Veza Canetti - In simple language that sometimes takes on the cadences of the psalms, the soaring intensity of opera, and the beautifully repeated phrases of canons, Canetti tells the semi-autobiographical story of an artistic couple trapped just outside Vienna at the time of Kristallnacht, November, 1938.

Veza Canetti, The Tortoises, Trans. by Ian Mitchell, New Directions, 2007.                             read it at Google Books

 Spare, dark, and cinematic, The Tortoises describes life in the Nazi reign of terror.

A renowned writer and his wife live quietly in a beautiful villa outside Vienna, until the triumphant Nazis start subjecting their Jewish "hosts" to ever greater humiliations. Veza Canetti focuses on seemingly ordinary people to epitomize the horror: one flag-happy German kills a sparrow before a group of little children; another, more entrepreneurial Nazi brands tortoises with swastikas to sell as souvenirs commemorating the Anschluss.

Austria during the Nazi Anschluss is the setting for The Tortoises, by Veza Canetti (1897-1963), wife of writer Elias Canetti. Written in 1939 and published only now in English, the autobiographical novel tells the story of writer Andreas Kain and his wife, Eva, who, while waiting for visas to leave the country, are tormented by a Brown Shirt named Pilz, who is billeted in their apartment. Though the prose is stilted, the story is compelling, and the book's literary pedigree should attract attention. - Publishers Weekly

“What is going on here is past hope.  It may well lead to war, but how hard is that way out!  The painter with his brush, the poet with his pen, the orator on the podium, they have all pointed out the horrors of war, and Man has understood…But then the violent criminal steps up.  He stirs up the earth, he will always appear and destroy, because there will always be violent people.  He who clings to the surface of the earth is doomed.”
In simple language that sometimes takes on the cadences of the psalms, the soaring intensity of opera, and the beautifully repeated phrases of canons, author Veza Canetti tells the semi-autobiographical story of an artistic couple trapped just outside Vienna at the time of Kristallnacht, November, 1938, a terror she and her husband had also endured.  The Canettis managed to escape from Austria just ten days after Kristallnacht, and immediately upon their arrival in England, Veza Canetti began to write this book. Using fictional characters, she fills the narrative with vibrant details from her own recent experiences, completing the “novel” in the spring of 1939.
The main characters, Eva and her husband Andreas Kain, a Jewish writer, have been told that they will be shot if they remain in Austria, but they cannot leave—they have no visa for any other country, despite applications.  Eva and Kain view the world differently from each other.  Eva sees the changes in her Austrian neighborhood as terrifying, while Kain sees nothing of the violence and death.  A poet who believes that if you like someone, that person will like you back, Kain’s naivete is partly responsible for the delay in their plans to leave.  In the face of swastika flags appearing even on their own balcony, and their landlady’s announcement that they must vacate their apartment because a German couple plans to move in, Kain still goes to a local coffeehouse to read the paper, surprised when another patron points him out to the waiter, who requires him to leave.
Focusing on day-to-day life in a neighborhood in which Jews have always lived peaceably among their neighbors, the author emphasizes the human interactions and the major and minor tragedies which arise when the Nazis take over.  By keeping the focus on the small and the immediate, the author emphasizes by contrast the monumental scope of the “cleansing,” which has affected thousands of similar, ordinary communities. Many characters, such as Kain, do not believe that the horrors can possibly be real.  Educated and intellectual, Kain lives in an academic cocoon, protected from political and social realities.  Kain’s brother Werner, a respected geologist, does not even believe that “there is such a thing as this Fuhrer.”  Ironically, he has a visa, but, tied to the earth and his collection of rock treasures, he refuses to leave.

Two Nazis manage to control nearly all aspects of their neighborhood life.  The first is a German SS officer, who moves into the large villa where the Kains live to supervise the occupation and control the population, primarily through intimidation.  The other Nazi is Baldur Pilz, an Austrian who is particularly proud of his “low number,” proof that he was among the first Austrians to join the Nazi movement.  Both men are venal and ignorant, representative of a level of society that people like Eva and Kain have never known.
Throughout the novel, the tortoise acts as a symbol of the Jews’ plight.  When the novel opens, Kain brings home a small tortoise, which he “has rescued from humiliation.”  In the city, he says, tortoises are being branded with swastikas, “burned for all time into their shells.”  Because Kain has saved it, this small, but long-lived tortoise will not have to carry the swastika forever on its back, and it may even outlive Nazism.  It can “live off nothing, off air, off leaves, needing only warmth,” and though vulnerable to vultures or wild animals, it can survive because of its “inner shell.”  It is man who is the most sadistic towards the tortoise, cutting flesh off its living body to get tasty, fresh meat, cutting its heart out, or detaching its brain.  Even then the tortoise can still go on creeping.   It does not die quickly—unless it is deprived of warmth.
The immediacy of author Canetti’s own experience is obvious in small, homely details and realistic characterizations which bring this story to life.  The contrast between the dignity of the betrayed Jews and the carnality of their oppressors contributes a stark elegance to this narrative of betrayals.  A few moments of warmth and tenderness make the inexorability of the conclusion particularly heart-rending.  Though this novel was scheduled for publication in 1939, Britain’s entry into the war prevented this, and it remained among Canetti’s papers after her death in 1963.  Prepared for publication and released for the first time in 2001, sixty-two years after it was written, it has finally been released in paperback. (On my Favorites List for 2007) - Mary Whipple

Veza Canetti's two surviving novels display rich interactions of characters in their place -- 1930s Vienna and environs -- as well as a brilliantly observed, quasi-journalistic narrative stance. Canetti wrote the stories which make up the "novel in five scenes" Yellow Street and published them in Viennese newspapers in the early '30s, and their absurdist humor bears some resemblance to Kafka's and goes some distance toward softening the sometimes casual brutality of the characters toward each other. Runkel, the tiny and horribly deformed "monster" of the first story is both cruel and victim of cruelty; peremptory, astute and, finally, a figure of pathos. Herr Iger is a universally admired benefactor to the public but a boorish wife-beater at home. Emilie Jaksch, who offers her services as a maidservant through Frau Hatvany's unscrupulous employment agency, learns that, if she attempts suicide by jumping in the canal but survives long enough to be rescued, the police will provide her with food and lodging until they find a good job for her. The novel's true protagonist is of course Yellow Street itself, where a five-year-old girl (and her guardian dog), without the slightest awareness of what she is doing, can provide an appropriate comeuppance to a corrupt banker, and even residents inured by hard times can turn their righteous anger on a businesswoman like Frau Hatvany when they find out that she is sending some of her "girls" into prostitution.
The much more solemn The Tortoises, written after Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and Canetti and her husband (the writer Elias Canetti) were allowed to flee to England, might almost be the work of a different woman, especially in the heavily explicative paragraphs of the first few pages. But as the story's impetus takes hold and the characters begin to converse and interact, Canetti's precise and careful observations make it clear this is still the work of the author of Yellow Street, though shorn of much of the humor so redolent of the earlier book. In The Tortoises, the residents of a village not far outside Vienna deal with the Nazi occupation, the suddenly revealed antipathy to Jewish neighbors who had previously been respected, the soul-eating fear of those who have been told they must leave the Reich, but are unable to obtain visas to enter another country. Esteemed writer Andreas Kain and his wife Eva are the central characters, forced to give up more and more of their lodgings to a German officer as they await their visas, cheered by teenaged neighbor Hilde who insists she will get the money from her father to buy an airplane from the officer and fly them to safety. Even through the horror of what is occurring around them, the Jewish characters and their oppressors observe the conventions of polite behavior, the veneer of culture forcing them to act as though everything is almost normal. Canetti's language is not in any sense of the word flat, but her general adherence to the Modernist dictum Show, don't tell can serve both to heighten and to render bearable the tragedy as it unfolds because she refuses to employ melodrama to force the reader's hand. The only serious flaw in the book is the peculiar conversation (in the chapter "The Airplane Crashes") which reads more like a philosophical dialogue than actual words spoken by living characters.
Written in the 1930s but not published in book form until decades after the author's death in 1963, Yellow Street and The Tortoises are first-rate achievements: the former a welcome addition to that short shelf of books whose pungent humor makes a particular place and time both incredibly real and nearly nightmarish at the same time; the latter an exemplary exploration of Nazism as it grew in monstrosity even while casting an eye toward foreign opinion. The reader who pairs the latter with Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Française will go a long way toward understanding what the Third Reich was like as an occupying power and how the exercise of imperial might necessarily brutalizes both occupied and occupier. -  Cooper Renner



Veza Canetti, Yellow Street: A Novel in Five Scenes. Trans. by Ian Mitchell. New Directions, 1991.     excerpt
   read it at Google Books

This novel, written by the late wife of Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti, who contributed the foreword, was originally serialized in 1932-1933sorry, i don't know whose change this was--supposed to be 1933?/eed in a leading Viennese newspaper, the Arbeiter Zeitung. It portrays the people of Yellow Street, the leather merchants' row``row'' to avoid repetition? in Vienna. ``It's a remarkable street. . . . All sorts of people live there, cripples, somnambulists, lunatics, the desperate and the smug.'' There is Runkel, the crippled woman who runs her shops with a tight fist; she is hated for her parsimony, but she wants to be recognized as human, not as a I tightened here. ok? aa/yes/pk monster. Herr Iger beats his wife and deprives her of food and clothing, yet is known publicly as a great philanthropist and a charmer of the ladies. Emilie, an unemployed servant girl, learns that she can improve her lot by feigning suicide by ok?/yes/pk throwing herself into the Danube. These and many other characters are created deftly and sparely; in a few lines Canetti tellstighter. ok?/yes/pk volumes about human nature. She provides a fascinating window on her era replete with vivid details of daily life, as well as an ageless story of the struggle to maintain dignity during hard times. - Publishers Weekly

The decision to publish a novel in ``five scenes'' by the late wife of Nobel prize-winner Elias Canetti, who has written an appreciative foreword, is understandable, but the work itself is too flawed to be anything but a sentimental gesture. These ``five scenes,'' first appearing in the early 1930's in the Austrian Marxist newspaper Arbeiter Zeitung, are set on the Yellow Street, the street of leather-merchants in Vienna. By the 30's, the street had become one of those thoroughfares on the cusp of change--respectable small stores alternated with drinking dens, and the houses of affluent merchants with the small rooms of servants. It was also a time of great economic distress and unemployment. Each scene revolves around one incident in which characters from the other stories are often present, with tales about Runkel, a badly deformed and angry shop-owner, who dies ``suffocated on her own miserliness,'' providing some continuity. A rich merchant complains about a young assistant, and she is fired by Runkel, though neighbors try to organize a petition; a husband abuses his wife, but the law is on his side; a young girl unable to find work attempts suicide because if she is rescued at least she'll be sent to a hostel and fed; a woman's virtue wins a bet for a poor man; an innocent child is victimized by a charitable organization. Time and place are competently evoked, but the story connections are tenuous, and the ways in which characters are manipulated to conform to the class struggle--and to a sentimental celebration of the working class--make it a dated polemic. Very thin. - Kirkus Reviews

Does a collection of five stories featuring some of the same characters constitute a novel? Veza Canetti thought so, and so do Elias Canetti, who has contributed an affectionate foreword about the lady to whom he was married for three decades, and Helmut Göbel, the author of a helpful analytic afterword. Whether or not Die Gelbe Straß is an episodic roman à clef, however, the author, who was born in Vienna as Venetiana Taubner-Calderon and died in London in 1963 at the age of sixty-six, was a storyteller of consummate skill, and her work makes for absorbing reading. Her stories appeared in the Arbeiter-Zeitung in 1932-33, and she used such pseudonyms as Veza Magd and Vernoika Knecht; the Hanser edition, hwoever, is their first publication in book form.
“Es ist eine merkwüridge Straß, deie Gelbe Straß,” writes Canetti. “Es wohen da Krüppel, Mondsüchtige, Verrückte, Verzweifelte und Satte.” The “yellow street” of the title is ostensibly the author’s own Ferdinandstraße in the Leopoldstadt, the second district of Vienna, and the adjective refers not only to the color of the signs and bales of the leather dealers established there, but also to the sun, certain illnesses, and emotions like envy, jealousy, and rage, not to mention canine feces. Canetti writes about mean-spirited entrepreneurs, put-upon women, lustful lmen, solipsistic simpletons—“characters” that are as colorful as they are pathetic—as well as about the dynamics of power, ruthlessness, brutality, and despair.
“Der Unhold” begins with the near-fatal accident of “die Runkel,” the grotesquely crippled tyrant of the street. “Der Oger” features the Jekyll-and-Hyde-like Iger, who is at once a domestic dictator, a public paragon, and a popular prestidigitator. “Der Kanal” takes a mordant view of the relationship between servants and mistresses; under the guise of supplying maids and cooks for “Gnädige,” a woman runs a prostitution ring and advises her destitute chattels to improve their situation by jumping into the Danube. Derdak, the owner of several cafés, is “Der Tiger,” who wants to turn the Lusthaus into a lust house—but, to go the author’s closing double entendre one better, his plan is a bust. In the lighthearted final story (or chapter) Herr Iger reappears as “Der Swinger,” a can-do type. Two playful and guileless children, a five-year-old Hedi (with a dog called Grimm) and Helli Wunderer, frustrate the designs of a prurient, predatory public and carry the machinations of adults ad absurdum. [Harry Zohn, World Literature Today] -  Harry Zohn 


Veza Canetti (1897—1963), playwright, novelist, and short-story writer, was born in Vienna. After the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938, she and her husband, Elias Canetti, fled Vienna for London. She gained literary recognition only posthumously. She is the author of the novels Yellow Street and The Tortoises (New Directions, 2005).

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