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.
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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