceptualisations, not Hegel, but not the pitiless emotional excess of Wagner and Nietzsche either?

The worst of England is the desiccation, the life as a remote-controlled mummy. It isn't, as people say, the Victorian (the mask of hypocrisy can be torn away, and there is something behind it), it is the prescribed desiccation, that begins with moderation and fairness, and ends up in emotional impotence.

In order to be absolutely truthful, I should have to track down every needless humiliation I was offered in England, and relive it in my memory for the torture it was; and then seek out every instance of sensitivity with which someone sought to save me from humiliation; hold them together, weigh them up, and have them cancel one another out, as happened to me.

Each thing, the one, the other, and both together, would amount to the troth.

Detailed memories that need to be re-animated:-

May 1945: the end of the War. The victory celebrations. The bonfires on Hampstead Heath. People dancing on Downshire Hill. My astonishment, my revulsion, my rapture.

William and Hetta Empson. Their parties, which were never like other parties, not least because it wasn't in Empson to keep quiet, because he spoke incessantly, at an extremely high intellectual level, and never listened to anyone not speaking the same highly cultivated language. In all the decades that I knew him and Hetta, and I lived very near by, this immensely intelligent man, one of the best and most eccentric experts on English literature, who had taught it in China and in Japan, and spent many years in the Orient, did not address so much as a single sentence to me that required an answer. Even today, I do not know whether he had the least notion who I was. Not long after the War, when a school of poets traced its descent from him (as a reaction to the exuberance and excess of Dylan Thomas), I would meet some of them at his parties, who knew my Auto da F��, and took it seriously, and discussed it with me. He himself never saw fit to expend a single word on it, though he must have read it, he was a friend of Arthur Waley's, who never concealed his admiration for that book. I have no means of knowing whether Empson had the least idea of it. He read day and night, a thoroughly intellectual and literary man, Professor of Literature at Sheffield, as renowned for his books on literary topics as for his own poems. I often heard him speak, he had wit and verve, he was quick and confident, talked in streams of interpretative knowledge, very individual opinions and precise knowledge, perhaps the most fluent, inspired, clearest speaker I ever heard in England, among poets.

The longer it is since Mrs Thatcher left power, the gentler and kindlier my recollections of England. Things suddenly come to me that I was pleased to experience there, things that I liked about people who were sensitive and characterful. My vehement aversions didn't get any less, in fact with every memory, they seem to get stronger, I can't form the letters of Eliot's name without needing to inveigh against the man. Perhaps it was the ordering of his life that most irritated me about him, his early agreeing to live the life of the bank clerk, and later on his perfectly taken-for-granted directorship of a highly respected publishing house, which gave him power over the poets. Finally, his decision in old age to write plays for money, he never made any bones about the fact that that was what he was aiming at.

I never had anything to do with him personally. I only knew him veil fleetingly. But, over the course of the years, I did often, at Kathleen Raine's, meet his Cerberus John Hayward, who lived with him in Chelsea, and through whose room Eliot had to go to reach his own. John Harvard was paralysed and wheelchair-bound, he was unable to get around by himself, it always required someone to push him. His face was distorted by a thick lower lip, whose red fleshiness it was impossible to conceal or reduce, and that gave his face a coarse, animalistic expression, quite at variance with the perfectly formed sentences in which he would at all times express himself. He had a thorough knowledge of English literature, in particular of poetry, and he edited anthologies of it that were well regarded. His affliction, his paralysis, set in, so far as I can remember, in Cambridge where he lived earlier, when he was a young man. It was lucky for him that when Eliot moved in with him when he went to Chelsea, that made him a sought-after character. Eliot did not go to parties, it was known that he avoided such occasions, but John Hayward loved to be asked out. Some young woman, usually resident in Chelsea, would be found to fetch him, his flat, unless I'm mistaken, was on the second floor, so he had to be pushed in his wheelchair to the lift, and driven down, taken out of the lift, trundled out into the street, and pushed to wherever the party, was taking place. There was never a shortage of volunteers, in tact, there was a kind of vogue among pretty girls to be seen publicly in this helpful role. Since he loved parties, and loved talking to attractive women, he even had some choice, and was able to express certain preferences. In his conversations with people, he would invariably steer the subject to Eliot, and intimate that he was in a position to secure an invitation to tea with the great man. By offering such a prospect-however remote the chance that it might actually come to pass-he could win over anyone: people respected him still more than he deserved to be for his qualities as a critic, he was sought out at parties, sometimes people stood in line to present themselves to him, and he, knowing perfectly well that such enthusiasm was merely the result of dangling Eliot in front of them, did not scruple to dangle him a little lower.

There are the first years, up to the beginning of the War and beyond; then the time afterwards, in Amersham; and then the long later period in Hampstead. The periods are really quite distinct.

In the early years, you were a lost emigrant, happy enough to have come ashore, precariously through the War, to which you made no contribution, although you understood that it was directed also against you and yours. The wartime attacks on London were at their height at this period. A certain courage-unconcern for personal risk-gave me back my sense of self. There was no need for you to offer to kill anyone. But you weren't a coward either, during those nights when much of London was in flames.

This period began in January 1939 and went on through the War till the autumn of 1941, when we moved out to Amersham, almost three years. Your relative distance from other emigrants, your first English friends, intense friendships with Franz Steiner and Kae Hursthouse. Steiner's being an anthropologist, and Kae Hursthouse a New Zealander, showed me something of the breadth of the English-speaking world; the crucial role that the Student Movement House on Gower Street played in all this.

Before: 1939, Hyde Park Gardens with the Huntingtons. Hyde Park Gardens. The first literary society I experienced in England, a party that was quite unlike any of the later English parties. L. H. Myers, who asked you if you had known Kafka. Philip Toynbee, who asked you the same thing. Talk about the Nazis, it was the time between Munich and Prague. War was in the air. Mrs Huntington, a tall, beautiful woman, who was married to the American director of Putnam publishers; the lift in the house, I was billeted on the top floor, in the room of their daughter Alfreda, my society really was the governess, a Swiss, who had already looked after me in Paris, a crowd of girls in Paris, each one more beautiful than the last. Without thinking about it, it was like being back in the Yalta, but surrounded by Englishwomen. Like Pinkie Esher's house. Alfreda was always especially cordial to me, I can't remember which room she stayed in after her return from Paris. She ran after me down the street once, when she mistakenly thought I was going to the British Museum. A charming, idealistic girl, who wanted to do good in the world; she had a Van Gogh on her walls. But in fact I was not headed for the Reading Room, but for the Warburg Library. Ernst Gombrich, who worked there, had introduced me. It was on a recommendation from his mother that the Huntingtons had taken me in. The Warburg allowed me to borrow books as well.

It was Mr Huntington who was unpleasant to me as soon as I set foot in his house. He asked me whether I had lived in a flat or a house in Vienna. He was surprised to learn that I had a wife living in England as well, I told him she was staying with her brother in Surrey. He asked me what her brother did, and I replied: "He is a small businessman." That hardly applied to Bucky, but I sensed Mr Huntington's snobbishness, and was ashamed to tell the truth. Bucky, married to an Englishwoman from Manchester, was an innocent, well-meaning, rather insignificant man, really a sort of Charlie Chaplin figure, who had already tried all sorts of things in an endeavour to keep himself, his wife and their little boy afloat. In Manchester, he had had a barber's shop. For some years now, he had had a little sweet shop in Lightwater, near Bagshot, Surrey. I was too cowardly to go into detail. Nor would Mr Huntington have cared to hear it, so I said, "He is a small businessman," or I may even have said, "He is a very small businessman," and I'm not sure whether I said his name, Calderon, or not.

The governess, Miss H��bler, was always strict, as she was used to the company of the girls she was trying to turn into young ladies. The great moment in the lives of these beautiful creatures was their presentation at Court. Alfreda's was to be later that year, and when I talked to Miss H��bler in the nursery next to my own room, we would of course talk about that. It was my first introduction to elevated English circles. The other, much more exciting, was a few minutes away, at Hyde Park Corner, where I went on all my free evenings.

England feels very remote to me. I haven't been there for five years now. It's starting to become an island again, an island in the memory, it's on its way to becoming transfigured, already I'm beginning to dream of visiting it, as though it were something from early childhood. I was eighty-three when I was last there. Many things you don't understand in the way they presented themselves to you first. What has it become entangled with now?

What suited me to such a degree that it settled where I would least have expected it? Party political feelings, fed by the newspapers, are the most detrimental. They were always crude, and remain so. But there are other things that were never affected by partisanship, and for a long time remained, so to speak, unmentioned. If some of that surfaces, then you should grasp it right away: it blossoms quickly, and withers away even more quickly.


Excerpted from Party in the Blitzby ELIAS CANETTI Copyright © 2003 by Elias Canetti Estate . Excerpted by permission.
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