The Book Against Death

Elias Canetti

Translated by Peter Filkins, with a preface by Joshua Cohen

Fitzcarraldo Classic No. 5 | French paperback with flaps, 352 pages
Published 6 June 2024

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In 1937, Elias Canetti began collecting notes for the project that ‘by definition, he could never live to complete’, as translator Peter Filkins writes in his afterword. The Book Against Death is the work of a lifetime: a collection of Canetti’s aphorisms, diatribes, musings and commentaries on and against death – published in English for the first time since his death in 1994 – interspersed with material from philosophers and writers including Goethe, Walter Benjamin and Robert Walser. This major work by the 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate is a disarming and often darkly comic reckoning with the inevitability of death and with its politicization, evoking despair at the loss of loved ones and the impossibility of facing one’s own death, while fiercely protesting the mass deaths incurred during war and the willingness of the despot to wield death as power. Infused with fervour and vitality, The Book Against Death ultimately forms a moving affirmation of the value of life itself.

‘Canetti would not shrug-off or laugh death out of his mind: he is sincere, clamorous, indignant and endlessly aggrieved. His disdain is boundless and therefore so is his book, for which no material is beyond incorporation. As with all acquisitive projects, it is never satiated—it acknowledges no terminus. It finished only when Canetti himself was finished by death…. He is always in defiance against seemingly eternal forces: power, society, religion, God, death. And it is not enough simply to think about something—all thoughts are enlisted in the conquest of their subject. Canetti’s pensée amounts to an act of protest, a great refutation, culminating in the ultimate refutation of death.’
Jared Marcel Pollen, New Statesman

‘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, New York Review of Books

‘One of our great imaginers and solitary men of genius.’
— Iris Murdoch

‘Canetti led his life without compromise, fear, or guilt, and [reading him is] like discovering, without warning, a complex and satisfying work of art.’
— David Denby, New Yorker

‘Canetti invites – indeed, compels – judgement. His exacting presence honours literature.’
— George Steiner, New Yorker

‘The erudition is genuinely awe-inspiring.’
— Salman Rushdie

‘Before there was the mysterious W. G. Sebald, there was the even more mysterious Elias Canetti’
— Clive James, New York Times

‘By virtue of his abundant wit and stylistic pithiness, Canetti stands out as one of the foremost aphorists of our time, a man who, in his phrasing of life’s ironies, is sometimes reminiscent of great predecessors like La Bruyère and Lichtenberg.’
— Swedish Academy, Nobel Prize in Literature 1981

‘This heterogeneous collage of vignettes, literary theory and personal musings against the notion of dying, from the Nobel Prize-winning author of Auto-da-Fé (1947), is stitched together by a humorous, analytically sharp tone, with a healthy dose of anger and despair.’
Ivana Cholakova, Frieze

‘It displays all of Canetti’s erudition – observations about animal life intermingle with tales from classical China, philosophers and writers are put under the knife, and every religion will be cited and lambasted in equal measure – as well as his bleak wit. It also displays, par excellence, his contrarian nature…. He juxtaposes writing and death; the marks on the page are the opposite of the marks on the tombstone.’
Duncan Stuart, The Millions

The Book Against Death represents something of a guerilla campaign: the death of death via a thousand cuts, with the weapon of a thousand aphorisms and ephemera. To read it is to experience a sustained, gradual expansion of one’s conception of what death is, and the role it plays in human life…. With this most recent translation by Peter Falkins, Canetti secures how he will be remembered – indeed, how he will manage to defy death: contorted with pain but not corrupted, single-minded and immortal in his defiance.’
— Sebastián Sánchez, Asymptote

Praise for Auto da Fé

‘The power of Canetti’s method, in its flexibility and its range, achieves that rarest of contemporary feelings: a clear and terrible vision of human inadequacy which itself does not harden into contempt and spite…. the most important literary expression, in the last forty years, of the processes of delusion.’
— Raymond Williams

‘One of the few undoubted masterpieces of our time.’
— John Davenport

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 non-fiction book Crowds and Power.

Peter Filkins is the translator of Ingeborg Bachmann’s collected poems, Darkness Spoken, as well as three novels by H. G. Adler, The Journey, Panorama and The Wall. He published a biography, H. G. Adler: A Life in Many Worlds, in 2019. Filkins’s fifth collection of poems, Water / Music, appeared in 2021. He teaches at Bard College.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. His books include the novels Moving Kings, Book of Numbers, Witz, A Heaven of Others, and Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto; the short fiction collection Four New Messages, and the non-fiction collection Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction. Called ‘a major American writer’ by the New York Times, ‘maybe America’s greatest living writer’ by the Washington Post, 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. In 2022, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Netanyahus. He lives in New York City.