Read Auto-da-fé Online

Authors: Elias Canetti

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Literary Criticism, #German, #Novel, #European, #German fiction


BOOK: Auto-da-fé
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To Veza

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

19 Union Square West

New York 10003

Copyright © 1935 by Herbert Reichner Verlag

Copyright renewed 1963 by Elias Canetti

English translation copyright © 1947 by Elias Canetti

Copyright renewed 1963,1974 by Elias Canetti

All rights reserved

Distributed in Canada by Douglas & Mclntyre Ltd.

Printed in the United States of America

First published in 1935 by Herbert Reichner Verlag, Germany, as Die Blendung

First English edition published under the title Auto-da-Fé

First American edition published under the tide The Tower of Babel

First Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition, 1984

First paperback edition, 1984

9 11 13 14 12 10

The Library of Congress has catalogued the hardcover edition as follows: 
Canetti, Elias.

Translation of Die Blendung.
First American ed. published under title: The Tower of Babel.
Reprint. Originally published: New York: Continuum 1947.
I.Title. II. Title: Tower of Babel.
PT2605.A58B553 1984
833'.912                                                        84-10164




'What are you doing here, my little man?'


'Then why are you standing here?'

'Just because.'

'Can you read?'

'Oh, yes.'

'How old are you?'

'Nine and a bit.'

'Which would you prefer, a piece of chocolate or a book?'

'A book.'

'Indeed? Splendid! So that's your reason for standing here?'


'Why didn't you say so before?'

'Father scolds me.'

'Oh. And who is your father?'

'Franz Metzger.'

'Would you like to travel to a foreign country?'

'Yes. To India. They have tigers there.'

'And where else?'

'To China. They've got a huge wall there.'

'You'd like to scramble over it, wouldn't you?'

'It's much too thick and too high. Nobody can get over it. ' That's why they built it.'

'What a lot you know! You must have read a great deal already?'

'Yes. I read all the time. Father takes my books away. I'd like to go to a Chinese school. They have forty thousand letters in their alphabet. You couldn't get them all into one book.'

'That's only what you think.'

'I've worked it out.'

'All the same it isn't true. Never mind the books in the window. They're of no value. I've got something much better here. Wait. I'll show you. Do you know what kind of writing that is?'

'Chinese! Chinese!'

'Well, you're a clever little fellow. Had you seen a Chinese book before?'

'No, I guessed it.'

'These two characters stand for Meng Tse, the philosopher Mencius. He was a great man in China. He lived 2250 years ago and his works are still being read. Will you remember that?'

'Yes. I must go to school now.'

'Aha, so you look into the bookshop windows on your way to school? What is your name?'

'Franz Metzger, like my father.'

'And where do you live?'

'Twenty-four Ehrlich Strasse.'

'I live there too. I don't remember you.'

'You always look the other way when anyone passes you on the stairs. I've known you for ages. You're Professor Kien, but you haven't a school. Mother says you aren't a real Professor. But I think you are — you've got a library. Our Marie says, you wouldn't believe y
our eyes. She's our maid. When I'm grown up I'm going to have a ibrary. With all the books there are, in every language. A Chinese one too, like yours. Now I must run.'

'Who wrote this book? Can you remember?' 

'Meng Tse, the philosopher Mencius. Exactly 2250 years ago.' 

'Excellent. You shall come and see my library one day. Tell my housekeeper I've given you permission. I can show you pictures from India and China.'

'Oh good! I'll come! Of course I'll come! This afternoon?' 

'No, no, little man. I must work this afternoon. In a week at the earliest.'

Professor Peter Kien, a tall, emaciated figure, man of learning and specialist in sinology, replaced the Chinese book in the tightly packed brief case which he carried under his arm, carefully closed it and watched the clever little boy out of sight. By nature morose and sparing of his words, he was already reproaching himself for a conversation into which he had entered for no compelling reason.

It was his custom on his morning walk, between seven and eight o'clock, to look into the windows of every book shop which he passed. He was thus able to assure himself, with a kind of pleasure, that smut and trash were daily gaining ground. He himself was the owner of the most important private library in the whole of this great city. He carried a minute portion of it with him wherever he went. His passion for it, the only one which he had permitted himself during a life of austere and exacting study, moved him to take special precautions. Books, even bad ones, tempted him easily into making a purchase. Fortunately the greater number of the book shops did not open until after eight o'clock. Sometimes an apprentice, anxious to earn his chief's approbation, would come earlier and wait on the doorstep for the first employee whom he would ceremoniously relieve of the latch key. 'I've been waiting since seven o'clock,' he would exclaim, or 'I can't get in!' So much zeal communicated itself all too easily to Kien; with an effort he would master the impulse to follow the apprentice immediately into the shop. Among the proprietors of smaller shops there were one or two early risers, who might be seen busying themselves behind their open doors from half past seven onwards. Defying these temptations, Kien tapped his own well-filled brief-case. He clasped it tightly to him, in a very particular manner which he had himself thought out, so that the greatest possible area of his body was always in contact with it. Even his ribs could feel its presence through lus cheap, thin suit. His upper arm covered the whole side elevation; it fitted exactly. The lower portion of his arm supported the case from below. His outstretched fingers splayed out over every part of the flat surface to which they yearned. He privately excused himself for this exaggerated care because of the value of the contents. Should the brief case by any mischance fall to the ground, or should the lock, which he tested every morning before setting out, spring open at precisely that perilous moment, ruin would come to his priceless volumes. There was nothing he loathed more intensely than battered books.

To-day, when he was standing in front of a bookshop on his way home, a little boy had stepped suddenly between him and the window. Kien felt affronted by the impertinence. True, there was room enough between him and the window. He always stood about three feet away from the glass; but he could easily read every letter behind it. His eyes functioned to his entire satisfaction: a fact notable enough in a man of forty who sat, day in day out, over books and manuscripts. Morning after morning his eyes informed him how well they did. By keeping his distance from these venal and common books, he showed his contempt for them, contempt which, when he compared them with the dry and ponderous tomes of his library, they richly deserved. The boy was quite small, Kien exceptionally tall. He could easily see over lus head. All the same he felt he had a right to greater respect. Before administering a reprimand, however, he drew to one side in order to observe him further. The child stared hard at the titles of the books and moved his lips slowly and in silence. Without a stop his eyes slipped from one volume to the next. Every minute or two he looked back over his shoulder. On the opposite side of the street, over a watchmaker's shop, hung a gigantic clock. It was twenty minutes to eight. Evidently the little fellow was afraid of missing something important. He took no notice whatever of the gentleman standing behind him. Perhaps he was practising his reading. Perhaps he was learning the names of the books by heart. He devoted equal attention to each in turn. You could see at once when anything held up his reading for a second.

Kien felt sorry for him. Here was he, spoiling with this depraved fare an eager spiritual appetite, perhaps already hungry for the written word. How many a worthless book might he not come to read in later life for no better reason than an early familiarity with its title? By what means is the suggestibility of these early years to be reduced? No sooner can a child walk and make out his letters than he is surrendered at mercy to the hard pavement of any ill-built street, and to the wares of any wretched tradesman who, the devil knows why, has set himself up as a dealer in books. Young children ought to be brought up in some important private library. Daily conversation with none but serious minds, an atmosphere at once dim, hushed and intellectual, a relentless training in the most careful ordering both of time and of space, — what surroundings could be more suitable to assist these delicate creatures through the years of childhood? But the only person in this town who possessed a library which could be taken at all seriously was he, Kien, himself. He could not admit children. His work allowed him no such diversions. Children make a noise. They have to be constantly looked after. Their welfare demands the services of a woman. For cooking, an ordinary housekeeper is good enough. For children, it would be necessary to engage a mother. If a mother could be content to be nothing but a mother: but where would you find one who would be satisfied with that particular part alone? Each is a specialist first and foremost as a woman, and would make demands which an honest man of learning would not even dream of fulfilling. Kien repudiated the idea of a wife. Women had been a matter of indifference to him until this moment; a matter of indifference they would remain. The boy with the fixed eyes and the moving head would be the loser.

Pity had moved him to break his usual custom and speak to him. He would gladly have bought himself free of the prickings of his pedagogic conscience with the gift of a piece of chocolate. Then it appeared that there are nine-year-old children who prefer a book to a piece of chocolate. What followed surprised him even more. The child was interested in China. He read against his father's will. The stories of the difficulties of the Chinese alphabet fascinated instead of frightening him. He recognized the language at first sight, without having seen it before. He had passed an intelligence test with distinction. When shown the book, he had not tried to touch it. Perhaps he was ashamed of his dirty hands. Kien had looked at them: they were clean. Another boy would have snatched the book, even with dirty ones. He was in a hurry — school began at eight — yet he had stayed until the last possible minute. He had fallen upon that invitation like one starving; his father must be a great torment to him. He would have liked best to come on that very afternoon, in the middle of the working day. After all, he lived in the same house.

Kien forgave himself for the conversation. The exception which he had permitted seemed worth while. In his thoughts he saluted the child — now already out of sight — as a rising sinologist. Who indeed took an interest in these remote branches of knowledge? Boys played football, adults went to work; they wasted their leisure hours in love. So as to sleep for eight hours and waste eight hours, they were willing to devote themselves for the rest of their time to hateful work. Not only their bellies, their whole bodies had become theif gods. The sky God of the Chinese was sterner and more dignified. Even if the little fellow did not come next week, unlikely though that was, he would have a name in his head which he would not easily forget: the philosopher Mong. Occasional collisions unexpectedly encountered determine the direction of a lifetime.

Smiling, Kien continued on his way home. He smiled rarely. Rarely, after all, is it the dearest wish of a man to be the owner of a library. As a child of nine he had longed for a book shop. Yet the idea that he would walk up and down in it as its proprietor had seemed to him even then blasphemous. A bookseller is a king, and a king cannot be a bookseller. But he was still too little to be a salesman. As for an errand boy — errand boys were always being sent out of the shop. What pleasure would he have of the books, if he was only allowed to carry them as parcels under his arm? For a long while he sought for some way out of the difficulty. One day he did not come home after school. He went into the biggest bookstore in the town, six great show windows all full of books, and began to howl at the top of his voice. 'I want to leave the room, quick, I'm going to have an accident!'he blubbered. They showed him the way at once. He took careful note of it. When he came out again he thanked them and asked if he could not do something to help. His beaming face made them laugh. Only a few moments before it had been screwed up into such comic anguish. They drew him out in conversation; he knew a great deal about books. They thought him sharp for his age. Towards the evening they sent him away with a heavy parcel. He travelled there and back on the tram. He had saved enough pocket money to afford it. Just as the shop was closing — it was already growing dark — he announced that he had completed his errand and put down the receipt on the counter. Someone gave him an aeid drop for a reward. While the staff were pulling on their coats he glided noiselessly into the back regions to his lavatory hide-out and bolted himself in. Nobody noticed it; they were all thinking of the free evening before them. He waited a long time. Only after many hours, late at night, did he dare to come out. It was dark in the shop. He felt about for a switch. He had not thought of that by daylight. But when he found it and his hand had already closed over it, he was afraid to turn on the light. Perhaps someone would see him from the street and haul him off home.

BOOK: Auto-da-fé
10.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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