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This review is taken from PN Review 52, Volume 13 Number 2, November - December 1986.

RESISTING DEATH Elias Canetti, The Conscience of Words, translated by Joachim Neugroschel (André Deutsch) £8.95

For a man who says the writer should be 'the lowest slave' of his time, Canetti is uncommonly bold in his stand against absurdities. This is a book of essays, most of them extended notices of significant books; some are lectures given to German literary societies. All except one were written between 1962 and 1976. The exception is the first essay, a talk on Hermann Broch delivered in Vienna on the occasion of Broch's fiftieth birthday in 1936.

A comparison of that early lecture and the final entry in this book, an address on 'The Writer's Profession' given forty years later in Munich, shows that Canetti is consistent, even if the language has mellowed. The word 'compassion' becomes important in his later years; it had no place in the essay on Broch. There he couples his remark that the writer should be the lowest slave of his time with the apparently paradoxical statement that he should also stand in opposition to his time, in a public and violently assertive way.

We should recall that this is a Jew writing and speaking in Austria in 1936 with the Nazis only a weak frontier away. Two years later the cultured society Canetti knew in Vienna was swept away. The shadow sharpens his language, but the message has wider relevance. To say anything of value about the world, the writer cannot ignore the chaos of impressions as they fall. Virginia Woolf told us this a long time ago. ...


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