Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Veza Canetti can be no doubt that the name Canetti is well-famed in the world of literature. Elias Canetti it goes without saying since it was he who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981. However, there’s also an Austrian writer carrying the family name: Veza Canetti, the first wife of the famous Nobel Prize laureate. Of course, she is present in some of his essays as well as in his autobiographies and after her death he dedicated all his publications to her, but the literary picture that the acclaimed author painted of her is strongly tinged by female ideals of the 1920s and 1930s. Veza Canetti appears as “literary muse”, “oriental princess”, “jealous partner”, “melancholic raven”, and “sacrificing woman without own ambitions”. That she happened to be a talented writer doesn’t seem to have mattered to the great man of letters. 

Veza Canetti was born as Venetiana Taubner-Calderón in Vienna, then Austria-Hungary, on 21 November 1897. Her father was an Ashkenazi-Jewish merchant from Hungary who died when she was six years old. Her mother, a descendent of Spanish-Sephardic Jews who had settled down on the Balkans, more precisely in Belgrade, Serbia, soon remarried to be provided for with her daughter. Little is known about Veza’s childhood and youth, but despite a physical defect – she had no left forearm so her hand was joined directly to the elbow – those forming years seem to have been quite ordinary. The girl graduated from a grammar school in Vienna and often visited her numerous relatives on the British Isles to improve her English. Besides, she applied herself to studying French, Spanish and Italian on her own. 

After the end of the Great War In 1918 Veza Taubner-Calderón worked as an English teacher at a private grammar school in Vienna until it was closed four years later. After that the young woman made her living as a translator into German and giving private English lessons. She also attended lectures of Karl Kraus (one of the grand men of Austrian literature at the time known today above all for his play The Last Days of Mankind from 1918) at the university of Vienna where she met her husband-to-be, Elias Canetti, in 1924. In the early 1930s Elias Canetti began working on his first (and only fiction) novel Auto-da-fé and also Veza turned her attention to writing. With the help of one of her students, she made her literary debut with a short story in the Wiener Arbeiter-Zeitung, a newspaper of the social-democratic party in Vienna, in 1932. 

During the following two years Veza Taubner-Calderón continued to publish in different newspapers and anthologies. Being Jewish, however, she could not use her real name, but had to resort to different pseudonyms like Veza Magd, Veronika Knecht, Martha/Martina/Marina/Martin Murner. Her rather radical short stories drawn from everyday life touched on burning issues like poverty, unemployment, abuse of power, humiliation, and violence within the family which wasn’t welcome after the events of February 1934 (Austrian Civil War and takeover of power by Austrofascists with conservative Catholic-patriotic ideals as answer to rising National-Socialism under Hitler in Germany). Veza’s novel titled Die gelbe Straße could not be released as planned anymore and the Jewish socialist writer had little opportunity to further publish her work. 

In 1934 Veza Taubner-Calderón married Elias Canetti and adopted his family name as required Austrian law. It is known that Veza wrote two not yet found novels, Kaspar Hauser and Die Genießer, until November 1938 when the Canettis fled via Paris, France, to London, U.K., where they settled down in 1939. In exile Veza Canetti produced Die Schildkröten, but couldn’t find a publisher for the novel. Since earning a living became a pressing issue, Veza put aside her own ambitions and worked as a translator from English again. For the rest she contented herself with supporting her husband’s work as his muse, literary assistant and sometimes secretary although he had several intense affairs. As it seems, Veza Canetti lost all hope for a breakthrough as a writer by 1956 and rumour has it that she not only gave up writing altogether, but also destroyed many of her manuscripts. 

Veza Canetti died in London, U.K., on 1 May 1963. The little that remains of her literary heritage has been (re)discovered and (re)published only in the 1990s and in the new millennium. Available in English are her novels Yellow Street: A Novel in Five Scenes (Die gelbe Straße: 1990) and The Tortoises (Die Schildkröten: 1998), plus the collection Viennese Short Stories (including among others the early stories from the German-language collection Geduld bringt Rosen: 1995). In German also the play Der Oger (1991) and more short stories Der Fund  (2001) have been brought out. 

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