Canetti was born in a Bulgarian town on the Danube River to a Jewish family with roots in Spain and founders of Ruse, a Jewish enclave in Bulgaria. His mother's family had been in the region from the late 18th century. His father was a successful merchant.
The family moved to England in 1911, his father died suddenly in 1912, and the family moved to Switzerland and then to Vienna, where he grew up. He learned German (and wrote in that language) but also spoke Bulgarian, English, and French.
Canetti was also known for his writing about life in Vienna before Germany annexed Austria in 1938.
But his modernist novel Auto-da-Fé brought him wider acclaim when it was translated into English in 1946, and his Crowds and Power (translated in 1962), a nonfiction book written in a highly poetic style, gained him worldwide attention.
Auto-da-Fé tells the story of a man who studied linguistics and history with an emphasis on China, and was so absorbed in his studies that he grew to fear physical contacts and social interaction. He valued his books more than he valued people.
"Books, even bad ones, tempted him easily into making a purchase," writes Canetti. "Fortunately, the great number of book shops did not open until after eight o'clock."
The man married his housekeeper, thinking she could help him protect his books, but the relationship deteriorated within days and the wife threw her husband out of their apartment. Disconnected from his books, the man sank into despair.