Swans Commentary » swans.com April 21, 2014  



Looking For Elias Along The Danube


by Peter Byrne





"The literatures of the civilized languages she knew became the true substance of her life."
—Elias Canetti, of his mother


(Swans - April 21, 2014)   Spring had come to Bulgaria. There had been a string of sunny, mild afternoons and Sofia had turned white with blossoms. Shrubs had green tips. Trees stepped forward and showed baby leaves. The forsythia was bright yellow. I bundled Gabri into the car. It was the Easter holiday, a high point of the year for Orthodox Christians. Where were we going? To the Danube, I said. That sounded the right note and convinced her. Her agreement was essential, for though I held the map, she was doing the driving. We were well on the way before our exact destination on the river came up. It does stretch all along the top of Bulgaria.

The city of Ruse, I explained. Then we got absorbed by beginnings. Everything was blooming. Staid trees, remembered either as burnt-brown and asleep or dull green and resting, were putting flamboyance on. The hawthorn ran like a contagion along the roadside. Lilacs came out from wherever they were hiding and posed prettily. We hurried through a green blur in a giddy race with spring.

I spoiled the innocent fun by admitting, gingerly, that I wanted to check out the birthplace of a writer in the fifth largest city of Bulgaria. This had to seem dreary as we looked out on freshly-turned fields. Workers were bent over like jewelers busy at the back of clocks doing intricate things to the soil. Where hay had been cut, no lonely worker on a machine but a dozen variegated figures would be tidying up the field.

Admitting that the writer in question was no young romantic but a nasty misanthrope dead since 1994 did not help my case. Nor that he was Nobel laureate for literature in 1981, for that meant, rightly as far as Elias Canetti went, no easy reading. Gabri wanted to know why I changed my thinking about the irrelevancy of visiting a writer's home. Hadn't I said it was always a let-down and chilly with the absence of his written words? Hmm. Yes. But this was different. I didn't want to rock his cradle, but to situate him in Ruse. The city couldn't have been called Little Vienna for nothing. In 1905 at Elias's birth, Germanic culture dominated the Danube right to Constantinople. His father read the Viennese Neue Freie Presse every day. Bulgaria and Romania, which bordered it across the Danube, were Ottoman provinces.

So? asked Gabri. Well, the Canettis were Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century and settled in Ottoman lands. The family were prosperous merchants in Ruse. In his infancy Elias tells us he might hear seven or eight languages in one day. There were Greeks, Albanians, Turks, Armenians, Romanians, Gypsies, Russians, and of course Bulgarians. His father and mother had studied in Vienna where they had fallen in love. Their affection for one another was mixed up with their love for German. They excluded others, including Elias, by speaking it together. Ladino, the Spanish of the Sephardim, was the household and neighborhood vernacular and both parents spoke it to friends, relatives, and their children. Everyone knew Bulgarian. Elias would soon learn English.

Gabri saw the fascination of the polyglot world, but was that all? I delivered my punch line. Elias Canetti would live in London from 1938 and become a British citizen in 1952. Yet he would always write in German. The Nobel honored him as a German writer and so did Germany. Yet in the order of learning, German was his fourth language. The reason for this anomaly was curious. It was his mother.

Elias's parents had enough of Ruse and the tyrannical Canetti grandfather. They went to Manchester where Elias's father was offered a partnership in the thriving business of his brother-in-law. At six Elias started in an English school. But the move was immediately darkened by the death of his father at thirty-one. Elias's passionate mother was suicidal and clung to him, her eldest son, and to the life in German she had lived with her husband. In 1913, at eight, she took him to Switzerland and obsessively began to teach him German from scratch. She was preparing him for school in Vienna where they soon went to live. The first volume of Elias's great four-volume autobiography would be translated as The Tongue Set Free.

Ruse, when we got there, never mind my history lecture, was naturally, in the way of reality, a complete surprise. Gabri set aside my tale of Ottoman Ruse as a fairy tale. We got a room in an ex-state hotel around the corner from the ex-Lenin Square. From our window we looked out on a long facade in fake Renaissance, circa 1890. It was clearly a civic glory and under restoration. There were old stone figures along the top, some of them with wings. The recently departed regime had added its own fancies, workers of both sexes. One stout proletarian held a sledge hammer made artistic by being scaled down to a croquet mallet.

We walked around without aim, telling ourselves we would be serious next morning. There was a cultural center in a decent modern building. Behind it stood a small Byzantine church, sunken below ground according to requirements of the Turkish era. It was the eve of Orthodox Easter with a promise of excitement in the air, but for tomorrow. We went back to the hotel and watched a basketball game in Phoenix, Arizona, on TV. I couldn't adjust the set and the black players looked gray. We could hear Americans mumbling on the audio but, in voice-over, a Bulgarian suspiciously familiar with the players always had the last word. We went to bed.

Next day everything was holiday fine, sunny with a wind from the south. We set out with decision across ex-Lenin Square. A troupe of girls in traditional costume sat on some ornamental steps. Music, a kind of polka, blared out from all sides. What mustn't the Leninists have served up through this mighty amplifying system in the way of ponderous pep talks? Old folk were settling for the day on the benches. Kids fought to get astride the crumbling lion on a monument. In the road beyond the Square a steady flow of people in their Sunday best walked against us.

We found the Spagnoli, the former quarter of the Sephardic Jews. They had lived over their shops in stylish end-of-century houses that were sometimes quite substantial. If they had originally hailed from Spain and points east, their houses came the other way, down the Danube from Mitteleuropa. The variety of styles was affecting, all nonnative and cheerfully imitative. There was tiny-tot Victorian Gothic, fat shopkeepers' villa-Rococo, the occasional rough shield of southern Baroque, a selection of cupolas, blown-up onions, and Haussmann-swollen roof lines. The architecture was naive magic to coax Europe into the depths of the Balkans. Not to be oriental was, according to Elias, the urge of his milieu.

The Spagnoli cries out to be happily lived in. It's not far from the center of the city and slopes proprietorially down to the Danube. But though still remarkably intact, life has been washed away. The Jews have mostly gone. The First World War shook them up like everyone else and the Second World War decimated them. Danubian German culture didn't survive the Third Reich. During the interwar years, Bulgaria, in the Balkan way, built up its national myth. The Communist regime followed suit. There was no room for cosmopolitanism. The Spagnoli that had been the city's heart was an inheritance no one knew what to do with.

Grandfather Canetti's shop and house still stands stoutly prosperous. A businessman home from Vienna pointed it out to us. He knew Elias received the Nobel Prize but not much else about him. He said it was an Easter custom to give presents and he fetched a bottle of wine for us from the back of his car. Around the corner another local was burning the paint off the woodwork of a shop door. He put down his blowtorch and wandered off to talk to a friend. It was Sunday, after all. Thanks to the lethargy of Bulgarian retail trade for half a century, the shop fronts haven't been modernized. The fine proportions of the facades haven't been spoiled. We made an old couple nervous studying their neogothic doorway as they dawdled in their garden. Their neighbor of a century before had built an intrusive mediaeval tower that had become as welcome with the years as the trees he planted. The old folks closed their gate twice and studied us.

Elias's birthplace was supposedly around the corner, but we couldn't find it. A grandfather and his son pushing two toddlers wanted to help us. Were we Russian? they ask. No, I said, Italian, simplifying but wondering what my mother would think of that. Grandad, a former sailor, went on about the beauty of Naples and Venice. He puts his fingers to his lips in an attempt at a Latin fingertip kiss. It wasn't quite right but admirably demonstrative for a Bulgarian. With the air of a man who knows everyone, he asked us the name of the family we sought. I said Canetti but didn't say they had been gone for a century. He didn't know them. Neither did his son. The kids weren't talking. We all smiled and the Bulgarians wheeled back into their sunny Sunday.

We ended up in a courtyard with several buildings around it. On one house we spied a quite new plaque behind a high shrub saying Elias Canetti was born there. A young woman who popped out of the doorway to hang up her washing jumped in surprise at the sight of us. She might well have cleared away the big tub that Elias at six had been elbowed into by his cousin Laurica. He enraged her by saying she didn't know anything about writing. Indeed he'd chased her with an axe over the matter. The tub was full of Danube water just off the boil. Elias, near death with burns, had insisted his father could save his life if he came back from his business trip in a hurry. He returned, and Elias got better. Afterward in Manchester his father died. Who then could save his life? Only his mother. It was the beginning of a love affair. But would she not also die someday? Elias's autobiography paints their paradise for two implicit with tragedy. There was no solution but to become a writer. Death led to Elias's long life of pen-wielding convalescence. Gabri and I tried to make sense of the other buildings around the courtyard. But the story had gone cold. We would have to go away and stare at the words in Elias's books. The Sephardim had gone where the century had gone. Their synagogue has become the regional headquarters for the football betting commission.

The Balkan spring had us, like every one else, in the palm of its hand. We roamed the long park above the Danube. There was room for everybody and his dog, beer drinkers with their elbows on the table, fat women fighting with their husbands over which path to take. We met a mother who wanted to show off her daughter's English. Hypocrites, we praised the beauty of Ruse over Sofia. Of course, said the girl, Ruse is older. We ask the mother if that was the Friendship Bridge to Romania in the distance. Yes, she says, but we're not friends with them. The ammonia fumes in the air came from the other bank.

We went down to the Danube. It was in flood, covering the grass on the margins. The water raced. The railway hogged the shore, tank cars parked. Industrial odds and ends encumbered the horizon. The mess reached brazen proportions across the river on the Romanian side with its notorious chemical plant. We heard the deep silence of Sunday in a world made for work. A big family group, out-of-towners, came down to snap a photo. Two young soldiers were the uniformed jewels of the company. Their dress outfit included a dagger in a scabbard on their belly. A little boy made a grab at one but was pushed off with a Sunday push. The other soldier lingered behind to embrace his girlfriend. She was interested in the dagger too. The group went off after a self-conscious look at the river. They had taken their photo.

Back in the mainstream of the city, people were still very much out and about. Many carried flowers, a Bulgarian predilection. Two small evangelical churches were crowded with worshippers. Religion too had come down the Danube. In ex-Lenin Square, everyone was relaxing. There were no festivities to speak of, no speeches, no games, even the music got turned off early. Nothing had to be proven. People simply sat enjoying the company and the fine weather. The old squeezed together on benches, joking about their arthritis. The trip to the Square for a sit-down was a special event. Bench space was at a premium.

A grandmother and her middle-aged daughter sat beside a weaselly-faced man. He was one of those drunks who spoke with authority as if representing a constituency. He gave his bawdy interpretation of the universe and for good measure made a hole with the fingers of his left hand and passed his right forefinger through it. The old woman made a vigorous denial, but with obvious amusement. The younger one backed her up though with a generation's less zeal. The two of them went off. A young weasel, maybe eleven, came and helped the drunk to get up. Standing, he was an incapacitated faun, bent far over on a cane. The boy wore one of the man's suits from the years when he was still upright. The impression was that the two of them, boy and suit, had to follow the drunk around all day for some ritual Easter reason. Gabri and I went back to the hotel.

We had enough of not finding Elias in Ruse, and the next day got in the car and drove east to the Friendship Bridge that connected Bulgaria to Romania. Its approach was fitted out with off-the-shelf classical columns. The hostility toward Romania of the Ruse locals we'd spoken to had weighed with us. We didn't want into a country just then that sent ammonia fumes south over the Danube. We would save Romania for another Easter. Elias as an infant had a Romanian wet nurse. In middle age he wrote that he couldn't remember her face but felt warm whenever he heard the word Romania.

We turned down a country road to start the long drive back to Sofia. Gabri had enjoyed the trip so far but had to wax ironic about my quest. She asked me what I would have said to Elias if per chance I'd met him in my London years. Nothing, I said. Like a number of great writers he was a son of a bitch. I did my chatting with minor scribblers. She said that anyone who still got hot sixty years later for his wet nurse couldn't be all bad. I told her to read Party in the Blitz, the fourth volume of his autobiography that was published after his death. Elias strained all his life to dominate women. John Bayley, Iris Murdoch's husband, whom he cuckolded, called Elias the Hampstead monster and described him: "Squat, almost dwarfish, with a massive head of thick black hair, he looked like a giant cut short at the waist, what the Germans call a Sitzriese."

To whet Gabri's appetite, I quoted from memory what Elias had written about Iris Murdoch, novelist and philosopher, who had been one of his mistresses for several years: "I don't think there is anything that leaves me as cold as that woman's intellect." He felt that love making for Iris was "an indifferent act," and "everything I despise about English life is in her." Gabri is Italian so this didn't put her off. I had to come on with Elias's worst to put an end to his part of our trip. "I could not ignore the ugliness of her feet. She had a bearlike walk, but it was a repulsive bear."

Gabri winced and couldn't understand how the man who so loved his mother, to whom in a way he owed the Nobel Prize, had such contempt for women. Nor could I, but suggested she should ask a psychiatrist about that. Love for his mother is the theme music of his memoirs. But in his one novel, the great Auto da Fé, he created the housekeeper Therese who drives her savant employer mad and is perhaps the most despicable woman in literature since the witches in Macbeth. Gabri wanted to know what psychiatry would have to say. It was my turn to wince and put my foot in it no further than to say there was something strange about Elias's immense Crowds and Power. It was a five-hundred page study of ideas that never mentioned Karl Marx and only referred to Sigmund Freud in a footnote.

Dropping Elias for good, we kept an eye out for the first shepherd. Bulgaria isn't a country of fences. Shepherds and cowherds are a feature of the landscape and occasionally of cityscapes. They are generally not in the prime of life but young or old, sometimes women. There's a definite shepherd's stance, based on a staff, usually without a crook and short enough to pass as a stick. Open hands, one on the other, perch on top, part of a watchful resting pose. Or one hand can top the stick and tilt it out, cautiously exerting responsibility. The shepherd's clothes are old and tend to swathe him. The timeless picture is always completed by a dog or two, heads up and alert, on the fringe of the flock. The number of sheep might be a hundred or so. Goats are separated with a touch of contempt in view of their constitutional giddiness. Cows tend to be gathered in threes or fours with the cowherd stretched out on a ditch side in an off-duty way toying with a switch and smoking a cigarette. Sometimes a cow wears a lead around its neck and is pegged down in a patch of grass munching away quite indifferent to solitude.

We saw one fine example in the late afternoon and got talking about the dandelions that had suddenly appeared everywhere. Gabri said they were no more weeds than wildflowers. I said a philosopher would make distinctions. Later in the year they would be weeds, but just now, in April, they were as much a vegetable as leaf lettuce. Then night descended on Bulgaria and we held our peace, that is to say, we shut up.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 21, 2014