Book Review

Auto Da Fé by Elias Canetti

the worst book I can remember reading

This is probably going to be an incredibly short review as it is time for me to go to sleep and I don’t want to waste any more time thinking about this dull, self-important, tired minor piece of literature. I very nearly didn’t finish reading Elias Canetti’s Auto Da Fé, which would have been the first book I’d abandoned since before puberty. I almost didn’t finish it because it’s shit, and whatever reason led me to excitedly buy a copy several years ago and then turn to, excitedly, now, was utter bullshit. This is not a “lost classic”, this is a shit novel.

Auto Da Fé was first published in English in 1946, and translated from German by C. V. Wedgwood. I’d love to be able to accuse Wedgwood of being the shitshow here, but that would be colossally wrong: it’s not that the rhythm and the meaning of words and sentences are off, it’s that every fucking chapter is too long, every fucking sentence is too long, everything about it is too too much and I even fell asleep reading it, which hasn’t happened to me since educational institutions demanded I read Dickens.

The book is gently anti-Semitic and extremely misogynistic. The promised auto-da-fé (what the Spanish Inquisition called burning the heretics to death) doesn’t occur until literally the last page, where it has zero emotional resonance and no development of plot to impact upon. Auto Da Fé has a pleasant first chapter, where a reclusive bibliophile has a positive encounter with an intellectual child outside a bookstore. However, rather than moving towards the thawing of a grumpy old man, the book instead never gets close to humanising its protagonist again, as he has a massive breakdown and starts hallucinating, is tricked out of his fortune by a “Jewish hunchbacked dwarf”, thinks he has murdered his hated wife (who he does not and has never desired) even though she isn’t dead, and in the end his estranged psychologist brother has to rock up from Paris to sort everything out, only for said bibliophile to torch himself and his library at the book’s end.

There isn’t enough plot to fill a fucking paragraph, and Canetti stretches each minor incident over tens of pages. It is slow and turgid, it is so boring that I felt tired reading it: I had to neck a coffee for every chapter I read. It took me ages to read. And me all preparing to leave gorgeous Spain and return to hated England, I just wanted a lovely fucking book to read as I moped around packing up my (so far) best life. 

Auto Da Fé is not that book. Perhaps it is trying to be funny, and as comedy is the most quickly-ageing of the genres, it may just be that seventy-year-old literary bourgeois fucking jokes don’t have any value any more, be that in terms of “entertainment” or “literature”. Canetti’s characters are weakly drawn and classist, racist and sexist, and the only moments when the book has any satisfying cohesion is the few chapters near the end when the psychologist brother arrives to tidy things up. A novel about madness and confusion and psychological collapse needs to be coherent to itself: one doesn’t evoke confusion by being confusing: I wasn’t fucking confused, I was bored: it is a dire, dire, dire, book and I regret, deeply, having read it.

That’ll do for now. Avoid this fucking shit novel. Tbf though it is a lovely edition so I will be keeping it forever.

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6 comments on “Auto Da Fé by Elias Canetti

  1. It’s one of my favourite books. I’ve read it twice and will no doubt read it again. I don’t know why you continued with it if you hated it so much – I wouldn’t have.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Working class attitude to literature: abandoning books is not allowed, like leaving meat or restraining the self at a free bar.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t like abandoning books either but if I really don’t get on with a book I sometimes tell myself that I’ve just paused my reading and that I’ll come back to it—sometimes I do but sometimes I just forget about it.

        Liked by 1 person

    • But also, as a serious question, what do you like about it? Is it better in German?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wish I could read it in German but I can’t—I read the same translation as you, only the old Picador version. I seem to have a thing for European and American authors and books from the ’20s and ’30s; I guess they were extreme times. Auto-da-fé fits in with the works of Kafka and Beckett IMO. I love novels with grotesque and, yes, unsavoury characters and this one has them in spades. Kien’s descent into the city’s underworld is both funny and disturbing as Kien has no idea of the world outside of academia. For the modern reader it has another level of interest in that we are witnessing a time and place that will shortly see the rise of totalitarianism and we can see the sort of characters in this book that will support the Nazis. The book is brutish and sordid but I also found it inventive and funny.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Canetti himself was Jewish. The book is a critique of fascist thought and how destructive it can be. His BIG book, Crowds and Power, is very lucid and I think it takes some type of special ability to write something as disorienting and frankly bland, but to me, symbolically significant as Auto Da Fe. The German title is a bit more fitting but there’s a reason he chose the English title.

    Liked by 2 people

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