The Nobel Prize in Literature 1981
Presentation Speech by Dr. Johannes Edfelt,
of the Swedish Academy
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The exiled and cosmopolitan author Canetti has one native land, and that is the German language. He has never abandoned it, and he has often avowed his love of the highest manifestations of the classical German culture.
In a speech in Vienna in 1936 Canetti praised Hermann Broch as one of the few contemporary representative writers. What irremissible demands, according to Canetti, must be made upon the truly representative man? He must be subject to his time as its "lowest slave" and yet be in opposition to it; in a wish for universality he must summarize his age, and he must possess the most distinct "conception of atmospheric impressions". Such criteria also mark Canetti's own writings. Pursued in different directions and comprising several genres, they are held together by a most original and vigorously profiled personality.
His foremost purely fictional achievement is the great novel Die Blendung ("Auto da Fé"), published in 1935 but attaining its full effect only during the last decades: against the background of National Socialism's brutal power politics, the novel acquires a deepened perspective.
Die Blendung was part of an originally planned series of novels which was to take the shape of a "comédie humaine of madmen". The book has such fantastic and demoniacal elements that associations with Russian 19th-Century writers like Gogol and Dostoevsky are apparent. It is an aspect of key importance when Die Blendung is regarded by several critics as a single fundamental metaphor for the threat exercised by the "mass man" within ourselves. Close at hand is the viewpoint from which the novel stands out as a study of a type of man who isolates himself in self-sufficient specialization, only to succumb helplessly in a world of ruthlessly harsh realities.
Die Blendung leads over to the big examination of the origin, composition and reaction patterns of the mass movements which Canetti, after decades of research and study, published with Masse und Macht ("Crowds and Power") in 1960. It is a magisterial work by a polyhistor who can disclose an overwhelmingly large number of viewpoints of men's behaviour as mass beings. In his basically a historical analysis what he wants to expose and attack by scrutinizing the origin and nature of the masses is, in the end, the religion of power. Survival becomes the nucleus of power. At last the mortal enemy is death itself: this is a principal theme, held to with a strangely pathetic strength, in Canetti's literary works.
Apart from the intensive work on Masse und Macht Canetti has written aphoristic notes, issued in several volumes. Abundant humour and a satirical bite in the observation of people's behaviour, a loathing of wars and devastation, bitterness at the thought of life's brevity are characteristic features here.
Canetti's three plays are all of a more or less absurd kind. In their portrayal of extreme situations, often depicting human vulgarity, these "acoustic masks", as he himself calls them, give an interesting glimpse into his unique world of ideas.
Among his many sharp-sighted portrait studies special mention can be made of Der andere Prozess ("Kafka's Other Trial"), in which with intense involvement he examines Kafka's complicated relationship to Felice Bauer. The study resolves into a picture of a man whose life and work meant the relinquishing of power.
Finally, standing out as a peak in Canetti's writings, are his memoirs, so far in two large volumes. In these recollections of his childhood and youth he reveals his forceful epic power of description to its full extent. A great deal of the political and cultural life in central Europe in the early 1900's - especially the form it took in Vienna - is reflected in the memoirs. The peculiar environments, the many remarkable human destinies with which Canetti has been confronted and his unique educational path - always aiming at universal knowledge - are seen here in a style and with a lucidity that have very few qualitative equivalents in the memoirs written in the German language during this century.
Dear Mr Canetti, with your versatile writings, which attack sick tendencies in our age, you wish to serve the cause of humanity. Intellectual passion is combined in you with the moral responsibility that - in your own words - "is nourished by mercy". I beg to convey to you the warm congratulations of the Swedish Academy, and ask you now to accept this year's Nobel Prize for Literature from the hands of His Majesty the King.
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1981-1990, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture AllÚn, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1981