The Tongue Set Free was originally published as Die gerettete Zumge: Geschichte einer Jugend in 1977 and translated into English in 1979 by Joachim Neugroschel. It is the first of three autobiographical works by Canetti, the second being Die Fackel im Ohr published in 1980 (tr. in 1982 as The Torch in My Ear) and the third was Das Augenspiel published in 1985 (tr. in 1990 as The Play of the Eyes). I read all three books back in the early 1990s and can’t remember much about them except for young Elias talking to imaginary characters in the wallpaper (see below) in the first volume. I remember preferring The Tongue Set Free over the other volumes and in fact I sold my copies of the other volumes, keeping only this volume for a later read.
Canetti was born in Ruschuk, Bulgaria (now known as Ruse) in 1905 into a Jewish merchant family descended from Sephardim expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century. The Tongue Set Free begins in 1905 with Canetti’s earliest memory.
My earliest memory is dipped in red. I come out of a door on the arm of a maid, the floor in front of me is red, and to the left a staircase goes down, equally red. Across from us, at the same height, a door opens, and a smiling man steps forth, walking towards me in a friendly way. He steps right up close to me, halts, and says: “Show me your tongue.” I stick out my tongue, he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a jackknife, opens it, and brings the blade all the way to my tongue, he comes closer and closer, the blade will touch me any second. In the last moment, he pulls back the knife, saying: “Not today, tomorrow.” He snaps the knife shut again and puts it back in his pocket.
It turns out that the man is the maid’s lover and was trying to prevent the young Elias from blabbing their secret to others. The first part of this book, which covers these years in Ruschuk, is my favourite as Canetti describes his family and the local inhabitants. Little Elias loves the stories that the servants tell him, especially fairy stories involving wolves, werewolves and vampires. This early period consists of his wonderment at visits from gypsies, watching a man chopping wood, the births of younger siblings and the family struggles and feuds that went on, especially between his two grandfathers who hated each other. Canetti’s parents loved each other dearly and had married in opposition to their parents’ wishes. Canetti was a polyglot but he explains that that was nothing unusual in this city as nearly everyone knew several languages.
People often talked about languages; seven or eight different tongues were spoken in our city alone, everyone understood something of each language. Only the little girls, who came from villages, spoke just Bulgarian and were therefore considered stupid. Each person counted up the languages he knew; it was important to master several, knowing them could save one’s own life or the lives of other people.
Canetti tells of an incident whereby he attempts to murder an older girl, whom he had previously been besotted with, when she refuses to show him her schoolbooks which contain her writing from school—he’s five years old and he tries to kill her with an axe.
But both his parents find life in Ruschuk stifling; his mother wants to live somewhere more exciting and his father needs to escape the influence of his own father. Both have artistic interests, especially in the theatre, and they find their family’s indifference to anything other than business insufferable. And so they head to Manchester, England where Canetti’s father takes on a job in a relation’s firm. Life in England opens up a whole world of books for Elias as his father brings home book after book in English for little Elias to read. But it is rather solitary for young Elias and he is left alone for too long in the nursery.
At home in the nursery, I usually played alone. Actually, I seldom played, I spoke to the wallpaper. The many dark circles in the pattern of the wallpaper seemed like people to me. I made up stories in which they appeared, either I told them the stories or they played with me, I never got tired of the wallpaper people and I could talk to them for hours.
But he is caught talking to the wallpaper people and he has to be weaned away from these ‘unhealthy tendencies’. As the book progresses Canetti’s tendency to become obsessed over certain things arises again and again, but it is also an example of his natural ability to make up characters and to tell stories. After this incident he settles for telling stories to his younger siblings.
Tragedy strikes as his father suddenly dies. Elias had loved his father but had been rather indifferent to his mother. From now on as they move from Manchester to Vienna and then to Zurich a bond forms between Elias and his mother but it’s a relationship that is different from the loving relationship with his father. He becomes protective of his mother and jealous as well, especially when she attracts suitors such as a Viennese professor who repeatedly takes Elias’s mother out to the theatre. Elias is only happy when they finally escape from this danger by moving to Zurich. But in Zurich the Canettis have to get used to what they see as a more puritanical lifestyle, though Elias secretly prefers it to Vienna. Elias also has his first encounter with anti-Semitism at school. During this period the family begins to break apart as Elias’s mother moves to Arosa, whilst his brothers live in Lausanne; Elias stays in Zurich and continues his education. Much of the last section of the book is about his studies and his teachers, at times this part gets a little dull but Canetti doesn’t dwell on any specific too long before moving on.
The book ends in 1921 with Elias having to reluctantly leave Zurich, which he has grown to love when he’s summoned by his mother to join her in Germany. In the last chapter Canetti’s mother really lays into her son for being content and complacent living in Zurich and warns him that he’s rotting away there. She ridicules just about everything he has grown to love, these are very often things, such as an interest in the theatre and books, that she had earlier urged him to pursue. The war has changed her.
The only perfectly happy years, the paradise in Zurich, were over.
Canetti would return to live in Zurich for the last twenty years of his life.