Vivid portraits, affectionate but unsparing, of people encountered by Nobel laureate Canetti (Notes from Hampstead, 1998, etc.) while living in England.
Canetti (1905–94) was very social, and he encountered a good swathe of personalities from the moment he arrived in England in 1939. He found warmth, sensitivity and integrity in the ordinary folks who swept streets and rented rooms. He was less taken with the artists, intellectuals, politicians and aristocrats who constituted the bulk of his acquaintance (and a cross-section of England’s hierarchy). T.S. Eliot represented for Canetti all that was thin-lipped, cold-hearted and prematurely old in British life. Of Eliot’s fame, he writes, “Is it possible ever to repent sufficiently of that?” He was just as judgmental about Iris Murdoch, though she had been his occasional lover: “Iris is what I would call an ‘illegitimate’ writer. She never suffered from having to write.” Recounting his associations with a panorama of English characters, Canetti is by turns a memoirist, satirist and anthropologist. The volcanic emotions expressed here are perhaps best understood as his response to the chilliness of British manners. He hated the polite, implacably hierarchal laws of English society, a stance that allowed him to admire Conservative MP Enoch Powell’s passion while stating that “I don’t know that I have ever encountered anyone quite so antithetical to everything I stand for.” He found more common ground with thoughtful eccentrics like the inventor Geoffrey Pyke and the Orientalist Arthur Waley. Before leaving for Zurich in 1984, Canetti got off a final salvo, this one at Margaret Thatcher’s government: “the claque of the apostles of selfishness.”
A fresh and color-drenched memoir by an artist unafraid to offend.