Ten days after Kristallnacht in November 1938, Veza and Elias Canetti left Vienna. Her novel The Tortoises was written immediately upon their arrival in London, in the short span of three months. Never before translated into English, The Tortoises describes the flight of a couple much like the Canettis. Andreas Kain, a writer, and Eva, his devoted wife, live quietly in a secluded villa outside Vienna. Their lives, however, are gradually destroyed by rising Nazism, as more and more people from the new Third Reich appropriate rooms in their home––most especially their enemy, the high party official Herr Pilz (“Mr. Mushroom”). And like a fungus, Nazism’s daily cruelties intrude on their life and eat it up. For this tale of real mortal terror, spare, cinematic, and devastating, Veza Canetti chose as her leitmotif the tortoise: a peaceful animal, symbolic of long life, wisdom and seclusion. Andreas Kain, at the novel’s start, when they are still safe in their villa, rescues some tortoises who are about to be branded with swastikas and sold as souvenirs to commemorate the Anschluss. With horror the Kains discover that one tortoise already bears, naturally in the patter of its shell, a swastika. It portends no happy ending: stripped of their property and forced out of their homeland, the Kains flee, tortoises pulled from their shells––unprotected.
Set in Vienna in the 1930s, Yellow Street is a novel in “five scenes” that captures the despair, poverty, enforced idleness, and crumbling moral values of those years just before the political catastrophes that led to World War II. With an astute eye for irony and a sardonic humor, Veza Canetti weaves together stories about the people of Yellow Street, the home of the leather-merchants in the Leopoldstadt district. Living cheek by jowl on the bustling thoroughfare, crabbed merchants, impoverished bourgeois, canny profiteers, and out-and-out criminals alike find no privacy respected and no secrets possible. Canetti’s concern, however, is the victims––in the main seemingly helpless women and children, perhaps poor and exploited but grown streetwise and cagey, each protecting a core of integrity and dignity. In tribute to the original voice and commitment of his late wife, Nobel Prize-winner Elias Canetti has contributed a foreword to this volume.