Party in the Blitz: the English Years
by Elias Canetti; translated by Michael Hofmann
New Directions Paperbook (2010, $13.95)
Reviewed by Cooper Renner

The chief delights of Party in the Blitz, the first work by Nobel laureate Canetti which I have read, are the vigorous intelligence with which he expresses his opinions and the insider's look at English literary and artistic society of the mid-twentieth century. Though born in Bulgaria and living primarily in Vienna when he was younger, Canetti spent many years in England, especially as a refugee from the dangers of Hitler. Party, his fourth autobiographical volume, was assembled from several versions of the work left incomplete at his death. In no sense a typical autobiography (as Jeremy Adler's afterword makes clear), the work focuses on the people with whom Canetti associated in those decades -- whether famous or unknown -- and on his views of various aspects of English society, particularly the parties common to the literary elite.

"Part of the point," he writes, "was having a lot of people in a limited space, it was almost to be a crush, and yet they were supposed to take avoiding action, and not so much as brush against one another. The art of them is standing terribly close to someone else, and betraying nothing significant of oneself." (p. 56)

Later in the book he describes an evening at the house of a collector of Surrealist art. An air raid took place during the party, which continued with music playing and couples making out, while volunteer firemen came and went with buckets of sand, working feverishly to put out fires in the neighborhood. (pp. 147-9) Just a few pages earlier, Canetti mentions watching dogfights from Hampstead Heath.
While these sections remind one that a war was going on during several of the years the book covers, the author's gaze turns primarily elsewhere. By the book's second page, for example, Canetti is already on the attack. "I was living in England as its intellect decayed. I was witness to the fame of a T.S. Eliot. Is it possible for people ever to repent sufficiently of that?" Eliot, he writes later, "arrogantly, almost shamelessly, dismissed all Romantic writing. I hope he will never be forgiven in particular for the words he applied to Blake." (p. 123) Whether one agrees with Canetti on Eliot, the glee with which he renders his pronouncements is almost charming in comparison to a period such as ours when criticism is almost always prudently couched. Canetti is equally vivid in his overall endorsement of English literature as a whole. "It's true there is no English Hölderlin, but there is everything else, and better." (p. 24) In praise of Diana Spearman, he says, "What she did know a lot about was English literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which is such a rich field, that merely be reading that and nothing else, one can become a fairly complete human being." (p. 102) But he does not, as his comments on Eliot make clear, necessarily adore all those admired by his compatriots. He is dismissive of Freud and psychoanalysis and "Jung's banalities." (p. 64) With other figures, some of whom he knew closely, he can be both harsh and generous. Iris Murdoch, with whom he had an affair, receives an often sharply negative assessment, but Canetti also points out her loyalty and gratitude, as well as his own appreciation for her talents as a listener. Other writers who make appearances include Kathleen Raine, Herbert Read and Arthur Waley. Canetti is quite magnanimous in his praise of Waley's translations from the Chinese.
Canetti's detailed portrait of Gordon Milburn -- in whose house in Chesham Bois Canetti and his wife Veza, also a writer, lodged at one point -- highlights the author's interest in "ordinary" people as well as the notable. Formerly an Anglican clergyman who had served in India, Milburn was, in Canetti's opinion, utterly void of emotion and yet capable of being transfigured by Hölderlin's poetry. "What never failed to astonish me about him was the richness of the sects he had tried out. He pulled on each one like a jacket, and then took it off again, he didn't throw any away, he kept them all, just as if they had been old clothes. . ." (p. 41) A much more moving character study is that of the street sweeper of Chesham Bois of whom Canetti writes, "In the course of those years, I met many of the local people. He was the only one whom I wholeheartedly loved." (p. 51)
Although Canetti does not spend a great deal of time discussing the political currents of those mid-century years (Adler's afterword serves to fill in some voids), he takes the time to excoriate Margaret Thatcher, who had not long been out of power as he wrote these pages in his old age, and what he saw England become under her guidance. "The supreme preacher in the country was a woman who tirelessly rejected whatever was done for other people," he writes. He calls her government one "whose one and only prescription for everything was selfishness," and he goes on to say, "The state proudly declared it would no longer provide for anything, because everyone was to provide for themselves, and who goes around cleaning other people's streets? [. . .] For other people, everything was too expensive; for oneself, nothing was." (pp. 185-6)
In addition to Adler's forty-page afterword, there are several helpful pages of notes, explaining mostly the identities of various persons in the text. Because the book is an assemblage from a work in progress, there is a kind of disjointedness to it, but this hardly detracts from the work as a whole, which offers a fascinating look not only into a vanished social milieu but also into the noted writer's mind.