A Review of Veza Canetti's
Yellow Street (New Directions, $10.95)
and The Tortoises (New Directions, $14.95)
Cooper Renner

Veza Canetti's two surviving novels display rich interactions of characters in their place -- 1930s Vienna and environs -- as well as a brilliantly observed, quasi-journalistic narrative stance. Canetti wrote the stories which make up the "novel in five scenes" Yellow Street and published them in Viennese newspapers in the early '30s, and their absurdist humor bears some resemblance to Kafka's and goes some distance toward softening the sometimes casual brutality of the characters toward each other. Runkel, the tiny and horribly deformed "monster" of the first story is both cruel and victim of cruelty; peremptory, astute and, finally, a figure of pathos. Herr Iger is a universally admired benefactor to the public but a boorish wife-beater at home. Emilie Jaksch, who offers her services as a maidservant through Frau Hatvany's unscrupulous employment agency, learns that, if she attempts suicide by jumping in the canal but survives long enough to be rescued, the police will provide her with food and lodging until they find a good job for her. The novel's true protagonist is of course Yellow Street itself, where a five-year-old girl (and her guardian dog), without the slightest awareness of what she is doing, can provide an appropriate comeuppance to a corrupt banker, and even residents inured by hard times can turn their righteous anger on a businesswoman like Frau Hatvany when they find out that she is sending some of her "girls" into prostitution.
The much more solemn The Tortoises, written after Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and Canetti and her husband (the writer Elias Canetti) were allowed to flee to England, might almost be the work of a different woman, especially in the heavily explicative paragraphs of the first few pages. But as the story's impetus takes hold and the characters begin to converse and interact, Canetti's precise and careful observations make it clear this is still the work of the author of Yellow Street, though shorn of much of the humor so redolent of the earlier book. In The Tortoises, the residents of a village not far outside Vienna deal with the Nazi occupation, the suddenly revealed antipathy to Jewish neighbors who had previously been respected, the soul-eating fear of those who have been told they must leave the Reich, but are unable to obtain visas to enter another country. Esteemed writer Andreas Kain and his wife Eva are the central characters, forced to give up more and more of their lodgings to a German officer as they await their visas, cheered by teenaged neighbor Hilde who insists she will get the money from her father to buy an airplane from the officer and fly them to safety. Even through the horror of what is occurring around them, the Jewish characters and their oppressors observe the conventions of polite behavior, the veneer of culture forcing them to act as though everything is almost normal. Canetti's language is not in any sense of the word flat, but her general adherence to the Modernist dictum Show, don't tell can serve both to heighten and to render bearable the tragedy as it unfolds because she refuses to employ melodrama to force the reader's hand. The only serious flaw in the book is the peculiar conversation (in the chapter "The Airplane Crashes") which reads more like a philosophical dialogue than actual words spoken by living characters.
Written in the 1930s but not published in book form until decades after the author's death in 1963, Yellow Street and The Tortoises are first-rate achievements: the former a welcome addition to that short shelf of books whose pungent humor makes a particular place and time both incredibly real and nearly nightmarish at the same time; the latter an exemplary exploration of Nazism as it grew in monstrosity even while casting an eye toward foreign opinion. The reader who pairs the latter with Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Française will go a long way toward understanding what the Third Reich was like as an occupying power and how the exercise of imperial might necessarily brutalizes both occupied and occupier.