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Alex Carnevale

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Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Entries in elias canetti (2)


In Which We Contemplate Iris Murdoch With Amused Hostility

My Love


Like Socrates, perhaps love is the only subject on which I am really expert?

Iris Murdoch, July 1976

She was an only child. She thought of her little family as "a perfect trinity of love."

The first sentence she ever copied down was, "The snowdrop hangs its head down. Why?"

She wrote, "Jesus: my first (and last?) Jewish boy." She was the best student in her class; a mother of a friend called her a Botticelli angel. After she died, Harold Bloom wrote that there were no more first rate writers left in Britain. A variation of this escaped his mouth whenever anyone died, so that someone else might say it of him.


Hitler invaded the Rhineland; her Jewish and Indian classmates would go on hikes together, four at a time. Iris' closest friend was the school's headmistress. Auden came to visit her boarding school. According to her, he was "young and beautiful, with his golden hair."

Her first boyfriend was in training to be a dentist; they bonded over Virgil. She had her first drink at seventeen. She said, "the experience comes back to me surrounded by a halo of the purest and most intense joy."

Her first real boyfriend was David Hicks, three years her elder. He sent her C.S. Lewis' Allegory of Love, even now known as a strong move. As she grew into a charming young woman, many desired Iris, women as well as men. All the boys she knew at Oxford left to die in the war.

There she was the pet pupil of Eduard Fraenkel, who recognized her talent immediately and would spend countless hours talking to her. He would later call her the only truly educated person of her generation. Others were forced to agree. A classmate described her as having "a lioness' face — very square, very strong, very gentle."

Her first real love was a guy named Frank Thompson. Even as she dated someone closer to home, she believed she would marry Frank. A self-described "left intellectual," he was captured and executed by Bulgarians, with a volume of poetry by Catullus in his front pocket.

In 1980, she had a dream that she, Frank and her husband John Bayley were living together happily. She wrote, "A dream about Frank. I was with Frank and he told me he loved me. (As he did on that day in autumn 1938 in New College.) I was very moved but not sure what I felt (as then). He went away and then I realised I loved him. (As I really did come to love him later.) In the dream, realising I loved him I felt great joy at the thought that I could tell him now, and I sent for him. He appeared at the top of a steep slope, dressed as a soldier, with a black cap on. As I climbed up the slope towards him I felt sudden dismay, thinking I cannot marry him, I am married already. Then I thought, it is all right, I can be married to both him and John. We met and were all somehow very happy and yet awkward too."

Iris was a prolific letter writer: "When I was younger, I remember I loved writing long letters to all sorts of people — a kind of exhibitionism I daresay." She often wanted her boyfriends to send her pictures of themselves, under the guise that "I hate to not know what my friends look like."

She visited Paris and met Sartre. He signed a copy of Being and Nothingness over to her. She was starting to feel like a philosopher again.

She became engaged to a man who showed little to no interest in her work, and confessed "doubts & terrors" towards the prospect of their marriage. In Prague, he left her for a girl named Molly. Even after they dissolved their arrangement by postal mail, Iris still gave him money.

She spoke only French to Raymond Queneau. They went on hikes together. He told her about his analysis. He introduced her to the work of William Faulkner. He never liked to talk about his work, except with her. Queneau described Iris as "Irishwoman. Big. Blonde. Common-sensical. A little bun. A perked cap. A decided walk, somewhat heavy, military. Beautiful eyes. Charming smile. She loves Kierkegaard. Is interested in the problems of blacks. Likes Colossus of Maroussi. She is weary. Her work interests her sufficiently. She skis."

She thought he "had a very beautiful head."

When she returned to England, she took up with Donald MacKinnon, in almost full view of his suffering wife. She became more and more depressed. She went to visit the widowed mother of Frank Thompson, which did not help matters. The old woman gave Iris the volume of Catullus that had been returned to her.

She came to Cambridge, where she met Wittgenstein. She thought of him as a handsome but disturbing figure, with "a trampish sort of appearance." They never connected, but Cambridge was full of romantic possibilities. She took up with a number of men, but none of them for very long. Later she would write, "that business of falling in love with A, then with B, then with C (all madly) seems a bit sickening."

To break the pattern, she considered a relationship with Wittgenstein's protege, a woman named Elizabeth Anscombe. The relationship was never consummated, but Iris fantasized about kissing the back of her neck, and the emotional side was very real.

She took a post teaching at St. Ann's College, where she became the resident expert on moral and political philosophy. Her circle of friends, largely the ethnic misfits of the school, grew and grew. (In The Black Prince she wrote that "most friendship exists in a state of frozen and undeveloping hostility.") Her skill involved paying her friends exactly the amount of attention they required, but not so much that they lost their desire for being with her. Once, she offhandedly remarked to one of her students that didn't she agree "that any worthwhile person ought to have at least some Jewish blood?"

Iris became engaged to another man, but cheated on him with the philosopher Michael Oakeshott. A friend described them both as "addicted to love at first sight." She did not like to ask things of her boyfriends, and she generally hated if they made any demands on her. She contrived an exception to this rule by taking up with a frail Jewish philosopher whose debilitating heart ailment was aggravated by sex. He died.

As a consequence, her next relationship was with the writer Elias Canetti. He was very different from her other boyfriends. Their three year affair was kept secret from all close to them; she was neither the first nor the last of his mistresses. Canetti was the king of flattery, an expert manipulator. He would often read a writer's entire oeuvre before meeting them so he would know what to say. Behind their backs, he could be extremely cruel. Iris' friends suspected that Elias was the sort of literary intellectual monster she feared becoming.

Among other things, Iris found him to be the best sexual partner she had ever had. She wrote, "He holds me savagely between his knees & grasps my hair and forces my head back. His power. He subjugates me completely. Only a complete intellectual and moral ascendancy could hold me." She compared him to Zeus. "He takes me quickly, suddenly... When we are satisfied, we do not lie together, but contemplate each other with a sort of amused hostility." Her next boyfriend did not like Canetti, and was nothing like him.

Even though I never knew her, I still miss her.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about the life of Lee Krasner. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

"Blue Skies" - Tom Waits (mp3)

"Old Shoes" - Tom Waits (mp3)

with John Bayley, 1998


In Which He Would Like To Be Made Of Fog So No One Could Find Him

The Notebooks of Elias Canetti

The notebook is the perfect literary form for the eternal student, someone who has no subject or, rather, whose subject is 'everything.'

- Susan Sontag

The notebooks of Elias Canetti are inspired by the similar writing of Cesare Pavese. Born into a family of Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria, Canetti grew up in Vienna, did his writing in German, and spent most of his days in England. He perfected the science of aphorism, which consists of making an apparently profound statement that doesn't hold up quite as well upon closer examination. His personal writings are at the same time magically perceptive and entertainingly naive. Collected together they form a total greater than the sum of their individual parts. These notebooks were translated from the German by John Hargraves. - A.C.

It all depends on this: with whom we confuse ourselves.

Everyone there has just the amount of space that fits under an umbrella. No one goes out without one, and everyone puts his up. No one comes too close to anyone else. A distance is preserved. There is freedom everywhere. When acquaintances meet, the umbrellas are made to bow. How dignified are these greetings from umbrella to umbrella.

To have someone happy at home, so you can be happy elsewhere.

In that country, everyone sees themsleves when speaking to others, as if blind to all but their own images. Thus they are all very polite; they couldn't be more pleasant. Indeed, they are in a state of enthusiasm for everyone else, an enthusiasm only somewhat mitigated by their monotonous similarity. It is enchanting to see how they bow to everyone, when you know that they see themselves in everyone else.

in marrakech
I love to tell people who they really are. I am proud of my ability to instill in them a belief in themselves. I show them their own efforts. But I succeed only when I put myself into the effort. From my efforts their own take shape.

What I find most repulsive about people are their plans.

The figure of a lover who suddenly is struck with the horrible realization that others are lovers too. The minute he can no longer deny the truth of this, his own emotion dissolves.

The story of the man who finds women to whom he delegates all the activities he has taken upon himself to do. I call him the slaveholder. He is a nice, friendly man, but what happens to them is that they become so swollen with all his tasks that they burst.

Kafka: I grovel in the dust before him; Proust: my fulfillment; Musil: my intellectual exercise.

Now the planetarium has become a terrarium, and we cannot gaze upon the planets without feeling somewhat confined and oppressed by their attainability.

It is a great pleasure to listen to people who have nothing to say. They ought to be what they are and not be judged for it; still less should one try to influence them. Keep your eyes wide open and let it all flow in, in all its senselessness, disorder, and futility. You can make sense of it only later, in your own imagination.

He gives the impression of being quite experienced, for he makes up all the experiences himself. He never wears disguises. He is never interested in the outcomes of his plots; he needs newer, bigger conspiracies and, in the end, is gladly brought down by their consequences.

A strong passion is useful in that it compels people to outwit it at the same time as they get to know it in its every detail.

He loves her; he can't be as careful with anybody else.

The vilest letters he answers conscientiously. To serious ones he makes no reply at all. And why does he so carelessly squander the rare respect of their authors? He is totally fascinated by those who hate him. He counts his haters in every country and carefully decodes for himself what they have against him. How much he agrees with them! How much he understands them! They make him feel proud: how dangerous he is! He hears their words in seven dozen languages and translates them into his own. There are never enough: he is always hoping for more.

He said "we" when he meant "I." But in return he always said "I" for "you."

A woman who knew all the great men and outlived them. One of them will not die. Her desperation.

I am sick of longing for places I already have an image of. I am sick of being astonished by words because they are inscrutably splendid. I want to seek something that I, and only I, will find. I want to feel that nothing is certain until I have it. I can't bother with stones someone else has already piled up. Leave these games to the fair, who forget themselves in their self-assurance, to the dancers who only recognize themselves in front of mirrors, to the consumers, the travelers, the inheritors and celebrities.

He collects his writers like butterflies, and under his care they turn into one great caterpillar.

Fear not your treasures turning to dust. They will decay only if you stand watch over them. Go ahead, quivering and uncertain. What you don't know will preserve what you do.

Pavese was my exact contemporary. But he started working earlier and took his life ten years ago. His journal is a kind of twin to mine. He cared mostly about literature, unlike me. But I happened onto myths and ethnology earlier. On December 3, 1949, eight months before his death, he wrote the following in his journal:

"I have to find

W.H.I. Bleek and L.C. Lloyd, Specimens of Bushman Folklore, London 1911."

This book has been in my possession for sixteen years, since 1944. I have often considered it the most important book: I have learned the most from it, and it is still not exhausted. This book, which Pavese turned to just before his death, is what we have most in common, and I wish I could give it to him.

On March 14, 1947, there is this sentence; "Hemingway is the Stendhal of our time."

I find this appalling and outrageous. Perhaps there is something to it, but I am too upset about the statement to judge. I am horrified that anyone could make it. It is as if someone wanted to dispel the mystery of Stendhal, the source of his greatness, with a cheap and obvious Americanism. Pavese was an admirer of Amreicanism; I am not. Thus Pavese could be called a modern writer; I could not. I am a Spaniard, an old Spaniard of today...

It is very odd that I feel such a kinship with Pavese, of whom I know nothing outside his journals. I feel so related to him that such an unexpected utterance angers me profoundly.

I am under the impression that he destroyed himself for an American woman.

"26 April. Wednesday. Certainly in her is contained not only herself but my entire past life, an unconscious preparing - America...."

Strictly speaking, I have actually hidden myself from America up till the present. Its only real influence on me has been Poe, whom I read very early, perhaps at twenty. In this respect I am not different from many nineteenth century writers. Hemingway rolled off me like water.

From 1942 to 1950 Pavese's journals run parallel to my own. Never before have I been so astonished by such parallelism. But I must assemble my earlier, spare writings and bring them into some kind of order. Even prior to 1942 I was not mute, just less resolute.

Nothing is so antiquated as power. Even faith is more modern.

Learn to speak again at fifty-five, not a new language but speech itself. Discard all my prejudices, even if nothing else is left. Reread the great books whether I've actually read them before or not. Listen to people without lecturing them, especially those who have nothing to teach me. Stop validating fear as a means of fulfillment. Struggle against death without constantly pronouncing its name. In short, courage and justice.

If prayers were to be answered, they could not be retracted: a highly alarming state of affairs.

I have read my old sentences again; they are no longer mine. Since they were printed a piece of my life has fallen away from me. The public sucks the blood from a man's soul, and what is left is just a shadow, which bows down to them.

Pavese's journals: all the things that preoccupy me, crystallized in another way. What luck! What a liberation!

His death prepared for: but nothing is abused, no emotion for him aroused. It just comes as if it were natural. But no death is natural. He keeps his death to himself, private. We hear about it, but it sets no example. No one would kill himself because he did.

And yet last night, when in my deepest depression I wanted to die, I reached for his journals, and he died for me. Hard to believe: through his death, today I am reborn. This mysterious process should be looked into, but not by me. I will not touch it. I want to keep it a secret.

He saw them as fishes swimming among one another, mouths of all sizes, totally at each other's mercy.

The sycophant tries with every means to conceal how much he values the scrap that has fallen to him.

I will never succumb to adjectives, especially in threes. They are Proust's Orientalism, his love of jewels. These say nothing to me, for I love all stones. The "precious" stones for Proust are the aristocrats among his characters. My "aristocrats" are those unknown people of "the beginning": bushmen, Aranda, Tierra del Fuegans, the Ainu. My "aristocrats" are all those who still live by myths, who would be lost without them. (And now they are, mostly.) The society in which Proust made his way, his snobbishness, was his way of experiencing the world. That world leaves me cold. I am only interested in it when I read him or Saint-Simon.

She said that even the English can show grief about death and gave me many examples of mourning for dogs.

Your actual affection for people overcomes you when they are no longer around.

Read two consecutive sentences of Kafka and you feel smaller than you ever have before. Kafka's passion for making himself insignificant is transmitted to the reader.

What can we do with the people from our pasts, with all those we have known? They keep turning up, more and more of them, a kind of transmigration, not of soul but of faces and not in the hereafter but here. Years ago I was so astounded by their turning up in totally new places, with different ages, jobs, languages, that I was determined to write down every occurrence of this phenomenon. But I did so only rarely, and they have gotten more and more numerous. Now they are proliferating so fast that I could never record them all. What is it about these constantly recurring people? Is there really only a limited number of possible faces? Or can our memories be organized only with the help of such resemblances?

What if it were all just an overture and no one knew to what?

Elias Canetti died in 1994. He was the 1981 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

"Our Get" - White Denim (mp3)

"Shy Billy" - White Denim (mp3)

"Through Your Windows" - White Denim (mp3)