Friday, November 15, 2019

Der Bau

Elias Canetti: Auto da Fé (1935)

Someone has stolen my copy of Auto da Fé, by Elias Canetti.

They did it in quite an ingenious way. I had it in a bookcase arranged with double rows of books on each shelf. The idea is that a quick scan of the books in front will enable you to guess what's concealed behind.

In this case, there were two Penguin paperbacks by Canetti - Crowds and Power and Auto da Fé - in the front row, and a group of his other books (including his four-volume autobiography) hidden behind.

What the thief did was to move one of the books from the back row to fill the gap in the front row, and thus conceal the fact that anything was missing from that shelf at all.

There's a certain irony in the fact that they chose that particular book to run off with. It's a novel about an obsessive scholar, Dr Peter Kien, who lives entirely in, and for, his library of rare books.

When I say he lives in his library, I mean just that. He moves his little portable bed and washstand from room to room, depending on what he happens to be working on at the time.

Elias Canetti: Die Blendung (1935)

The original German title of the book, Die Blendung, translates literally as 'the blinding.' His English translator, the well-known historian C. V. Wedgwood, chose to change this to Auto da Fé ['Act of Faith' - the name for the mass burnings of heretics conducted by the Spanish Inquisition], presumably because she thought that this might better convey the book's claustrophobic sense of entrapment and sacrifice.

The book my thief chose to move forward was a hardback edition of one of Canetti's last works: Party in the Blitz (2003). Once again, there's a certain irony in that, as the novel concludes with the protagonist's self-immolation on a heap of his own books (they've been stolen and sold on by his unscrupulous housekeeper-turned-wife and her louche accomplices, but then recovered and brought back to him by his rather saintly brother).

I imagine I'll succeed in finding another copy of Auto da Fé to fill the gap. That isn't really the point, though.

Any collector of anything has to face the paradox that the more things you have, the less control you have over each part of your collection. While you're gleefully filling gaps in your holdings of some particular author, the most precious volume of all may just have disappeared into somebody's pocket.

Nor do we all have similar ethical standards in such matters. I know plenty of people who regard it as quite unnecessary to return books they've borrowed, and in fact react most indignantly to anyone who tries to recover their own property - they seem to envisage some wondrous freemasonry of books, passing from hand to hand like lightning rods: albeit with the slight, disquieting, detail that it's generally someone else providing the raw material.

And certainly getting too obsessed with ownership can become a bit excessive. At one point, to combat my own tendencies in that direction, I formulated a theory that the only books which would available to one in the afterlife would be those which had been given away. I accordingly began a programme of donations which would guarantee my own future reading pleasure - on the offchance I don't end up in the burning place instead, that is.

The burning place. Elias Canetti's novel is certainly not meant as an endorsement of bibliomaniacs such as his Peter Kien - on the contrary, in fact - but his success in portraying one would certainly seem to show certain tendencies in that direction on his own part.

Perhaps the thief meant to do me a favour by running off with the book. Perhaps they thought it would be unhealthy for me to brood too much over the dark material included in it. And it's probably true that it will be a long time before I feel it necessary to read it again - though Canetti's autobiography, in particular, is a delight.

Franz Kafka: Der Bau (1924)

The other thing it made me think of, I'm afraid, was Kafka's great short story 'Der Bau' [The Burrow]. Written six months before his death, and published posthumously in 1931, it describes a large burrowing animal who has built a most marvellous underground structure which he is engaged in constantly improving.

Gradually he becomes aware of little piles of loose dirt, betokening the presence of some alien invader, which he tidies as best he can, but which continue to appear, threatening to undermine all the - illusory - grandeur of the dwelling he's built for himself. It's the rift within the lute, the maggot in his brain, the ideé fixe which will end up by destroying him.

Donald A. Mackenzie: Teutonic Myth and Legend (1912)

I remember once, in a university class on the Old English epic Beowulf, suggesting that the dragon whose horde is invaded by the hero Beowulf towards the end of the poem might feel similarly about his own treasure chamber - that he might feel a deep sense of repulsion at the mere fact that an intruder has succeeded in invading his sanctuary.

I remember one of my classmates laughing at this: "I don't think he feels like the creature in Kafka, Jack."

'Why not?' I asked at the time. Why shouldn't he feel like that? The poet gives few clues to his feelings.

At present (Der Bau-like), I'm engaged in a large-scale project to map every one of the books in our house, and - in the process - adding protective covers to all the vulnerable hardbacks. I've also decided to write my name in each and every one of them, rather than reserving that for the more interesting acquisitions.

From now on there will be a small sign on the shelves in our guest space:
Feel free to read the books, but please be careful of them if you do.

Don't take anything away without asking. That will be regarded as theft.
So if that bookthief was sending me a message about the perils of getting too attached to my collection, I'm afraid that I've chosen to ignore it.

Elias Canetti: Auto da Fé (English translation, 1946)

And, to show how thoroughly I've missed the point, here are my holdings of Elias Canetti, Franz Kafka, and - the Beowulf poet.

The Southwick Codex (c.1000)

(c.8th-early 11th century)


  1. Klaeber, Franz, ed. Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg. 1922. Third Edition with First and Second Supplements. Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1950.

  2. Swanton, Michael, ed. Beowulf: A Glossed Text. Manchester Medieval Classics. Ed. G. L. Brook. Manchester: Manchester University Press / New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1978.

  3. Alexander, Michael, ed. Beowulf: A Glossed Text. 1995. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000.

  4. Translations:

  5. Wright, David, trans. Beowulf: A Prose Translation. 1957. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961.

  6. Alexander, Michael, trans. Beowulf: A Verse Translation. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

  7. Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A Verse Translation. 2000. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Daniel Donghue. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002.

  8. Tolkien, J. R. R. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2014.

  9. Secondary:

  10. Garmonsway, G. N., & Jacqueline Simpson, trans. Beowulf and Its Analogues. Including Archaeology and Beowulf, by Hilda Ellis Davidson. 1968. A Dutton Paperback. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1971.

  11. Tolkien, J. R. R. Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode. Ed. Alan Bliss. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1982.

  12. Tolkien, J. R. R. The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien . London: George Allen & Unwin, 1983.

  13. Wilson, R. M. The Lost Literature of Medieval England. 1952. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1970.

Elias Canetti (1981)

Elias Canetti


  1. Auto da Fé. 1935. Trans. C. V. Wedgwood. 1946. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.

  2. Essays:

  3. Crowds and Power. 1960. Trans. Carol Stewart. 1962. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

  4. Kafka’s Other Trial. 1969. Trans. Christopher Middleton. 1974. In Kafka, Franz. Letters to Felice. Ed. Erich Heller & Jürgen Born. Trans. James Stern & Elizabeth Duckworth. 1973. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  5. The Human Province. 1973. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. 1978. London: Picador, 1986.

  6. The Conscience of Words / Earwitness. 1976 & 1979. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. 1986 & 1979. London: Picador, 1987.

  7. Memoirs:

  8. The Tongue Set Free: Remembrance of a European Childhood. 1977. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. 1979. London: Picador, 1989.

  9. The Torch in My Ear. 1980. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. 1982. London: Picador, 1990.

  10. The Play of the Eyes. 1985. Trans. Joachim Neugroschel. 1986. London: Picador, 1991.

  11. Party in the Blitz: The English Years. 2003. Trans. Michael Hofmann. Introduction by Jeremy Adler. London: Harvill Press, 2005.

  12. Travel:

  13. The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit. 1967. Trans. J. A. Underwood. 1978. London: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd., 1982.

Franz Kafka (1923)

Franz Kafka


  1. The Trial / America / The Castle / Metamorphosis / In the Penal Settlement / The Great Wall of China / Investigations of a Dog / Letter to His Father / The Diaries 1910-1923. Trans. Willa & Edwin Muir et al. London: Secker & Warburg / Octopus, 1976.

  2. Novels:

  3. The Trial: Definitive Edition. 1925. Trans. Willa & Edwin Muir. 1935. Rev. E. M. Butler. 1956. London: Secker & Warburg, 1963.

  4. The Trial. 1925. Trans. Douglas Scott & Chris Waller. Introduction by J. P. Stern. 1977. London: Picador, 1980.

  5. The Castle: Definitive Edition. 1926. Trans. Willa & Edwin Muir. 1930. Rev. Eithne Wilkins & Ernst Kaiser. 1953. London: Secker & Warburg, 1961.

  6. Amerika: Roman. 1935. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1985.

  7. America: Definitive Edition. 1927. Trans. Willa & Edwin Muir. 1938. Rev. ed. London: Secker & Warburg, 1949.

  8. The Man Who Disappeared (Amerika). 1927. Trans. Michael Hofmann. Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996.

  9. Stories:

  10. Sämtliche Erzählungen. Ed. Paul Raabe. 1970. Hamburg: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1983.

  11. The Great Wall of China and Other Pieces. Trans. Willa & Edwin Muir. 1933. Rev. ed. London: Secker & Warburg, 1946.

  12. The Metamorphosis / Die Verwandlung. 1935. Trans. Willa & Edwin Muir. 1968. New York: Schocken Books, 1974.

  13. Der Heizer / In der Strafkolonie / Der Bau. 1935. Ed. J. M. S. Pasley. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

  14. Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Trans. Willa & Edwin Muir. 1933 & 1958. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.

  15. In the Penal Settlement: Tales and Short Prose Works. Definitive Edition. 1935. Trans. Willa & Edwin Muir. London: Secker & Warburg, 1949.

  16. Wedding Preparations in the Country and Other Posthumous Prose Writings: Definitive Edition. 1953. Trans. Ernst Kaiser & Eithne Wilkins. London: Secker & Warburg, 1954.

  17. Wedding Preparations in the Country and Other Stories. Trans. Ernst Kaiser & Eithne Wilkins. 1953. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  18. Description of a Struggle and The Great Wall of China: Definitive Edition. 1933. Trans. Willa & Edwin Muir and Tania & James Stern. 1958. London: Secker & Warburg, 1960.

  19. Description of a Struggle and Other Stories. Trans. Willa & Edwin Muir, Malcolm Pasley, Tania & James Stern. 1973. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.

  20. The Complete Stories. Ed. Nahum N. Glatzer. 1971. New York: Schocken Books, 1976.

  21. Stories 1904-1924. Trans. J. A. Underwood. Foreword by Jorge Luis Borges. 1981. A Futura Book. London: Macdonald & Co, 1983.

  22. Letters & Diaries:

  23. The Diaries of Franz Kafka. Ed. Max Brod. Trans. Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg with Hannah Arendt. 1948 & 1949. Peregrine Books. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.

  24. Letters to Milena. Ed. Willy Haas. Trans. Tania & James Stern. 1953. London: Corgi Books, 1967.

  25. Letters to Felice. Ed. Erich Heller & Jürgen Born. Trans. James Stern & Elizabeth Duckworth. 1973. With Elias Canetti: Kafka’s Other Trial. 1969. Trans. Christopher Middleton. 1974. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  26. Letters to Friends, Family and Editors. Trans. Richard & Clara Winston. 1977. Richmond, Surrey: Alma Classics Ltd., 2014.

  27. Secondary:

  28. Brod, Max. Franz Kafka: A Biography. 1937. Trans. G. Humphreys Roberts. 1947. Rev. Richard Winston. 1960. New York: Schocken Books, 1973.

  29. Calasso, Roberto. K. 2002. Trans. Geoffrey Brock. Jonathan Cape. London: Random House, 2005.

  30. Hayman, Ronald. K: A Biography Of Kafka. 1981. An Abacus Book. London: Sphere Books, 1983.

  31. Janousch, Gustav. Conversations with Kafka. 1953. Rev. ed. 1968. Trans. Goronwy Rees. New York: New Directions, 1971.

  32. Pawel, Ernst. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka. 1984. London: Collins Harvill, 1988.


Roger Allen said...

Someone - even you, perhaps - could just have put it back in the wrong place, of course.

Dr Jack Ross said...

You know, you could well be right there. I guess that's the point of the bookmap - so it's possible to tell if a book's been mislaid or is actually missing ...

Roger Allen said...

It may not all be there, but the book is worth reading and shelving: an Awful Warning of mis-shelving books:

Martin Edmond said...

Dear Jack - I did actually once steal a copy of Auto da Fe - but it was not your one. When we moved into I Amethyst Avenue Pearl Beach in 1995, the landlady left some of her books behind, including the Canetti. I began to read it but it took so long to get through I still hadn't finished when she evicted us and we had to move on - so I took it with me. Unfortunately, however, I never did manage to read it; and, over the years, developed such an animus towards it that in the end I ditched it somewhere, still with the bookmark in place somewhere near the end. It was a Picador, with a cover image showing a man with three books on his head, and a chessboard, with two pieces, a Queen and a pawn, on the cover of the top volume. Monstrous.

Richard said...

Re that story by Kafka, it is one that fascinated me a lot. I wrote a poem based on it, I think I have it somewhere. But it is a great image of paranoia and I suppose defensiveness....I wonder if you are the dragon in Beowulf?

Murray became antagonistic to the book, perhaps somehow the book did communicate to him, and defended itself by seeming to be more and more abhorrent to anyone who takes a copy? But I think the crime is not the lifting but the not finishing...although, of that, myself, sadly, many books only half read or dipped into here and there.

I don't want to see more tech, but near you Jack there was a shop, second hand books, where the woman owner had a three dimensional map (I know you have a book map and all books are collated) of her shop showing where things were. That, with a kind of locating system, a kind of GPS system showing where all books were, regardless of any being moved: had been an idea I had in the 90s after getting lost in the Auckland University Library...or disorientated. But no matter what system, all systems are fallible.

I keep "losing" books, and buying books I already have and so on...

Perhaps the book's subject meant it was destined to be stolen?

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, I do think there's something intrinsic to the subject of that book which allies it to trouble somehow - apparently, after his move to London, Canetti had a kind of harem of followers, all dedicated to his greatness, trying to make things easier for the master as he compiled his chef d'oeuvre. That great work was not Auto da Fe, however, but his sociological text Crowds and Power. Apparently this odd set-up was the inspiration for Iris Murdoch's late novel The Book and the Brotherhood ...

Richard said...

Interesting. I started reading a kind of bio of her by Bayley which reads very well. I by the way compare my reading lists to my mother's list which she typed out. Of Murdoch 15 novels and 1 book of stories. I myself read Bruno's Dream' as a teenager and when she was reading it 'The Message to the Planet' which didn't work very well for me but she liked it as well as 'A Word Child', 'The Black Prince' and 'Under the Net'. But not 'The Book and the Brotherhood' which I have...Perhaps Murdock got involved in the making of that book. From what I see and hear so far 'Crowds and Power' has a considerable reputation. My theory of the intensly staring and endless Kafka is that he always had some tuberculosis, which infection (it can affect different parts of the body), seems to cause fever and a kind of over intensity or even near madness of the mind as with Thomas Wolfe who even wrote that he had written 10,000 books or it might have been more, and in one 900 page book I read he repeated a meeting with an uncle (it remained an amazing book (this error has been blamed on his editor but it has a curious effect)...and the whole reason for the making of the Spire in Golding's book of that name was a corrupt old priest sent mad by tuberculosis of the spine (or something). There have been other examples....But in K's case some great stories and novels.

Roger Allen said...

Crowds and Power has a considerable reputation, but it's like The Golden Bough or The White Goddess, a kind of self-invented mythology.
Murdoch and Canetti had an affair: the interesting thing is that neither of them seemed to get any pleasure from it at all, which surely is the whole purpose of having an affair!

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, it's terrifying how much all these people sacrificed to this rather absurd and outmoded work of pseudo-sociology! Canetti must have had quite a presence.

I don't know if I'd put *The Golden Bough* with those others, though. Out-of-date, yes, but immensely influential on the burgeoning subject of comparative mythology (and still a rivetting read!).

Richard said...

That's interesting re Murdoch and Canetti. I read all kinds of books, e.g. at the moment I am working through my own on the shelf and I take notes from them and I LIKE that some are outmoded. But I also get more recent books. At the moment I am in the area generally of sociology, psych, history etc etc although I also get various library books. So the Golden Bough or Canetti's Crowds would just be fuel to my fire. More data. Indeed and affair should be pleasurable. It seems Murdoch had quite a few. Bayley's book on his meeting her etc, as far as I have read it is engrossing, more than I expected.

I got the shorter version of The Golden Bough (of course as Eliot notes it in The Waste Land). I didn't get past the first page of my book as at the time I couldn't find Turner's painting of the Golden Bough (at the time). Another book on the to do list. Canetti also but I will try to keep my editions of his work safe!

For me nothing is out of date.

Dr Jack Ross said...

I take your point, Richard, about the comparative unimportance of being 'up to date' - it's certainly not a reason to neglect great 'scientific' works of the past. It does mean that one has to read them in a slightly different way, however. I still think that the crucial distinction Fraser makes between religious and magical thinking at the beginning of the Golden Bough, for instance, is a very valuable one. As are many of Freud's insights about human nature.

Richard said...

I'm just starting to read a book about Freud and the Post-Freudians which is useful to me as I know little really of them. Of course I know more than someone might some decades ago and indeed see him (and others of his ilk) in a different light. I did read Freud's 'Civilisation and its Discontents' as it is the title of a poem by John Ashbery. I found it rather depressing.(Ashbery ploughs on though with his pretty random but witty, and somehow profound, lines...). For it all to be just a mass of the 'material'? To have no meaning? [Apart from anything else where then is any categorical imperative now? Whose to say Hitler was wrong? It is all chance....But then of course comes Existentialism etc)...and I think the line 'All that useless love' is in a poem near the poem called 'Civilisation and its Discontents'. Frazer I must read. And in many cases, these are read like fascinating stories or beautiful poetry. And in some cases that is what they are. But, I refuse to start collecting ALL of Fraser, the smallish edition I got from the Moa Hunter in Ponsonby Rd ca. 1999 is enough for me!! [I have heard how huge it is, or is it, now I think...Ruskin, or both? Probably Ruskin]...please don't post about Ruskin or Frazer Jack (this year at least!) the homework you have given me is already too stressful for this old codger! Books are my terrible but fascinated affliction...

Re this I like to read both 'current' books and old ones...Even ones I know have stuff in them that are dubious and 'dated', and so on...