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the Complete Review
the complete review - letters

"Dearest Georg"

Elias, Veza, and Georges Canetti

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To purchase Dearest Georg

Title: "Dearest Georg"
Authors: Elias, Veza, and Georges Canetti
Genre: Letters
Written: (2006) (Eng. 2010)
Length: 369 pages
Original in: German/English
Availability: "Dearest Georg" - US
"Dearest Georg" - UK
"Dearest Georg" - Canada
Lettres à Georges - France
Briefe an Georges - Deutschland
  • German title: Briefe an Georges
  • Love, Literature, and Power in Dark Times
  • The Letters of Elias, Veza, and Georges Canetti 1933-1948
  • Edited by Karen Lauer and Kristian Wachinger
  • Translated by David Dollenmayer
  • Many of Veza's letter were written in English (as required by British censors at the time)
  • Includes several photographs

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Our Assessment:

B : some interesting insights, but also a whole lot of back and forth about minor matters

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 5/8/2006 Andreas Platthaus
NZZ . 28/10/2006 Franz Haas
Die Welt . 9/12/2006 Ulrich Weinzierl

  From the Reviews:
  • "Es ist einer der bizarrsten Briefwechsel der Literaturgeschichte, denn er enthüllt eine Dreiecksgeschichte, die ihresgleichen nicht hat. Nicht weil sie Skandale hervorgebracht hätte, sondern weil drei hochbegabte Menschen in den Briefen ihr wechselseitig aneinander verzweifelndes Leben offenbaren. (...) Um den Briefen an Georges gerecht zu werden, müßte man drei Rezensionen schreiben -- über jeden Korrespondenten eine eigene. Elias Canettis Briefe überraschen am wenigsten." - Andreas Platthaus, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Die soeben in Buchform publizierten Briefe an Georges sind von einer grossen persönlichen Intensität. (...) Im Briefwechsel offenbaren die drei Menschen ihr Leben. Die Texte sind Zeugnis für hoffnungsvolle und immer wieder enttäuschte Liebe, für überschäumende Begeisterung und doch auch kühle Distanz. Canettis psychische Labilität ist omnipräsent, die Bedeutung seiner Frau Veza für die überwindung seiner Verwirrtheit augenfällig. Spannend sind die Widersprüche der einzelnen Schreibenden. Die Briefe sind nicht nur ein zeitgeschichtliches Dokument, sondern auch ein Stück Literatur." - Franz Haas, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Der vorliegende Band verwandelt Elias Canetti in keinen Strahlemann, aber die zutage tretende Psychopathologie des Paars Elias und Veza relativiert das Bild. In einer so neurotisch aufgeladenen Konstellation gibt es nun einmal keine Helden, stets sind die Täter auch Opfer." - 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:

       Trying to control his legacy, Elias Canetti destroyed most of his own correspondence, but in 2003 a stash of letters from him and his wife, Veza, to his younger brother Georg (Georges), along with a few letters (and drafts of letters) by Georges, were discovered among Georges' effects. Covering the years 1933 to 1938, and then 1944 to 1948 (along with two letters from 1959), these were first published in book form in German in 2006, and now appear in English, as "Dearest Georg".
       The majority of the letters are from Veza to Georges (and many of these were written in English, as required under the wartime censorship regulations). Many of them are about matters such as health concerns, and there are frequent complaints and explanations about why one party did not immediately respond to the other, or hasn't written for an extended period of time; because the correspondence is decidedly one-sided (Veza's letter predominating, since Georges' weren't saved) and because there are gaps in the correspondence, the collection reads in some fits and jerks (despite an impressive and useful body of endnotes that fills in some of the absent information). Nevertheless, an intriguing picture of this odd threesome emerges, especially Elias and Veza's odd relationship -- with Georges an outlet for Veza to complain to. (Just how closely attuned to each other Veza and Georges were -- and how Elias sensed that -- is suggested by Veza noting that: "Elias sometimes misspeaks and calls me Georg and that always makes me happy".)
       It begins in 1934, when Georges comes to hear that Elias and Veza are planning to get married. Writing to Elias, Georges is convinced:

You are about to do the stupidest thing you could possibly do. However, one looks at it, there is no other conclusion.
       Of course, Elias sees it differently. Beginning with the advantage of being able to piggy-back on Veza's statelessness ("my statelessness was always a shaky affair and an additional official documentation will make it easier to gain citizenship somewhere else in the future" -- which turned out to be correct), he saw it as a win-win proposition. Besides:
     The marriage changes nothing in my relationship to Veza. She is my warmest and most selfless friend (and yours as well, which you have obviously forgotten: you never write to her although you know she's been expecting a letter from you for months !); actually she is now my mother. If I ever wanted to really get married, which is highly unlikely, she would of course agree to an official divorce immediately.
       Elias and his new mom wife did continue to be an odd, devoted pair, but Elias' serial womanizing -- and both their fragile mental states -- did not make for the easiest of unions. Nevertheless, they appeared to be mutually dependent, each a hold of last resort for the other. There's more about Elias' mental instability here than Veza's (since she is constantly writing about him to Georges, while few letters from Elias survive), but she too suffers from great bouts of depression. All this weighs on both of them -- Veza, for example, writing:
I hope it's neurosis and nothing worse. I've read too much about Nietzsche, Kleist, etc. not to be worried.
       Meanwhile, at another point, Elias tells Georges:
However, you've never seen Veza in that condition. When she's like that, she refuses to consult a doctor, closes herself off from everyone, doesn't eat, and there is absolutely no doubt that without me, she would simply perish.
       Often, however, Elias' actions exacerbate the situation, especially with the parade of women he falls for. Even as he recognizes he does a disservice to the more talented Veza, he instead puts all his energy into fostering another literary career, for example. There's also very little discretion here, as Veza finds herself in the middle of quite a lot of this.
       It's fascinating how they're tied together, however (even as they spend a great deal of time apart, even living separately), and Veza tries to explain her conflicted feelings:
My despair at him suffering Hölderlin's fate points to suicide as my only escape. When he is off on a trip, I gradually rediscover myself. I open up and begin to shine. I am seized with yearning for an unencumbered life of health and freedom. I would like to leave -- leave him. When he returns, I'm so overcome with compassion and stand in such awe of his genius and his boundless goodness that I lapse into my old habits.
       Veza is an interesting literary figure in her own right, though she had little chance to shine during her lifetime; most of her success has been posthumous. (Beside her own plays and fiction, she also translated works from the English, including several by Graham Greene.) But while some of her literary preoccupations are of interest, the manic (and megalomaniacal) figure of Elias Canetti is of greater interest, and it's a great shame that there aren't more letters from him, presenting his side of the stories (as well as just simply his opinions -- always good fun).
       Elias was a peculiar soul, with odd insecurities -- but at least he was upfront about his feelings and ambitions. His reaction to the success of his first novel is typical:
The fact remains: since the publication of Die Blendung, everyone who reads it considers me one of the most important writers of our time, and I admit that, given the enormity of my craving for fame, I am not indifferent to this. Maybe it's unwise of me to say it out loud, but you know me well enough in any event: I do not want to die, and fame is for me only one of the most obvious paths to immortality.
       Unfortunately, far too much in this exhaustive collection deals with the relatively mundane. There are titbits of interest, as when Canetti rails against his idol, Karl Kraus, -- denouncing him as "a Goebbels of the spirit !" -- when he receives the issue of Die Fackel in which Kraus addresses the spread of Nazism. While political events do figure in some of the correspondence, there's surprisingly little engagement (in the letters) with what's happening around them, a rare show of it coming when Veza notes:
I married a very sweet young Viennese Jewess to a cousin of mine in Belgrade, and how they thanked me. Her parents followed her to Belgrade. She was as poor as a church mouse, my cousin rich, in short, they were all murdered and I'm frightfully tired of always having to think about it, and I don't like waking up at night.
       As a supplemental source of information about Elias and Veza Canetti -- a complement to Party in the Blitz, for example -- "Dearest Georg" is of considerable interest, yet even so there's a good deal of chaff to get through. A nicely-produced edition, with extensive and very helpful notes that often provide additional fascinating period-detail, "Dearest Georg" is more a useful book than one that is enjoyable to read front to back -- but the peculiar threesome at its center does make it of some quirky interest even to those not particularly familiar with the works of Elias or Veza.

- M.A.Orthofer, 21 January 2010

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"Dearest Georg": Reviews: Elias Canetti: Other books by Elias Canetti under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

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

       Veza Canetti (1897-1963) was married to Elias.

       Georg Canetti (1911-1971) was Elias' youngest brother.

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© 2010 the complete review

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