(1905 – 1994)
In 1981, Bulgarian-born author Elias Canetti received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his body of work that crossed many disciplines and contained insights and analyses of crowd dynamics and obsessive behaviors. His bestknown books are Auto-da-fe´ (1935–1936) and Crowds and Power (1960).
Elias Jacques Canetti was born in Russe, Bulgaria, on July 25, 1905, the oldest of the three sons of Sephardic merchant Jacques Canetti and his wife, Mathilde, ne´e Arditti. The Canettis and the Ardittis were descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. Many of these Jews had settled in countries in eastern Europe. While the Jewish population in Bulgaria was small relative to other eastern European countries, Jews had a special status there with much self-administration led by a chief rabbi. Mathilde Canetti, the most influential person in her son’s childhood and adolescence, used her enthusiasm for literature, notably dramas and novels, as a medium for Elias’s education and inspired him to become an author and intellectual.
At home, Canetti’s family spoke Ladino, the language of the Sephardim in the Balkan states and around the Mediterranean. Ladino is derived from medieval Spanish and contains elements of Hebrew and non-Jewish languages. In addition, Canetti was exposed to Bulgarian, Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, Albanian, Armenian, Romanian, and Russian. His parents spoke German with one another as their intimate language and as a code when they did not want their children to understand what they were saying. The German language thus assumed a special fascination for the young Canetti, and he later adopted the language for his intellectual and literary pursuits.
Literature at Heart of British Education
When Canetti was six years old, his father escaped the oppressive situation of working in a family business in a small eastern European town by joining his brother-in-law’s business in Manchester, England, then still a center of industry as it had been since the late eighteenth-century beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Mathilde Canetti welcomed the move. She was eager to remove her children from the influence of her Orthodox in-laws, and she liked England because of its democratic tradition.
Young Elias learned English without difficulty and was able to start school. In Manchester, his father introduced him to literature and the life of the imagination, discussing what the boy read, including The Arabian Nights Grimm’s fairy tales, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719–1722), Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), tales from William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615), the works of Dante, and Friedrich von Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell (1804). He later said that he was grateful to his father for never telling him that fairy tales were untrue.
Moved to Continent after Father’s Death
In October 1912, Jacques Canetti died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Around the same time, the Balkan Wars of 1912 to 1913 began, posing an increasing threat to the families in Bulgaria. The wars were fought in eastern Europe over who would control the balance of power in the area as the Ottoman Empire reached its final decline. Unable to tolerate life with her husband’s brothers, Mathilde Canetti moved the family to Vienna in May 1913. Convinced that Elias was destined to become a prominent author, his mother encouraged him in his intellectual aspirations. In 1916, the family moved again to Zurich,
Switzerland, to avoid the ravages of World War I. Caused by increased tensions in the Balkans, entangling alliances, and the final catalyst of the assassination of the Austro- Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand, the so-called Great War enveloped nearly the whole of Europe in the mid- to late 1910s and saw massive loss of life. Despite the horrors of the conflict, the Swiss capital was a safe haven for Canetti during his formative years. At the age of fourteen, he completed his first literary work, a historical tragedy titled ‘‘Junius Brutus.’’ Much to Canetti’s dismay, in 1921, Mathilde Canetti moved to Frankfurt with her sons. Read the rest of this entry