Auto da Fé is a 1935 novel by Elias Canetti
Elias Canetti
Elias Canetti was a Bulgarian-born modernist novelist, playwright, memoirist, and non-fiction writer. He wrote in German and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981, "for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power".-Life:...

; the title of the English translation (by C. V. Wedgwood
Veronica Wedgwood
Dame Veronica Wedgwood OM DBE was an English historian who generally published under the name C. V. Wedgwood...

, 1946) refers to the burning of heretics by the Inquisition
The Inquisition, Inquisitio Haereticae Pravitatis , was the "fight against heretics" by several institutions within the justice-system of the Roman Catholic Church. It started in the 12th century, with the introduction of torture in the persecution of heresy...


Publication History

The book was banned by the Nazis and did not become widely known until after the worldwide success of Canetti's Crowds and Power
Crowds and Power
Crowds and Power is a 1960 book by Elias Canetti, dealing with the dynamics of crowds and "packs" and the question of how and why crowds obey rulers. Canetti draws a parallel between ruling and paranoia...

(1960). Jonathan Spence
Jonathan Spence
Jonathan D. Spence is a British-born historian and public intellectual specializing in Chinese history. He was Sterling Professor of History at Yale University from 1993 to 2008. His most famous book is The Search for Modern China, which has become one of the standard texts on the last several...

 observes that "there is nothing discreet, chaste, or high minded about the finest and wildest of all fictions that centre on a student of China, Cannetti's Auto-da-fe."

Plot & Themes

The protagonist is Herr Doktor Peter Kien, a middle-aged philologist & Sinologist, uninterested in human interaction or sex, content to be a prisoner in his book-lined apartment in Weimar Vienna.

He himself was the owner of the most important private library in the whole of this great city. He carried a minute portion of it with him wherever he went. His passion for it, the only one which he had permitted himself during a life of austere and exacting study, moved him to take special precautions. Books, even bad ones, tempted him easily into making a purchase. Fortunately, the great number of the book shops did not open until after eight o'clock.

Kien is absorbed in his studies of Chinese and fears social and physical contacts. He is almost obsessive-compulsive in his contamination fears, & much of the book is about the comedy of his being thrown into close contact with a world that he fears, and doesn't wholly understand: "You draw closer to truth by shutting yourself off from mankind" (Canetti, 15).

He impulsively marries his ignorant housekeeper of 8 years, Therese Krummholz, imagining that with her help he would be able to keep his books - his pre-ponderant concern in life - safe. He and Therese create a violent, divided existence within days of marriage. Kien values the books far above human and above Therese's life, worrying about the books when he is shut off from 3/4 of his library because of the new divided living arrangement with his wife: "Books have no life; they lack feeling maybe, and perhaps cannot feel pain, as animals and even plants feel pain. But what proof have we that inorganic objects can feel no pain? Who knows if a book may not yearn for other books, its companions of many years, in some way strange to us and therefore never yet perceived?" (Canetti, 67). The division of the apartment, and Therese's interference in Kien's scholarship and camaraderie with his library culminates when Kien is thrown out of his apartment by Therese, thereby losing access to his beloved library.

Kien descends to the depths of society meeting the dwarf Fischerle, and the Blacksmith Gene, who ultimately is the harbinger of his demise. Kien's brother, Georges Kien, a psychiatrist
A psychiatrist is a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. All psychiatrists are trained in diagnostic evaluation and in psychotherapy...

, tries in vain to cure him, creating for some hilarious debunking of Freudian Psycho-analysis. Cannetti's friend Fritz Wotruba
Fritz Wotruba
Fritz Wotruba was an Austrian sculptor of Czecho-Hungarian descent. He was considered one of the most notable Austrian 20th century sculptors...

 the sculptor, felt that the character was modelled on Elias' brother, Nessim - who at the time lived in France, worked for Polydor Records & was an impresario for French chanson through the night-club he ran there. "Hadn't I, he asked me, gone wrong out of love for my younger brother, whom I had told him about? No one, he insisted, could have so many skins; I had constructed an ideal character; what a writer does in his books, Georges Kiend did in his life..." from Das Augenspiel , Verlag
Verlag is the German language word for "publisher". It occurs in the name of several German and Austrian publishing firms, including:* Akademie Verlag* Arovell Verlag* Bertz + Fischer Verlag* Birkhäuser Verlag* Carl Hanser Verlag* Carl Heymanns Verlag...

,1985; trans. The Play of the Eyes, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1987.

The end is exactly what the other-worldly Kien had been trying to avoid by marrying Therese, an apocalyptic pyrrhic end amid his books, those extensions of his ego. The English translation title Auto-da-Fe
An auto-da-fé was the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics and apostates that took place when the Spanish Inquisition or the Portuguese Inquisition had decided their punishment, followed by the execution by the civil authorities of the sentences imposed...

, by novel's end, is realized to be the perfect title choice.

External links

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