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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir

Party in the Blitz

Elias Canetti

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To purchase Party in the Blitz

Title: Party in the Blitz
Author: Elias Canetti
Genre: Memoir
Written: (2003) (Eng. 2005)
Length: 228 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Party in the Blitz - US
Party in the Blitz - UK
Party in the Blitz - Canada
Party im Blitz - Deutschland
Les Années anglaises - France
  • Translated by Michael Hofmann
  • German title: Party im Blitz
  • Die englischen Jahre
  • Edited by Kristian Wachinger
  • With an afterword by Jeremy Adler
  • With twelve photographs
  • Written 1991-4; first published posthumously in 2003

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating if incomplete accounts of mid-century England

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 12-1/2006 Marjorie Perloff
FAZ A- 11/10/2003 Andreas Platthaus
The Guardian . 9/7/2005 Peter Conradi
The Independent . 29/7/2005 Carole Angier
Independent on Sunday . 14/8/2005 Tim Martin
The Nation . 5/12/2005 John Banville
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 6/10/2003 Martin Meyer
The New Republic . 17/10/2005 Frank Kermode
The NY Sun . 27/7/2005 Eric Ormsby
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/10/2005 Clive James
The Observer . 7/8/2005 Tim Adams
San Francisco Chronicle . 2/10/2005 Anthony Giardina
The Spectator . 23/7/2005 Ferdinand Mount
Sunday Times . 17/7/2005 John Carey
The Telegraph . 27/7/2005 Alex Clark
The Telegraph . 27/7/2005 John Gross
TLS . 2/9/2005 Ritchie Robertson
The Washington Post . 2/10/2005 Michael Dirda
Die Welt . 23/8/2003 Ulrich Weinzierl
Die Zeit . 25/9/2003 Susanne Mayer

  Review Consensus:


  From the Reviews:
  • "Party in the Blitz has to be understood in the context of the previous volumes of Canetti’s memoirs. (...) Party in the Blitz is thus much more than a set of incisive but unrelated portraits; it is the culmination of Canetti’s exile narrative -- a narrative completed, hard as it is to believe, by an eighty-seven-year old man, still swinging that axe at his detractors." - Marjorie Perloff, Bookforum

  • "Doch was im neuen Buch, ungefiltert durch die strengen Redigate, denen Canetti seine eigenen Texte zu unterwerfen pflegte, zu finden ist, ist ohne Beispiel. (...) So gibt es gleich mehrere Kapitel, die nach zwei, drei Absätzen noch einmal neu zu beginnen scheinen, gibt es monotone Wiederholungen gerade der funkelndsten Beobachtungen, die dadurch ihren Glanz einbüßen. Dessenungeachtet ist Party im Blitz ein grandioses Buch, denn die nahezu brutale Kraft von Canettis Zugriff auf seine Umgebung überträgt sich auf den Leser." - Andreas Platthaus, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Despite carelessnesses (...) they are splendidly entertaining. Canetti's method is to string together small scenes, like beads, into a continuing story." - Peter Conradi, The Guardian

  • "In these English portraits, Canetti briefly lives up to his model, John Aubrey. Read Party in the Blitz for them; forget Iris Murdoch." - Carole Angier, The Independent

  • "However, there is much beautiful, funny and sensitive writing here as well. It is an odd piece of luck that Canetti did not have the chance to work over the manuscript and adjust his own portrait in it as he did in the lofty chronicles of his days in Germany. His phrasing is often wonderfully poised, and it is very well caught in Michael Hamburger's vigorous translation." - Tim Martin, Independent on Sunday

  • "Despite Johanna Canetti's devoted care for the text and the labors of Florindo Tarreghetta, whom Ms. Canetti commissioned to transcribe three separate manuscripts, the book is plainly the work of an old man in a hurry." - John Banville, The Nation

  • "Wir lesen ein Dokument. Doch wäre sich Canetti untreu geworden, wenn er nun die Tonart des Denkens und Schreibens ins Ruhige, gar Versöhnliche moduliert hätte. Jedenfalls gibt sich das Buch -- aus dem Nachlass gewiss mit Sorgfalt, aber freilich ohne das Plazet des Dichters kompiliert -- wie nur eh und je streitbar, mitunter rabiat, und insofern ist es vollkommen authentisch." - Martin Meyer, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "What we gave here are mostly drafts, more or less finished, and jottings. (...) (O)ne cannot read the book without echoing the opinion that Canetti was a horrible man." - Frank Kermode, The New Republic

  • "Party in the Blitz (...) possesses an immediacy due as much to its rather ragged state, compounded as it is of diary jottings, character sketches, and drafts of chapters, as to the events it evokes." - Eric Ormsby, The New York Sun

  • "Here is the proof that he was too pleased with himself to be truly perceptive about others. (...) (H)e wrote a book fit to serve every writer in the world as a hideous, hilarious example of the tone to avoid when the ego, faced with the certain proof of its peripheral importance, loses the last of its inhibitions." - Clive James, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Despite the bitchiness, and because of it, Canetti proves himself a pre-emiment authority of that perennially curious social gathering, the London literary evening, his thesis a nice little coda to his life's work on Crowds and Power. And you are left in no doubt that he was, as he well knew, always the life and soul of the party." - Tim Adams, The Observer

  • "Oddly, movingly, Canetti's memoir becomes the record of a search for that dimly remembered country." - Anthony Giardina, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Canetti’s portrait of England is frozen in time, as most such portraits of national character tend to be. It took me a while to think what it most closely recalled. Then I realised that it was just like The British Character, that series of drawings by Pont of Punch first collected in book form in 1938." - Ferdinand Mount, The Spectator

  • "It might occur to readers to wonder why, if Murdoch was so awful, Canetti bothered to pursue the affair. But that would be to treat his account seriously, whereas it is clearly just an outflow of venom and envy. (...) With writing of that quality, mediated through Michael Hofmann’s versatile translation, you need no further incentive to go on reading Canetti, for all his self-pity and paranoia." - John Carey, Sunday Times

  • "As utterly captivating as the pen portraits of Party in the Blitz are -- and arresting and convincing much of its social commentary -- it is hard to resist remarking, "takes one to know one"." - Alex Clark, The Telegraph

  • "It is easy to dislike him, and tempting to mock him as a little tin god, but there is something about his bristling intensity that always makes you read on." - John Gross, The Telegraph

  • "(A) compellingly readable book." - Ritchie Robertson, Times Literary Supplement

  • "At the very least, Party in the Blitz, for all its uneasy mix of wisdom and waywardness, should lead adventurous readers back to this learned, idiosyncratic mind, and to his many books" - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

  • "Nein, das ist kein angenehmes Buch. Gleichwohl ein hochinteressantes. (...) Abgesehen von solchen Einwänden bietet Party im Blitz außerordentliches Lektürevergnügen. Wie bereits in Canettis viel gerühmter Memoirentrilogie haben wir es da vor allem mit einer Porträtgalerie zu tun. Die Porträtierten werden unter seinem Blick zu Charakteren und Typen. Zusammen ergeben sie gleichsam die Anthropologie und Soziologie eines Landes und mehr: die Summe einer Epoche." - Ulrich Weinzierl, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Party im Blitz is the fragmentary memoir of Elias Canetti's "English years", at least the early ones, from the late 1930s to the 1950s. Canetti wrote these recollections in the early 1990s, and they have now posthumously been edited together (by Kristian Wachinger) in a book that is obviously unfinished, but still of considerable interest. There's even something to be said for the absence of the final polish Canetti himself might have put on the text, as his sense of desperation in trying to retrieve, order, and relate these memories comes across in places, making for an interesting glimpse of the author as an old man, trying to hold onto parts of the past (and stave off the future).
       Canetti isn't even entirely certain how to present the material. He mention's John Aubrey's Brief Lives as a model:

wie ledienschaftlich gern würde ich es ihm gleich tun, denn ich könnte es, doch, eben doch hätte ich das Zeug

how passionately much I'd like to pull of what he did, because I could, yes, I still have the mettle
       It is this model, more or less, that he did choose, rather than the far more straightforward (and in-depth) narrative that marked the earlier autobiographical trilogy describing his youth and his becoming a writer. Party im Blitz is presented in short sections, and most of them are 'brief lives': vignettes, impressions, and descriptions of encounters with many of the people Canetti met in England (along with a few more general sections). It is an unusual selection: for one, many of the most significant figures of his English years (including wife Veza, and many of his fellow emigrants with whom he remained in close contact during those years) remain almost entirely peripheral. And even those who are considered more closely are shown more in snapshot style: representative (or exceptional) episodes, or aspects of their lives the focus, rather than a more general description of them, or of Canetti's relationship with them.
       It is, specifically, a picture of the England of that era that emerges (and Canetti also points out, in some amusing anti-Thatcher tirades, that it is an era that has been lost -- as is the specific English character that made it up (which he tries to capture and convey using these exemplars)). There are sections devoted to a few emigrants -- including Franz Steiner and Oskar Kokoschka -- but for the most part Canetti focusses on the English. He met an astonishing variety of significant figures, and there are sections devoted to, among others: Bertrand Russell, Enoch Powell, Herbert Read, Arthur Waley, Vaughan Williams, J.D.Bernal, and Roland Penrose. Some he only met briefly, but even in just describing, for example, T.S.Eliot from a distance he manages to evoke the time (and offer fascinating insight into his own character, as his reactions are often visceral and blunt, with little effort (or ability) to hide his antipathy).
       From the Milburns, in whose house Canetti and wife Veza lived (with separate bedrooms, he takes care to note) when they moved out of London during the war, to a good deal about patron and close friend, Sir Aymer Maxwell (and his Bentley), there are some generous portraits in the book (though even here Canetti makes note of idiosyncrasies and failures -- though more gently than when discussing most). There are amusing anecdotes: how he came to meet Bertrand Russell (through a Mrs.Phillimore, a close friend of Russell's first wife) or some of the parties he attends (including the party during the Blitz of the title). Among the most interesting chapters is that on Arthur Waley. Waley was not just an orientalist, but also read German; hearing that the main character in Canetti's first novel, the then still untranslated Auto da Fé, was a sinologist he managed to get a copy of the book, and so: "Der Zufall wollte es, daß Arthur Waley der einzige Engländer war, der etwas von mir gelesen hatte" ("As it happened, Arthur Waley was the only Englishman who had read anything of mine").
       And then there's Iris Murdoch. One of the longer sections focusses on her, and it is the most detailed of the portraits in the book, one of the few attempts to describe a person fully. And Canetti is not kind. He begins by mentioning he just received Murdoch's most recent book, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992), and spent a few hours ("leider" -- "unfortunately" -- he adds) leafing through it, after which he can't hold himself back:
Mein widerwillen gegen sie hat sich so gesteigert, daß ich hier einiges sagen muß.

My aversion to her has intensified so, that there are some things I have to say here.
       He dismisses this particular book, and then continues his assault. He doesn't think much of Murdoch as a thinker ("Sie ist passionierte Schülerin, und zwar eine, die am liebsten Systeme erlernt" ("She is a passionate Student; specifically, one who likes to learn systems")). He suggests she collected figures -- men, especially, each of a particular type -- and used them and what they offered her in her fiction. The Oxford-sameness to her fictions bothers Canetti (and he suggests one might call her the "Oxford ragout"), as does the cerebral distance from actual feeling.
       Canetti also describes his affair with Murdoch, a truly ugly account. From its beginning, after Murdoch repeatedly came to Canetti after the death of Franz Steiner, to their unusual love-making (which Canetti even here, some four decades later, seems puzzled about (with good reason)), it is a truly odd relationship. But it is of interest, in revealing facets of both these authors' characters.

       Parties also figure throughout the book. Canetti notes: "Nirgends fühlte ich mich verlassener und trostloser als auf Parties" ("Nowhere did I feel more forsaken and disconsolate than at parties"). Nevertheless, he attends quite a few -- and observes with bewildered fascination how they function. They are typically English, where space is maintained, names preferably incomprehensibly mumbled, conversation of a limited and peculiar variety, and class and other distinctions unclear. (At what he calls the most bizarre party he attended, Christine Maxwell invited a mix of communists and high nobility, which Canetti could not tell apart, even by their utterances.) All this is also part of the distinctively English world he wants to convey -- a world also dominated by varieties of haughtiness ("Hochmut") he tries to describe.
       The book is more about a specific English era -- as perceived by Canetti -- than his English years. The people he knew defined that era, representatives of a variety of types. The more general considerations of England and that lost era aren't fully worked out, but there a some interesting observations and ideas.
       In many respects Party im Blitz is more social study than autobiography. It is, unfortunately, unfinished, but it is well put together and does not feel fragmentary. Almost all the sections are presented in Canetti's clear writing style, and it reads well throughout. One wishes for more, but is glad for what there is.
       Jeremy Adler's afterword, and the annotations, are also helpful.

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Party in the Blitz: Reviews: Elias Canetti: Other books by Elias Canetti under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Elias Canetti (1905-1994) was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1981.

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© 2004-2010 the complete review

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