Zurich: Elias Canetti



May 12, 2013 

Here I am in Zurich.  At the cemetery. 

Why did I make a pilgrimage to a cemetery to stand at the grave of Elias Canetti? 

Before I departed for my trip to Morocco, Switzerland and Portugal, I called my friend Don Gilliland, the owner of Dasa Books in Bangkok and asked,   “Do you have any materials on Morocco?” 

Don found The Voices of Marrakeshby Elias Canetti.  

I devoured the slim volume.  Canetti’s travel essays are unlike any I have I ever read – so rich in detail, so vivid in images, so eloquent in language.  “A unique travel book,” according to one reviewer.   

But, Elias Canetti.  Elias Canetti?  The name was vaguely, vaguely familiar. 

Elias Canetti is a Bulgarian born novelist, playwright, memoirist, and non-fiction writer who wrote in German.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981 “for writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas and artistic power.” 

I had a hunch about Canetti.  A couple of keystrokes confirmed my hunch. 

My memory bank had stored the fact that Elias Canetti was Jewish.  He was born into a Sephardic family that traced its roots to the Iberian Peninsula and the Spanish Expulsion in 1492.  Canetti is one of the thirteen Jewish Nobel Laureates for Literature. 

In 2005, the Australian writer Clive James published a lengthy essay, Canetti, Man of Mystery.  For reasons known only to Canetti, after the war, he decided not to return to a German-speaking country.  He lived in America for a short time and then moved to England.  James writes, “Canetti might have found Britain a suitable context for pulling off the trick of becoming a famous name without very many people knowing precisely who he was.”  

James describes his subject as a man with a huge ego and a huge mustache to match.  But always a man of mystery. 

Canetti chose to live his last years in Zurich in a country with a reputation, deserved or not, for its mysterious financial practices and a population with an ego the height of the Alps. 

Did Canetti also choose his final resting place according to his personality?   No unpretentious Jewish grave.  

Friedhof Fluntern is no ordinary cemetery.  It is a botanical garden.  A sculpture garden.  Rich, vivid, eloquent, powerful.  James Joyce is a neighbor. 

And a man of mystery forever?  In a florid script on the gravestone, the engraving says simply: Elias Canetti 1905 – 1994. 

Yes, I left a small stone. 

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