- Elias Canetti—Rudolf Hartung: Briefe, Autobiographisches und Fotos. Aus dem Nachlass von Elias Canetti ed. by Bernhard Albers
This slim volume is a luxury for specialists—perhaps even a questionable indulgence. It is the counterpart to Albers’s 1992 book with the symmetrical title (Rudolf Hartung–Elias Canetti. Ein Rezipient und sein Autor). Now almost [End Page 154] twenty years after the publication of that fascinating book, Albers publishes here the additional material he certainly wanted to include in the original volume. This little book should really be integrated into the first and reissued as a new whole, because it makes much more sense if the reader understands that Hartung was Canetti’s decisive promoter and critic in Germany.
Actually, he was much more. Hartung was the lector at the Willi Weismann Verlag that published the first postwar German edition of Die Blendung (not a very successful venture, given the paper shortages and currency reform at the time). Crossing lines that today seem questionable, Hartung went on to write the first substantive (and insightful) review of Die Blendung. Isn’t this tantamount to the publisher writing his own blurb? Canetti responded with a thank-you letter (complimenting Hartung but clearly indicating that many more treasures lay undiscovered in the novel). This in turn began a lifelong relationship between “ein Rezipient und sein Autor.”
But should this be? Michiko Kakutani, the leading book critic of the New York Times, is known to keep an absolute firewall between herself and the authors she reviews; she refuses to mix and mingle with authors at publishers’ parties because she feels this would compromise the objectivity and honesty of her critiques. Thus, one wonders about the probity of Hartung’s open agenda of promoting Canetti.
The story told in these letters and documents turns out to be much more complex and interesting, with one exception: The epistolary exchange between Albers and Canetti is often mundane and seems to be included merely to fill out this already very thin book. Not that it isn’t amusing to witness a commanding author fully in charge of his corpus: Canetti personally approves or rejects the inclusion of letters and deletes passages he thinks are irrelevant or too personal. And he has a bit of a temper: he expects to be treated with respect and takes exception to a letter from Albers that does not even begin with a proper greeting. Further, he expresses his disdain for mass-market booksellers, reminding us (as he has elsewhere) “dass ich dem Massenkonsum des Literaturbetriebs einiges entgegensetze” (34). Canetti makes it clear that he is the boss.
The most revealing parts, however, show us a Canetti fully aware of Hartung’s nuanced, evolving, and sometimes highly critical view of Canetti’s work. Already in the 1992 volume, we read of the stark difference in temperament between the two—Hartung as a sensitive, taciturn, contemplative critic and Canetti as a self-assured, apodictic, and forceful personality. But here we [End Page 155] gain a new and very personal insight: Canetti loved Hartung for who he was, and because in his uncompromising, candid criticism, Hartung taught him about his own work. Because of Hartung—especially when they disagree—Canetti comes to a clearer understanding of his own achievement. What is more: Canetti also values Hartung’s talent in transforming himself and treasures the fact that Hartung noticed (unlike many others—need I say it?—especially academic critics) that Canetti himself had evolved in content, mood, genre, and thought over time and that his magnum opus, the anthropological study Masse und Macht (1960) cannot therefore be facilely applied as a theoretical key to all works, prior and subsequent. Canetti here regrets the tyranny of Masse und Macht over his other work, noting that his dramas (particularly Komödie der Eitelkeit) are not theoretical works but creative works of fiction.
The heart of the matter is a matter of the heart: Canetti had a genuine, deep, and very personal regard for Hartung, so much so that he withheld this...