Pater not so familiar

Emma Goldman says many aspects of the life of her father, the writer Willy Goldman, were shrouded in mystery – none more so than his abiding hatred of Elias Canetti

Thursday, 30th June — By Emma Goldman

Willy Goldman

Willy Goldman

I WAS 19 when I learned my father had been married twice before. The discovery gave him another past, another dimension.

Hurtfully, in my eyes it made him a different person. My mother had always claimed that in his youth my father was “an innocent abroad”. The marriage revelation was delivered casually – Oh! Hadn’t we known? – and perhaps the fact it was treated in the manner of an aside was also what startled and alarmed.

Last Friday, I was reminded of my father’s other lives at the unveiling of the memorial to the Nobel prize-winning Elias Canetti in Hampstead.

My father, the working-class writer Willy Goldman whom CP Snow described as “Dickens without the sentimentality”, loathed Canetti. I often overheard him cursing Canetti when I was a child. He refused to tell me why. Often entertaining, my father could be remote, too, wrapped up in some wretched, adult emotion that could never involve – or have anything to do with – my siblings and me. Such a synthesis of intimacy and loneliness was what brought to our relationship its pain.

“Tell me why you don’t like Canetti,” I begged, aged 11, looking up from where I was lying on the rug. “Tell me, Dad. Please.”
My siblings laughed. Alone among them, I was drawn to the drama.

“Never,” he replied as, also one for dramatics, he banged his fist on the chair arm. “But I’ll never forgive him. Never!”

Elias Canetti

As a child, I knew nothing about my father’s other marriages and affairs. His first wife, later the founder of psycho-linguistics at London University, had fled the Nazis. His second was a concert pianist. One of his spurned lovers had got her revenge by writing a novel where the similarities between the love-rat protagonist and my father were so pronounced it led to a libel trial. But although I didn’t know any of that, I always vaguely knew about a woman called Friedl.

Decades passed. The Canetti drama was left behind in childhood. And then, in my 30s, it re-emerged. Having been keen on the novels of Iris Murdoch, I was reading the Peter Conradi biography of her. In that book I also found mention of Friedl. Friedl, my father and Canetti.

I called my mother.

“That woman,” she exclaimed about Friedl, “has been the bane of my marriage!”

Friedl Benedikt was from a wealthy Viennese family. In 1934, aged 19, she followed Canetti and his wife to Hampstead, going to live with a cousin in Downshire Hill. Peter Conradi writes that Friedl had a “childish awe and quasi-religious love” of Canetti.

She believed he could teach her to write novels and indeed she produced three, using the pen name Anna Sebastian. When Canetti and Friedl became lovers, he invented rules governing all aspects of her life, including exactly when she wrote. He even began choreographing love affairs he wanted her to have.

Emma Goldman

Despite having been born in the East End slums to Lithuanian and Russian Jewish parents who spoke no English, my father’s literary success meant that by the mid-40s he was moving in the same Hampstead circles as Friedl and Canetti, with rented rooms not far from them down in Lawn Road.

He and Friedl began a relationship. Soon its intensity was such that Canetti, sensing for the first time a threat to his control over Friedl’s life, became jealous. Friedl then became happily pregnant by my father. Canetti had always claimed that a child weakened creativity and he told Friedl if she had the baby he would never see her again. The threat worked. An abortion was arranged.

When I told my father what I had read in Conradi’s biography, he told me that the end of the relationship with Friedl was the lowest point of his life. That his evenings were spent walking up from Lawn Road to where, in the shadows outside her house, he would stand and weep.

By 1952, my father had married my mother, also a writer. Friedl, meanwhile, was in a Paris hospital with non-Hogkins disease. She refused to let my father visit, saying she didn’t want him to see her ill and ravaged. She died aged 37. As has been well documented, Canetti afterwards got together with Iris Murdoch, who briefly and enthusiastically took up the role of her friend Friedl in his life.
Perhaps understandably, my mother dismissed both Friedl and Iris as “a couple of upper-class tarts”.

This year, the Oxford academic Dr Tali Chilson contacted me. She wanted to write a book about my father with a view to getting his novels re-published. She asked me if I would be willing to collaborate. At the moment, only his first work, East End My Cradle, is available.

Completely coincidentally, although she didn’t know the Friedl story, she turned out to be Canetti’s second cousin.

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