As a child, Elias Canetti treasured Robinson Crusoe. The author of Auto da Fé (1935), the nightmarish story of a self-absorbed sinologist who is tricked into marriage by his illiterate housekeeper and who sinks first into the lower depths of society and then into madness, seems to have had the lifelong feeling of being solitary, separate from the rest of humankind. According to his later study in mass psychology Crowds and Power, crowds form in an effort to shake off the burden of individuality. Perhaps surprisingly - as he always claimed to value the individual human being above all else - the impression the reader takes from the book is that, for Canetti, this process of self-obliteration held a powerful attraction.
Born into a Sephardic Jewish family in a small port city on the Ottoman Danube and growing up amid the festering anti-Semitism of interwar Europe, Canetti had no illusions about the wisdom of crowds. Yet he seems to have been drawn by suddenly formed masses of humanity, finding a sense of elation in being swept up as a student by a flood of people marching on the Palace of Justice in Vienna in 1927. The crowd was a threat, but also a way out from painful self-consciousness.
Crowds fascinated Canetti, so much so that he was inclined to explain the whole of history through them. In The Play of the Eyes, the last of three volumes of autobiography he published during his lifetime, he makes it clear that this was his master project, writing of his years in Vienna between 1924 and 1938, when he moved to England after Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany: "Since 1925 I had been trying to determine the nature of crowds, since 1931 to discover how power springs from crowds, from the masses . . . The more I worked, the clearer it became to me that I had taken on a task that would demand the better part of my life."
Canetti sought desperately to understand the convulsion that was destroying civilisation in Europe. Wiser and more attuned to history, his contemporary Joseph Roth linked the rise of Nazism with that of the nation state, which, even when it claimed to have a civic and democratic character, imposed a single identity on those who lived within it. With characteristic hubris, Canetti tried to explain the upheaval in Europe by reference to timeless laws of human behaviour. He omitted to specify any of these laws, however. Crowds and Power is at best a work of taxonomy in which various crowd formations are defined: hunting packs, war packs, lamenting packs, increase packs. None of the categories carries any explanatory content; later in the book, he observes that the packs often mutate into each other, but fails to explain how or why they do so.
He then adds various highly allusive metaphors, as when he writes: "The most important occurrence within the crowd is the discharge. Before this the crowd does not actually exist: it is the discharge that creates it."
Canetti claimed to identify universal laws, but what he came up with was a system of overworked and far-fetched analogies, along with some strikingly bizarre suggestions, such as the idea he reports coming to him in the early 1930s that mirrors should be prohibited. Published in 1960 and one of the works for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1981, Crowds and Power helped make him a global figure. He was nevertheless disappointed by its reception, and it is a measure of his hubris that he believed the Falklands and Gulf wars could have been prevented if only the book had been more widely understood.
Though The Play of the Eyes covers the era in which Hitler came to power, it contains little about the cataclysmic events that shaped those years. Canetti's attention is always on himself and his interactions with people he knew. His human exchanges are reported in the most dramatic language, as when he describes meeting a woman to whom he had been asked to deliver a letter: "She was all eyes; anything else one might have seen in her was illusory. How was I to acknowledge a reality so prodigious: that eyes can be more spacious than the person they belong to? . . . The depth of such eyes is infinite. Nothing that falls into them reaches the bottom. Nothing is washed up again. What becomes of it? Such an eye is a lake without memory."
Reading such passages, one is tempted to toss the book aside and write off Canetti as an oracular charlatan. But giving up on the book would be a mistake, as it contains jewels. Chief among these is his portrait of "Dr Sonne", an enigmatic figure who sat in the Café Museum every afternoon, hidden behind a newspaper. Canetti rarely relates his encounters with other people without some venom, but here we find him writing: "In many ways he was a model. Once I had known him no one else could become a model for me . . . Then, fifty years ago, he seemed unequalable, and unequalable he has remained for me."
As described by Canetti, Sonne could be a figure of fiction. His erudition is vast, yet he has never been seen with a book. He never refers to his own life or past, or inquires into those of others. His approach to world events appears calmly detached and "utterly impersonal"; but he gives terrifying intimations of future events in Europe - of a vast war that would encompass the complete destruction of cities and much else besides.
Sonne might well seem one of Canetti's more improbable creations, yet this "unique man" was real - a Galician-born Hebrew poet who, under the name Abraham ben Yitzhak, had produced a small body of work that (as Canetti discovered) had led to comparisons with Hölderlin. Later - perhaps in reaction against his own premonition of horror - Sonne seems to have chosen silence. In any event, he published no more verse. This prophetic mind survived the European implosion that he had anticipated, moving to Jerusalem in 1938 and dying in 1951 in Israel, where the 11 poems that appeared in his youth were republished, together with a few more discovered after his death.
If Canetti admired Sonne as he did no one else, he failed to apply the doctor's model in his writings. Sonne was not tempted by the false promise of grandiose analysis: "The sterile notion that any single theory might be applicable to all people," Canetti writes, "was utterly alien to him." But it was precisely this sterile idea that he pursued in Crowds and Power, a project on which he wasted his powers. Canetti's strength lay in depicting extreme psychological states and impressionistic vignettes. He excelled in character sketches of the kind that light up this book and the posthumously published volume dealing with his life in wartime London, Party in the Blitz, an Aubrey-like album of brief lives that remains compellingly readable. Although he produced a great work in Auto da Fé - a book that no one has read twice, it has been said - he is much too self-obsessed to be described as a great writer. Roth and other writers of the time, such as Hermann Broch, Robert Musil and Bruno Schulz, are incomparably richer authors. In the end, Canetti's work is a comedy of rationalism, because although he aimed to account for behaviour in universal terms, his best writings capture the sheer peculiarity of human life, which no theory can hope to explain.
The Play of the Eyes
Elias Canetti, translated by Ralph Manheim
Granta Books, 329pp, £9.99
John Gray is the NS lead book reviewer. His latest book, "The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death", is published by Allen Lane (£18.99)