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I Want to Keep Smashing Myself Until I Am Whole

An Elias Canetti Reader

Elias Canetti; Edited and with an Introduction by Joshua Cohen


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ISBN10: 0374298424
ISBN13: 9780374298425

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416 Pages



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He embarked on no adventures, he was in no war. He was never in prison, he never killed anyone. He neither won nor lost a fortune. All he ever did was live in this century. But that alone was enough to give his life dimension, both of feeling and of thought.

Here, in his own words, is one of the twentieth century’s foremost chroniclers: a dizzyingly inventive, formally unplaceable, unstoppably peripatetic writer named Elias Canetti, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981. I Want to Keep Smashing Myself Until I Am Whole is a summa of Canetti’s life and thought, and the definitive introduction to a writer whose genius for interpreting world-historical changes was matched by a keen sense of wonder and an abiding skepticism about the knowability of the self. Born into a Sephardi Jewish family in Bulgaria, Canetti later lived in Austria, England, and Switzerland while traversing, in writing, the great thematic provinces of his time: politics, identity, mortality, and more. Sourced from Canetti’s landmark texts, including Crowds and Power, an analysis of authoritarianism and mobs; Auto-da-Fé, a darkly comic, daringly modernist novel about the fate of European literature; the famous sequence of sensory-titled memoirs, including The Tongue Set Free and The Torch in My Ear; and never-before-translated writings such as the posthumous The Book Against Death, this collection assembles its luminous shards into the fullest portrait yet of Canetti’s remarkable achievement.

Edited and introduced by Pulitzer Prize winner Joshua Cohen (Book of Numbers, The Netanyahus), I Want to Keep Smashing Myself Until I Am Whole leads us from Canetti’s polyglot childhood to his mature preoccupations, and his friendships and rivalries with Hermann Broch, James Joyce, Karl Kraus, Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, and others. This collection is also interspersed with aphorisms and diary entries, revealing Canetti’s formal range and stylistic versatility in flashes of erudition and introspective humor. Throughout, we come to see Canetti’s restless fascination with the instability of identity as one of the keys to his thought—as he reminds us, It all depends on this: with whom we confuse ourselves.


Praise for I Want to Keep Smashing Myself Until I Am Whole

“Rarely has anyone been so at home in the mind, with so little ambivalence. Far from being a source of complacency, this attitude is Canetti’s great strength . . . [He] is someone who has felt in a profound way the responsibility of words . . . His work eloquently and nobly defends tension, exertion, moral and amoral seriousness.”—Susan Sontag, The New York Review of Books

"Canetti invites—indeed, compels—judgment. His exacting presence honors literature."—George Steiner, The New Yorker

"A primer on one of the great questing voices of the 20th century . . . The time is right for (re)reading Canetti, who observed with bleak equanimity the various hellfires that presaged our present era of shock and collapse, without ever losing his illusionless faith that there might yet be salvation in witnessing."—Stephen Phelan, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Vibrant . . . A well-chosen introduction to a lauded intellectual."Kirkus Reviews

"An impressive career-spanning collection . . . Varied and powerful, this is a great introduction to Canetti’s work."Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


By Joshua Cohen

How to biographize Elias Canetti, one of the world’s great autobiographers? What account would be useful? What usefulness could also be made beautiful? What should be the relationship between his...

About the author

Elias Canetti; Edited and with an Introduction by Joshua Cohen

Elias Canetti was born in 1905 into a Sephardi Jewish family in Ruse, Bulgaria. He moved to Vienna in 1924, where he became involved in literary circles while studying for a degree in chemistry. He remained in Vienna until the Anschluss, when he emigrated to England and later to Switzerland, where he died in 1994. In 1981, Canetti was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “writings marked by a broad outlook, a wealth of ideas, and artistic power.” His best-known works include his trilogy of memoirs The Tongue Set Free, The Torch in My Ear, and The Play of the Eyes; the novel Auto-da-Fé; and the nonfiction book Crowds and Power.

Joshua Cohen is the author of several novels, including Witz, Book of Numbers, and The Netanyahus, which won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2021 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction. His writing has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the London Review of Books, n+1, and the Paris Review, among other publications. Called "a major American writer" by the New York Times, and "an extraordinary prose stylist, surely one of the most prodigious at work in American fiction today" by the New Yorker, Cohen was awarded Israel’s 2013 Matanel Prize for Jewish Writers, and in 2017 was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.

Elias Canetti

Joshua Cohen

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