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How To Read Elfriede Jelinek


by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers
Seven Stories, 330 pp., $24.95

Women as Lovers

by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Martin Chalmers
Serpent’s Tail, 192 pp., $14.99 (paper)

Wonderful, Wonderful Times

by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Michel Hulse
Serpent’s Tail, 176 pp., $14.99 (paper)

The Piano Teacher

by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel
Serpent’s Tail, 280 pp., $14.99 (paper)


by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Michael Hulse
Serpent’s Tail, 207 pp., $14.99 (paper)

In her avowedly autobiographical novel The Piano Teacher, the Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek has her alter ego Erika Kohut engage in a variety of voyeuristic activities. She pays to sit in a booth at a peep show, smells a tissue into which the man before her has masturbated, and watches attentively as the girls on display feign sexual pleasure. On another occasion she takes greater risks spying on a couple having sex in a car and then on a “Turklike” “man emitting foreign yelps [as he] screws his way into a woman” in the park at night. The descriptions are lengthy.

Despite this assumption of what is normally a male role, Erika herself does not masturbate. She does not remove her gloves. Loathing “anything pertaining to bodies,” a musician whose insistence on technical perfection is a scourge to her students, she seems eager to contemplate scenes so alien to her nature that she will then be happy to escape unscathed to the apartment where she sleeps in the same bed with her mother, wishing sometimes to “creep into” the older woman “and rock gently in the warm fluid of her womb.”

Reading the five novels by Jelinek that over twenty years have been translated into English, each more determinedly and uniformly unlovely than the one before, all ferocious in their denunciation of a still patriarchal Austrian society, it is not hard to see those voyeuristic scenes of The Piano Teacher as a key to understanding the author’s, or at least narrator’s, relationship to the stories she tells: she dwells on what is repugnant in order to congratulate herself that she has steered well clear of the world. It is a strategy that invariably divides her readers into fiercely opposed camps. Many, particularly in academic circles, believe she has achieved a triumphant combination of avant-garde technique and progressive social criticism. And, of course, in 2004 Jelinek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, “for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichĂŠs and their subjugating power.” However, one member of the Nobel Committee resigned over this decision, describing Jelinek’s work as “whining, unenjoyable public pornography” and “a mass of text shoveled together without artistic structure.” Newspaper reviewers have frequently agreed.

Born in 1946, an only child of Jewish origin, Jelinek was educated in a convent school and pushed by her mother toward a musical education, taking an organist’s diploma at the celebrated Vienna Conservatory. A university course in drama, however, had to be interrupted when an anxiety disorder led to the young woman’s being unable to leave the family house for a year. Meanwhile, her father had been shut up in a mental asylum. The tension between withdrawal from life and openness to it would become a key theme in Jelinek’s work, openness exposing one, and particularly a woman, to every kind of violence and degradation, withdrawal allowing for the sterile calm of a living death. A dramatic dialogue entitled Sleeping Beauty (2003) has the female sleeper reluctant to be woken and immediately in conflict with the presumptuous prince who has kissed her into life. “Mine is a social intelligence that does not derive from knowledge and experience,” Jelinek explains in an interview with the German writer Hans-JĂźrgen Heinrichs, “but from avoiding them.”1

Paradoxically, this apparent preference for isolation and withdrawal has always gone together with a reputation for vigorous political engagement. The earliest of her novels available in English, Women as Lovers, was published in 1975 shortly after Jelinek became a member of the Austrian Communist Party, then a fringe movement with Stalinist leanings. In an aggressive, rhythmically repetitive prose the book presents a group of young characters uncritically adopting the shallow, money-driven conventions that, as Jelinek sees it, regulate sex and marriage in provincial Austria. The tone is one of sardonic, even comic-strip Marxism where love is an empty word whose coercive repetition mostly serves to get a girl out of the factory, where she is “replaceable and unnecessary,” and into a home paid for by her husband:

i need you and i love you, says brigitte. her hair shines in the sun like ripe polished chestnuts, love is the feeling that one person needs the other. i need you, says brigitte, so that i no longer have to go to the factory, because really i don’t need the factory at all. what i need is you and being near you. i love you and i need you.

The payoff for her young man, Heinz, who as an apprentice electrician is learning a trade that “one day will put the whole world at his feet,” is sex, which, in Jelinek’s work, is never colored by sentiment:

Unbuttoning and into brigitte only takes a moment. and today we can announce, that something has clicked at last between these two young people [i.e., she is pregnant]…and so brigitte will not after all have to end her life in cold and loneliness, which otherwise she would have had to do.

Meantime, Brigitte’s friend Paula seeks a man this way:

paula sometimes goes onto the dance floor, if there’s a party. sometimes paula is led away into the woods again by a drunk dance floor visitor, which no one must see, because that would immediately cause her market value to go through the floor.

in the woods then paula is grabbed by her breasts or at worst between the legs or by the arse.

paula has been taught to assess who is grabbing her there between the legs. is it someone with or without a future.

is it someone with a future or a work horse?

if it is a work horse, then he cannot become paula’s fate. paula’s brain has learned to work like a computer in such cases. here’s the printout: married, two children.

This technique of stringing together clichĂŠs to expose the shallowness of the characters’ lives and “the subjugating power of language” is sustained for nearly two hundred pages.

Five years later in Wonderful, Wonderful Times (1980), Jelinek gives us a more sophisticated group of 1950s Viennese youngsters who bend the jargon of revolutionary dissent to justify violent street crime and hence satisfy selfish appetites, all under the depressing influence of their war-damaged parents. The prose is more flexible now and there is more psychological development but the peremptory irony and resolute rejection of emotional engagement remain, while the sex grows more unpleasant. Here the father of two of the youngsters, an ex-SS concentration camp guard who has lost a leg, is now obliged to transform his cruelty into “art” by taking pornographic photos of his long-suffering wife. Shouting at her as he does so, he is reminded of the joys of killing, thus drawing a parallel between Nazi war crimes and man’s violence toward woman:

You have to look afraid. It’s always a terrific feeling to smash down resistance, I smashed resistance quite often myself in the War and liquidated numerous persons all on my own. Nowadays I have this wretched leg to contend with, but back then the women couldn’t get enough of me, it was the magical attraction of the uniform that did it. That smart uniform. I remember how we were often up to the ankles of our riding-boots in blood in Polish villages. Look, thrust your pelvis further forward, you slut, where’s your pussy got to again? Ah, there it is.

Favorable reviews of Wonderful, Wonderful Times praised the novel’s political commitment and withering criticism of a postwar Austrian society that never came to terms with its Nazi past. Jelinek, however, embraces only the negative, denunciatory energies of left-wing politics and shares none of its constructive optimism. There are no positive experiences to relate and nothing to hope for. In particular, victims are as unattractive and perverse as their persecutors and can thus be dispatched without regret. Of a woman and the man who regularly beats her in the later novel Greed (2000, recently in English translation in the US), the narrator remarks, “She can throw him alive into boiling water, for all I care, and jump in after him….” At another point she wonders: “Why do I always only see the negative?” The answer, perhaps, is that such a consistently dark view of life confirms the decision to “avoid experience.”

The extremity of Jelinek’s tirades soon won her comparisons with Thomas Bernhard, who had also remorselessly attacked the residual fascism of modern Austria. Seeking, in an interview with Gitta Honegger, a respected theater critic and biographer of Bernhard, to distinguish her approach from his, Jelinek claimed that as a man Bernhard “could claim a position of authority,” projecting an identity with which readers could relate and giving a coherent, rhetorically convincing account of Austrian society, whereas, being a woman, even this form of “positive” approach was denied her; a woman working in a man’s world and language could not present a coherent identity (a play of Jelinek’s has the female parts mouthing words that are actually spoken by male voices, as if women could not really possess the language). Starting from this position of “speechlessness,” a woman writer could only work by subversion, exposing the language’s prejudices and crassness and attacking its perverse and mindless momentum.2 As the narrator puts it in Wonderful, Wonderful Times, “everything that’s said is a cue for something else.”

However, one hardly need resort to feminist theories of language to see more obvious differences between the two writers. Bernhard’s narrators are firmly placed within the stories they tell and a certain pathos attaches to the damage they do themselves with their constant negativity. In many of Bernhard’s works (Frost for example, or the later Correction) we see a narrator drawn into the orbit of a strikingly negative figure and are invited to feel all the danger of his being seduced and destroyed by the other’s despairing vision. There is never, that is, any complacency about what it means to see the world so darkly, nor a conviction that withdrawal is any solution.

Jelinek’s narrator may constantly make her presence felt, addressing the reader directly and voicing the fiercest invectives, yet she remains resolutely outside the story, invulnerable in her sardonic detachment, her avoidance of experience. This separation is occasionally reinforced by reminding us that her characters are “only” creations, something Bernhard never does. “It’s a frequent reproach,” we are told in the opening pages of Greed, “that I stand around looking stupid and drop my characters before I even have them, because to be honest I pretty quickly find them dull.” Or again, “I for example have nothing to say faced with the figures I create, bring on the stock phrases and some more, and another and another, until they squirm beneath me with pain.” “My characters are only coat-hangers on which I hang the language,” Jelinek explains in her interview with Heinrichs. Only in The Piano Teacher (1983) is this static relationship between narrator and story excitingly threatened, no doubt because this is the only novel where we have a fully imagined, Jelinek-like figure inside the narrative, a woman torn between withdrawal from the world and openness to it.

  1. 1

    See the interview with Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs in his book Schreiben ist das bessere Leben: Gespräche mit Autoren (Munich: Kunstmann, 2006) p. 21.

  2. 2

    See the interview with Gitta Honegger in the journal Theater, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Duke University Press, 2006), p. 29. The issue, edited by Tom Sellar, also includes an essay by Honegger on Jelinek, as well as English translations of three of Jelinek’s Princess Plays: “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Jackie.”

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