Wonderful, Wonderful Times
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 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-Jürgen 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 clichés 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.
With a wealth of detail we don’t find in her other books, The Piano Teacher sets up an unusual triangular power struggle. Despite dwindling energies, an aging mother tries to keep her pianist daughter away from men, her ambition having always been to “squeeze money out of [her daughter’s] arduously achieved perfection.” Herself approaching middle age, “an insect encased in amber,” Erika, the piano teacher, is as it were hypnotized by the sexual experience that has passed her by. She dresses in unsuitably youthful clothes and stays out late after her lessons, but perhaps only to provoke her mother and cultivate the illusion of a freedom she doesn’t have or even truly want. Into this stale scenario steps a handsome young piano student, Walter Klemmer, determined to add his teacher to his list of conquests.
The book is full of telling set pieces. A violent opening scene that has mother and daughter clawing at each other over a dress Erika has bought swiftly establishes the relationship between them. At a drawing-room concert we see how the piano teacher uses her music not to give or to communicate, but to separate herself from others in icy technical perfection. Later, disgracefully, she puts broken glass in the jacket pocket of a promising girl student who has also attracted Klemmer’s promiscuous eye.
In particular, the novel has two scenes of great dramatic effect where action, dialogue, description, and reflection work powerfully together. The first is in the school bathroom where the vigorous, sporty Klemmer boldly kisses his aging sleeping beauty into life; Erika enjoys a moment of abandonment, then transforms this opportunity for passion into a frustrating masturbation scene in which the man, as if being taught a lesson, is brought almost to orgasm, then forced to recompose himself.
Some days later, back home, Erika barricades herself in her room with Klemmer and, while her mother bangs hysterically on the door, forces him to read a letter in which she begs him to mistreat her, beat her, tie her up, sodomize her, and so on (the list is long). The letter inhibits Klemmer from showing any ordinary desire, putting him in a position where it seems he must either leave her or use violence as asked. Either way, Erika, who is actually afraid of violence, will have controlled the situation.
Such an account of the book suggests a familiar kind of unhappy psychological drama, but Jelinek’s prose has now abandoned the transparency of the conventional novel. The sardonic, even facetious voice is stronger than ever, likewise the ironic use of cliché and allusion, but, as though these old habits were no longer sufficient to prevent emotional engagement with material so dangerously close to home, a barrage of new techniques ensures that the mind is never allowed to settle on the drama—frequent and flippant puns, for example: “She belittles herself in front of his dick, which stays little”; “Now he has to live with the charge that he did not discharge”; “Klemmer drifts along on his own head waters; he is never in over his head.”
Very often, the narration is derailed by some odd association (a word picked up and used in another sense) and heads off in a different direction, or into some extravagant metaphor. Metaphors, it should be said, are frequently mixed and collide oddly with both the story and each other, creating unsettling shifts of register. Rather than clarifying the action or giving it emotional color, they muddle and distract. Here, for example, are Erika and Klemmer at the point where he tracks her down in the women’s bathroom and climbs to look over the cubicle door as she urinates. No sooner has this dramatic event been described than the narrative voice steps back:
These two lead performers intend to put on a love scene, completely private, no extras, no walk-ons, only one lead under the leaden heaviness of the other lead.
In accordance with the occasion, Erika instantly gives herself up as a person. A present wrapped in slightly dusty tissue paper, on a white tablecloth. As long as the guest is present, his present is lovingly turned and twisted; but as soon as he leaves, the present is shoved aside, heedlessly and confusedly, and everyone hurries to supper. The present cannot go away by itself, but for a while it is comforted by the fact that it is not alone. Plates and cups clatter, silverware scrapes on porcelain. But then the package notices that these noises are produced by a cassette player on the table. Applause and the clinking of glasses—everything on tape! Someone comes and takes the package. Erika can relax in this new security: She is being taken care of. She waits for instructions or orders. She has been studying for years—not toward her concert, but toward this day.
Klemmer has the option of putting her back unused in order to punish her. It’s up to him, he can utilize her or not. He can even toss her around mischievously. But he can also polish her and place her in a showcase. Maybe he’ll never wash her, but just keep pouring fluids into her; and her edge would be sticky and greasy from all the mouthprints. A day-old coat of sugar on the bottom.
Walter Klemmer pulls Erika out of the toilet stall. He yanks her. For openers, he presses a long kiss on her mouth….
To watch the same scene in the film based on the novel (The Piano Teacher, directed by Michael Haneke, 2001) is to appreciate the work that Jelinek’s style is doing here. On screen, told in a direct, traditional fashion, the story invites ordinary identification and excitement, however brilliant the actress Isabelle Huppert (Erika) may be at repelling our sympathy. In the book, the drama of the plot is distanced but also strangely intensified by another, greater drama that threatens to overwhelm it: that of a narrator who seems afraid to confront her story head on and is constantly taking refuge from it in sophisticated literary games and bizarre digressions. Always unpleasant and frequently irritating, The Piano Teacher is nevertheless a powerful and convincing achievement.
A strongly individualistic style “easily moves into a parody of itself,” Jelinek tells us. In her case, Lust (1989) is the novel where this development is most evident. A ruthless industrialist imposes his love of music on factory workers, son, and wife, thus transforming the art form most frequently associated with Austria into a means of perpetrating violence. The workers must sing in the factory choir if they want to keep their jobs; the son must sweat over his violin lessons; the wife must listen to music while her husband, promiscuous by nature but concerned about AIDS, forces her to submit, “passive as a toilet,” to his violent and inexhaustible sex drive:
…He wants a crack at her. He’s cancelled two appointments in order to have it. The women opens her mouth to cancel this appointment, but she thinks of his strength and shuts her mouth again. This Man would play his tune even in the bosom of the mountains, his violin stroke would echo off the rocks, he’d stroke his rocks off. Time and again the same old song. This resounding banging tune…. She’s threatened with a beating. Her head is still full of music, Johann Sebastian Bach,…going round and round in circles on the record player, chasing its tail. The Man is chasing his tail too, or his tail is chasing and he is following.
This sexual domination is explicitly compared to his treatment of his factory workers:
The Direktor’s weight keeps the woman down. All he needs to keep down the workers, as they joyfully return from their labour to their leisure, is a signature, he doesn’t have to lie upon them.
He’ll screw the ass off her, it’s all he wants in life, except to screw the rest of the world and draw his massive monthly salary.
Remarkable throughout Lust is the torrent of angry energy that fizzes up in metaphor after metaphor, some crass, some brilliant, but always in the total absence of any convincing presentation of character or society. The fact that there is no Erika Kohut figure who might put us in an interesting relation to the unpleasantness described leaves the novel drifting, albeit with admirable panache, into mannerism. Thus, having started out by observing how cliché possesses and oppresses the minds of ordinary people, Jelinek now allows her own work to be driven by a simplistic, ever predictable polemic about women that many readers will find decidedly dated. Preaching only to the converted, Lust cannot encourage reflection; rather it polarizes debate, dividing readers into those who can still subscribe to a radical and embattled 1970s feminism and those who always suspected that the feminists overstated their case. Nowhere is there any trace of nuance: every man is violent, every woman a victim. At the end of the book, finding life irretrievably ugly, the industrialist’s wife chooses a withdrawal from which there is no return, killing her son and herself.
Jelinek has a habit of using interviews to anticipate or preempt criticism. “The men are really malicious,” she tells Honegger, complaining that an editor with the magazine Der Spiegel has attacked her on his Web site, though it then turns out she hasn’t read the criticism. Readers who don’t respond to her style are people who have no background in music, she explains to Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs. The controversy over her winning the Nobel has merely confirmed her opinion that women are treated with condescension, she says, and the world is indeed as she describes it.
The effect of all this is like a distant echo of the letter Erika Kohut wrote to her would-be lover inviting him to mistreat her; we are in a no-win situation. If we react angrily to her work, we confirm Jelinek’s view that a patriarchal society is hostile to women; alternatively, we can confirm that view by agreeing and applauding. It is extraordinary how consistently critics move to positive or negative extremes when reviewing Jelinek; the academics (who see their analytical powers stimulated and flattered and perhaps share an inclination to withdraw from what they see as the ugly realities of society) are mostly positive, the journalists (who see their clichés ridiculed and tend to feel that the author’s approach is pathetically simplistic) negative. This is the force field Jelinek creates around herself. Hence, as a male critic coming to her most recent, most ambitious, and most difficult novel, Greed, I am aware that any reaction of mine has been foreseen and discounted and in some cases even incorporated in the book: “I know, I know, you’ve heard it all before,” the narrator taunts the reader at one point. “But consider this: There are nevertheless unbelievably few of you worldwide.”
The plot of Greed takes up perhaps 5 percent of the book’s 330 dense, often impenetrable pages. Rather than coat hangers for suits of language, the characters are intermittent and precarious stepping stones in a flood of sardonic generalizations about life’s awfulness:
Every poor man wants to be rich, that is just as natural a phenomenon as the fact that one can introduce all kinds of things into one’s asshole, both small and surprisingly large objects.
Many readers will feel that in drawing such dubious analogies Jelinek’s “wit” is more coercive than illuminating or amusing.
Superficially, there are reminders of The Piano Teacher. Gerti, a middle-aged woman who has been both a pianist and a translator, lives alone in the country with her dog, a situation similar to Jelinek’s. Having “for a long time behaved with excessive reserve,” she now “can’t stop herself busily and tirelessly” chasing a policeman who pulled her over for a minor traffic offense. So we have the same oscillation between withdrawal and involvement. Typical of Jelinek’s men, Kurt Janisch, the policeman and hence symbol of patriarchal authority, is violent, insatiable, promiscuous, and an eager sportsman, sport being invariably seen negatively as a manifestation of male aggression and desire for domination. Kurt, who goes about sex with Gerti in much the same way as the industrialist in Lust did with his wife, really only wants to get hold of her property; this is the ultimate object of his greed, and the book insistently superimposes the image of the house with the image of the body. At one point we even hear that Kurt has tried to “build on” his erect cock.
To complicate matters, the policeman begins to bring a sixteen-year-old girl, Gabi, to Gerti’s house, locking Gerti out while he has sex with the girl. In his car one day he kills Gabi by pressing on her carotid nerve while she is giving him a blow job. He then dumps her body in a sterile man-made lake created to generate hydroelectric power. Nodding back to Bernhard’s negative transformation of the Austrian tradition of the Heimatroman (the novel of the homeland), Jelinek parallels greedy exploitation of the Alpine environment with man’s violence toward woman, the two coming together in this deathly lake, which, in a rant lasting a dozen pages, becomes the book’s central image of a ubiquitous ugliness that will ultimately prompt Gerti’s again terminal withdrawal: she kills herself after signing over her property to Kurt, thus confirming man’s triumph over woman, over both women.
Unpromising as all this sounds, the book might just have worked had Jelinek dedicated any energy at all to creating the dramatic encounters and characterizations that make The Piano Teacher such a strong novel, or alternatively if her ruminations were sufficiently coherent and convincing for us to take them seriously. I quote a typical paragraph where the narrator is denouncing the way a mountain has been tunneled into and hollowed out as part of the hydroelectric project that produced the lifeless lake. The engineering work has led to landslides and since there are houses on the lower slopes a catastrophe seems imminent:
So, how can we help up to its feet this ground, which is just rushing down towards us, down the mountain flank, and promptly landing on its nose, not on ours, please? This nice, comradely mountain—also a face which has fallen and no one wants to help up. The mountain has dropped its mask. Now it already looks different from how it did a little while ago, when it was still whole. Perhaps houses will even have to be evacuated? Watch out, that could mean loss of homeland and lead to critical situations! I wish I could plan an early warning system, but would need help, so that the life of these people here could be maintained to the same high standards they are used to, inclusive of the deep freeze cabinet, into which at least one whole deer would fit if it were foolish enough to go into it. And also inclusive of a glazed conservatory, in which things could very well be a bit more exotic, if we had been sent the appropriate catalog, which we ordered on the phone.
What is one to make of such facetiousness, of such clumsy bludgeoning prose, such a wayward use of metaphor? And what is one to think of the fact that Greed was Jelinek’s most recent novel when she was awarded the Nobel Prize and hence the work most immediately before the Swedish committee? We are used to the idea that the Nobel often goes to writers engaged in an anti-establishment polemic with their cultures of origin. It is hard to keep politics out of international prizes and the rebel from another land is an attractive figure. Jelinek had been vociferous in her opposition to Jörg Haider’s extreme right-wing Austrian Freedom Party, which caused concern in the European Community when it became part of Austria’s government in 1999. The Swedish judges also seem sensitive to the national literary awards that a writer has received, and perhaps precisely this continuing awareness that the Austrian establishment has never confronted its Nazi past prompts the country’s liberal intelligentsia to reward those who speak out courageously on the matter. Jelinek has received every major Austrian and German literary prize. That said, the social criticism she offers seems simplistic, rancorous, and willfully unhelpful, while Greed itself is unreadable: I recall not a single moment of pleasure turning its pages, not a single insight that impressed. Jelinek’s selection for the Nobel, said resigning jury member Knut Ahnlund, “has not only done irreparable damage to all progressive forces, it has also confused the general view of literature as an art.”
Perhaps part of our difficulty with Greed lies in the limits of translation. Any serious quarrel with our culture of origin is also and inevitably a quarrel about language, the values it enshrines and the thought-patterns it tends to impose. Jelinek, who translated Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, has often observed that she does not see how her writing can be successfully translated, depending as it does on an intensive use of wordplay and intertextual allusion that only an Austrian or German could understand. Readers of this review will already have wondered, for example, how closely the puns I quoted in the English translations can have matched the original German. Indeed, comparing the English texts of The Piano Teacher and Greed with the German, one finds that puns turn up in different places, create different effects, and often come at the expense of clarity and fluency. Here, in Greed, is a moment when a young woman goes to church leaving an elderly, incontinent, bedridden woman alone with no one to change her diaper:
The old dear can just lie there in her own shit until evening, or until she rusts, we’re going to evening mass now, she has to stand firm [durchhalten] until it’s time to go to bed, the old dear, not the Church, it has already stood firm for much longer and doesn’t need any diapers either.
Durchhalten is standard German for “holding on” in the sense of not moving one’s bowels. It’s hard to imagine anyone using “stand firm” for this in English. The expression is there only to prepare the pun. This feeling that a wrong note has been struck is constant throughout the translation and robs the work of the linguistic conviction it presumably has in the German. If the text did originally have the music that both Jelinek and the Nobel committee speak of, it has now disappeared.
How far the translation problem contributes to the book’s failure in the English edition is hard to say. In any event, the comedy remains that Jelinek, locked as she is into a very specific cultural and linguistic context, was the least likely of candidates for international canonization. “I’m a provincial phenomenon..,” she tells us. “Just as I can’t take my body anywhere [Jelinek finds it impossible to travel] so my language can’t be moved around either. My language and I watch TV together of an evening since we can’t go anywhere else.” Readers of Greed may wish it had stayed that way.
See the interview with Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs in his book Schreiben ist das bessere Leben: Gespräche mit Autoren (Munich: Kunstmann, 2006) p. 21.↩
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."↩
‘How to Read Elfriede Jelinek’: An Exchange October 11, 2007
See the interview with Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs in his book Schreiben ist das bessere Leben: Gespräche mit Autoren (Munich: Kunstmann, 2006) p. 21.↩
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.”↩