How To Read Elfriede Jelinek

Greed

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)

Lust

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 clichés 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 …

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Letters

How to Read Elfriede Jelinek’: An Exchange October 11, 2007