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A literary exhibition on Elias Canetti
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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Now, first of all I was surprised to find a Jew, Canetti, next to a Catholic, James Joyce. But it turns out it was a typically ecumenical, a Swiss cemetery and made a different sort of like Highgate here or something like that. Now, Canetti’s was a very simple- No- There was no sculpture there, but of course I read the inscription and discovered that he had, that he was born in the year 1905. So that was his 100th anniversary, which I did not know. And at my opera performance I met lots of people that I knew and one of them a very well read German said, do you know that you are- Canetti was- This is the 100th anniversary of Canetti? And I said- Fortunately I was able to admit it. I said, yes I know it. I knew it only as of three hours before having been there. But I said- And he said, there’s a superb exhibition of Canetti here. You should see that. A sort of literary one. A small place. I went there and that was one of the most amazing experiences for me because that- The man is about 20 years, 18 years older than I, so we could be, you know, quasi contemporaries in this case here. The description- The way it was presented is a way that I wouldn’t mind seeing my obituary presented so to speak because it focused on his writings obviously, on interesting documentation, on lots of photographs, on some videos, because of course that is during this time already, records, and a lot of really personal esoterica that people had dug up that I did not know about. Including, for instance, they showed the title page of his chemical PhD thesis and what he worked on, and I could see now why that was dull. It would have been dull for me too to work on that particular chemistry that he worked on. But then about his personal life, the relationship with women, which was very striking and had some very striking similarities to mine, including that his last wife- the age difference between the last wife and him was about the same one as between him and my wife. And that she died before him from cancer and considering that my wife right now suffers very much from cancer I was unbelievably struck by, by that. I cannot explain how much it was, and seeing also he lived in the places that- places that I knew well, particularly Vienna, Bulgaria, and of course also Zurich because these were really the three places. Spent a bit of time in England but that was the least important one of the places where he really lived. I then discovered something which I didn’t know. I did not know about Canetti that he’d also written some plays. So I bought his plays to bring them with me. They have not been performed very much, and the final thing that he very much liked to read and read at public reading from his writings. And that probably is where it becomes obvious right now for me as well. So that was an interesting connection with my past.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Zurich, James Joyce, Elias Canetti

Duration: 3 minutes, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008