Jelinek, Elfriede (20 October 1946 - )
Elfriede Jelinek (20 October 1946 - )
See also the Jelinek entry in DLB 85: Austrian Fiction Writers After 1914.
BOOKS: Lisas Schatten: Gedichte (Munich: Relief-Verlag-Eilers, 1967);
wir sind lockvögel baby! (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1970);
Michael: Ein Jugendbuch für die Infantilgesellschaft (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1972);
Materialien zu Musiksozologie, by Jelinek, Ferdinand Zellwecker, and Wilhelm Zobl (Vienna & Munich: Jugend & Volk, 1972);
Die Liebhaberinnen: Roman (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1975); translated by Jorn K. Bramann as Brassiere Factory (New York: Adler, 1988); translated by Martin Chalmers as Women as Lovers (London & New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1994);
bukolit: Hörroman (Vienna: Rhombus, 1979);
Die Ausgesperrten: Roman (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1980); translated by Michael Hulse as Wonderful, Wonderful Times (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990);
Die endlose Unschuldigkeit: Prosa, Hörspiel, Essay (Schwifting: Schwiftinger Galerie-Verlag, 1980);
ende: Gedichte von 1966-1968 (Schwifting: Schwiftinger Galerie-Verlag, 1980);
Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verhssen hatte, oder, Stüben der Gesellschaften (Vienna: Sessler, 1980); translated by Tinch Minter as What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband, or, Pillars of Society, in Plays by Women, volume 10, edited by Annie Castledine (London: Methuen Drama, 1994), pp. 23-65;
Die Klavierspielerin: Roman (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1983); translated by Joachim Neugroschel as The Piano Teacher (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988; London: Serpent’s Tail, 1989);
Theaterstücke, edited by Ute Nyssen (Cologne: Prometh, 1984)–includes Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte, oder, Stützen der Gesellschaften; Clara S.: Musikalische Tragödie; and Burgtheater: Posse mit Gesang; expanded edition (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1992)–includes Krankheit, oder, Moderne Frauen, edited by Regine Friedrich; Clara S. translated by Anthony Vivis as Clara S.: Three Pans (Cologne: Theaterverlag Ute Nyssen & J. Bansemer, 1997);
Oh Wildnis, oh Schuh vor ihr: Prosa (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1985);
Krankheit, oder, Moderne Frauen, edited by Friedrich (Cologne: Prometh, 1987);
Lust (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1989); translated by Hulse (London & New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1992);
Wolken. Heim.(Göttingen: Steidl, 1990);
Isabelle Huppert in Malina: Ein Filmbuch, based on Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1991);
Totenauberg: Ein Stück (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1991);
Sturm und Zwang: Schreiben als Geschlechterkampf, by Jelinek, Jutta Heinrich, and Adolf-Ernst Meyer (Hamburg: Klein, 1995);
Die Kinder der Toten: Roman (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1995);
Stecken, Stab und Stangl; Raststätte, oder, Sie machens alle; Wolken. Heim.: Neue Theaterstücke (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1997)–includes “Sinn egal: Körper zwecklos”; Raststätte, oder, Sie machens alle translated by Nick Grindell as Services, or, They All Do It, published with Cat and Mouse (Sheep) by Gregory Motton, Gate Biennale (London: Methuen Drama in association with the Gate Theatre, 1996);
Ein Sportstück (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1998);
Jelineks Wahl: Literarische Verwandtschaften, edited by Brigitte Landes (Munich: Btb, 1998);
er nicht als er (zu, mit Robert Walser): Ein Stück (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998);
Macht nichts: Eine kleine Trilogie des Todes (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1999)–comprises Erlkönigin; Der Tod und das Mädchen; Der Wanderer; and Nachbemerkung;
Gier: Ein Unterhaltungsroman (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 2000); translated by Chalmers as Greed (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2006);
Das Lebewohl: 3 kleine Dramen (Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 2000)–comprises Das Lebewohl; Das Schweigen; and Der Tod und das Mädchen II;
In den Alpen: Drei Dramen (Berlin: Berlin Verlag, 2002)–comprises In den Alpen, Der Tod und das Mädchen III (Rosamunde), and Das Werk;
Der Tod und das Mädchen I-V: Prinzessinnendramen (Berlin: Berliner Taschenbuch Verlag, 2003)–comprises Schneewittchen; Dornröschen; Rosamunde; Jackie; and Die Wand;
Bambiland; Babel: Zwei Theatertexte (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 2004);
Ungebärdige Wege, zu spätes Beghen; Die Zeit flieht (Salzburg: Tartin Editionen, 2005);
Einar, translated by P. J. Blumenthal (Sausalito, Cal.: Post-Apollo Press, 2006).
PLAY PRODUCTIONS: Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte, oder, Stützen der Gesellschaften, Graz, Vereinigte Bühnen/steiris eher herbst, 6 October 1979;
Clara S.: Musikalische Tragödie, Bonn, Bühnen der Stadt, 24 September 1982;
Burgtheater: Posse mit Gesang, Bonn, Bühnen der Stadt, 10 November 1985;
Begierde und Fahrerlaubnis (eine Pornographie), Graz, steirischer herbst, 20 September 1986;
Krankheit, oder, Moderne Frauen: Wie ein Stück, Bonn, Schauspiel, 12 February 1987;
Wolken. Heim. Bonn, Schauspiel, 21 September 1988;
Der Wald: Ein tönendes Fastfoodgericht, libretto by Jelinek, music by Olga Neuwirth, Vienna, Theater im Künstlerhaus, in conjunction with Wiener Festwochen and Staatsoper Stuttgart, 18 May 1991;
Unruhiges Wohnen: Ballettlibretto, libretto by Jelinek, composition by Roman Haubenstock-Ramati, Linz, ars electronica, in conjunction with Zürich, Opernhaus, 12 September 1991;
Totenauberg, Vienna, Burgtheater (Akademietheater), 18 September 1992;
Präsident Abendwind: Ein Dramolett, sehr frei nach Johann Nestroy, Innsbruck, Tiroler Landestheater, 20 November 1992;
Raststätte, oder, Sie machens alle: Eine Komödie, Vienna, Burgtheater, 5 November 1994;
Stecken, Stab und Stangl: Eine Handarbeit, Hamburg, Deutsches Schauspielhaus, 12 April 1996;
Ein Sportstück, Vienna, Burgtheater, 23 January 1998;
er nicht als er (zu, mit Robert Walser), Salzburger Festspiele, in conjunction with Hamburg, Deutsches Schauspielhaus, 1 August 1998;
Bählamms Fest: Musiktheater in 13 Bildern nach Leonora Carrington, libretto by Jelinek, music by Neuwirth, based on Leonora Carrington’s The Feast of the Lambs, Vienna, Sofiensäle, in conjunction with Wiener Festwochen and Opéra National du Rhine, Strasbourg/Mulhouse/Colmar, 19 June 1999;
Das Schweigen, Hamburg, Deutsches Schauspielhaus, 27 May 2000;
Der Tod und das Mädchen II, text by Jelinek, music by Neuwirth, Hanover, EXPO 2000, in conjunction with Saarländisches Staatstheater Saarbrücken and ZKM Karlsruhe, 30 September 2000;
Das Lebewohl (Les Adieux), Berlin, Berliner Ensemble, 9 December 2000;
MACHT NICHTS-Eine kleine Trilogie des Todes, Zürich, Schauspielhaus, 11 April 2001;
In den Alpen, Munich, Münchner Kammerspiele, in conjunction with Zürich, Schauspielhaus, 5 October 2002;
Prinzessinnendramen: Der Tod und das Mädchen, parts I–III: Hamburg, Deutsches Schauspielhaus, 22 October 2002; parts IV-V: Berlin, Deutsches Theater, 24 November 2002;
Das Werk, Vienna, Burgtheater (Akademietheater), 11 April 2003;
Bambiland, Vienna, Burgtheater, 12 December 2003;
Babel (Irm – Margit – Peter), Vienna, Burgtheater (Akademietheater), 18 March 2005;
Sportchor [radio version], Berlin, Deutsches Theater, October 2006;
ULRIKE MARIA STUART: Königinnendrama, Hamburg, Thalia Theater, 28 October 2006.
OTHER: “Die Bienenkönige,” in Die siebente Reue: 14 utopuche Erzählungen, edited by Roman Ritter and H. P. Piwitt (Munich: Autoren Edition, 1978), pp. 141-158;
“wenn die sonne sinkt, ist für manche auch noch büroschluß,” in Und wenn du dann noch schreist: Deutsche Hörspiele der 70er Fahre, edited by Klaus Klöckner (Munich: Goldmann, 1980), pp. 151-176;
“Die Ausgesperrten,” in Das Wunder von Vienna: 16 österreichische Hörspiele, edited by Bernd Schirmer (Leipzig: Reclam, 1987), pp. 225-261;
“Präsident Abend wind: Ein Dramolett,” in Anthropoph-agen im Abendwind, edited by Herbert Wiesner (Berlin: Literaturhaus Berlin, 1988).
SELECTED PERIODICAL PUBLICATIONS–UNCOLLECTED: “Für den Funk dramatisierte Ballade von drei wichtigen Männern sowie dem Personenkreis um sie herum: Hörspiel,” Protokolle, no. 2 (1974): 133-152;
“Der Krieg mit anderen Mitteln: Über Ingeborg Bachmann,” Die schwarze Botin, 21 (1983): 149-153;
“Ich möchte seicht sein,” Theater heute (1983 Jahrbuch);
“Ich schlage sozusagen mit der Axt drein,” Theater Zeitschrift, no. 7 (1984): 4-16;
“In der Mitte bebt und zuckt die Lüge: Büchner-Preisrede,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 19 October 1998;
“Schleef oder mit der Natur zu streiten: Dankesrede zum Berliner Theaterpreis,” Theater der Zeit no. 6 (2002): 4-5;
“Die Kunst geht sich nie aus: Dankesrede zur Verleihung des Mülheimer Dramatikerpreises,” Theater heute, no. 7 (2002): 1-2;
“Österreich, ein deutsches Märchen: Festrede zur Entgegennahme des Heine-Preises 2002 der Landeshauptstadt Düsseldorf,” Theater der Zeit no. 2 (2003): 8-14.
When the Swedish Academy awarded Elfriede Jelinek the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004, surprise and even irritation were widespread. As an Austrian novelist, poet, librettist, and playwright little known outside the German world, she did not fit the popular image of a Nobel winner. Conventional expectations incline toward writers who have already achieved worldwide fame: Samuel Beckett, Günter Grass, Saul Bellow, Nadine Gordimer, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison, or V. S. Naipaul. And in her native Austria, where she has long been a figure of controversy (often acrimonious), many felt that her work does not typify the best literary writing Austria has to offer–meaning that her books and plays are often difficult, formally daring, and spilling over with lurid sex and violence. Jelinek presents Austrian life in a bleak, unflattering, unforgiving light. Certainly she is not a typical Austrian writer. But writers who earn Nobel recognition are by definition atypical, those who distinguish themselves from the common run of other good writers.
Perhaps Thomas Mann, who accepted the prize in 1929, four years before Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power, embodies the received idea of the “great writer” as Nobel winner more than any other. Elegant, cosmopolitan, and surveying life as if from a lofty height, Mann in his own time seemed on intimate terms with other great writers of the past. He spoke with collégial self-assurance of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Moreover, he perceived himself as belonging to their tradition, if only to the end of it.
In his own Nobel banquet speech, Mann celebrated the redemptive power of literature to reconcile terrible experience. He was referring especially to the horrors of World War I and its aftermath, expressing himself in terms that even by 1929 had become dubious. “Through her poetry,” he assured his Swedish benefactors and the world, “Germany has exhibited grace in suffering. She has preserved her honour, politically by not yielding to the anarchy of sorrow, yet keeping her unity; spiritually by uniting the Eastern principle of suffering with the Western principle of form–by creating beauty out of suffering.”
The creation of beauty from the crude raw material of human suffering: this alchemy belonged to the Romantic era into which Mann had been born. By 1933 at the latest, though, he was moving into a new, darker, and unexplored time and world. The consoling view of art as an unmixed blessing could not survive the unfolding events of the twentieth century. After World War II few German and Austrian writers–including Mann-could still harbor the illusion that art might redeem German honor or convert what he had referred to as “the Eastern principle of suffering” into beauty. The disenchanted postwar Austria in which Jelinek grew up during the 1950s was one of toxic silence around the stain of National Socialist atrocity, faux amnesia about the Austrian role in it, and disillusionment over the power of art to vindicate, redeem, or otherwise ennoble human suffering.
In an essay of 1951 that still provokes discussion, “Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft” (Cultural Criticism and Society), Theodor Adorno observed that Auschwitz has undone the traditional idea that art and literature hold the moral high ground in civilized culture: no more poetry after Auschwitz, he wrote. And though his phrase has often been misleadingly cited and abused as a slogan, its meaning should be plain. High culture–from its historical guarantors such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig von Beethoven, and Richard Wagner to Nazi-era Nobel laureates such as Knut Hamsun and Gerhart Hauptmann (both of whom endorsed Hitler’s vision)– had served as the window dressing to camouflage Nazi barbarism. Not only had the much-vaunted civilizing force of Western literature and music done nothing to prevent the European catastrophe, but their cultural prestige had even helped to legitimate a monstrous regime. Consequently, what Mann had once celebrated as the saving power he attributes to the “Western principle of form” had proven false. More concretely, art cannot in good conscience overlook, nor can it use, the suffering inflicted on Jews and other targeted groups (tellingly perceived by Nazis as “Eastern”) to create beauty. The passage of time has reinforced the truth of Adorno’s hyperbole. The idea that literature might transform the “Eastern principle of suffering” in Cambodian or Bosnian or Rwandan experience into poetic beauty can only strike postwar generations as a grotesquely tactless expression of romantic self-indulgence. Yet, it would also be indecent to fall silent.
This impasse is Jelinek’s aesthetic terrain. Human decency in the Austria of the postwar world order is her subject, and the theme to which she most often returns in expressing it is the savage indecency of human relations, especially between the sexes. Though she is not a writer with a political message, her works are informed by Marxism and socialism; though she does not write about World War II, the way it insinuates itself into domestic Austrian life figures everywhere in her works; though she has shown some reluctance to endorse the label most often applied to her–“feminist writer”–feminists have always been among her most outspoken admirers; though Mann’s redemptive notion of the dignity of European form means nothing to Jelinek, both human suffering and aesthetic form are her most elemental concerns.
Elfriede Jelinek was born on 20 October 1946 in Mürzzuschlag, a medium-sized town in the mountains of Styria, about halfway between Vienna and Graz. She spent her childhood and youth in Vienna’s eighth district, not far from the musically and historically rich inner ring of the city, and she has lived in Vienna ever since, apart from stays in Munich with Gottfried Hungsberg, her husband since 1974. Jelinek’s father, Friedrich Jelinek, was a Czech Jew who survived the war because the Nazis found his skill as a chemist useful; however, his mental health broke down in the early 1950s, and he eventually died in a Viennese psychiatric clinic in 1969. In interviews Jelinek has often stressed the importance to her of her Eastern, Jewish, Slavic roots. Jelinek’s mother, Olga Ilona Buchner Jelinek, was an ethnically German Austrian of Catholic background, and as a child Jelinek attended Catholic schools. Her mother raised the talented girl (an only child) ambitiously, with an eye toward the arts, especially music.
At the age of eighteen, while recuperating from a breakdown of her own (from the combined stress of rigorous schoolwork, musical studies, and her parents’ difficulties), Jelinek began to experiment with writing. At about the same time she began studies at the University of Vienna (in theater, art history, and languages) but did not finish her degree because she suffered another nervous breakdown. She also studied piano, organ, and composition at the celebrated Vienna Conservatory, from which she graduated in 1971. She was active in the student movement and joined the Austrian Communist Party in 1974. (In 1991 she left the party.) The outward events of her life are not exciting, unusual, or revealing–indeed, Jelinek energetically resists emphasis on an explanatory link between her works and her life. The excitement lies in the relationship of her works to the world: their verbal creativity, ethical engagement with reality, and originality.
The world of Jelinek’s youth was one of slow national recovery from the many catastrophic devastations of World War II. Postwar Austria, a neutral and autonomous state beginning in 1955, found itself with an identity crisis. The end of the Habsburg empire in 1918 was followed by two more debacles: the end of the First Republic in 1938 and the end of the Third Reich in 1945. The general answer to the question “what does it mean to be Austrian?” (a question often posed to Jelinek and other Austrian writers) found a generalized answer not in the variously discredited political pasts but in the realm of culture. Austrians were the German-speaking multicultural descendants of a transnational empire, heirs to a rich and varied cultural tradition that includes above all music (Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Beethoven, and Anton Bruckner on the one hand, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg on the other) and theater, above all the Burgtheater and State Opera in Vienna and the Salzburg Festival every August, which combines music and theater.
The Salzburg Festival was founded by Hugo von Hofmannsthal and other postimperial luminaries as a way of celebrating and holding fast to the way of life that had vanished when the empire died in 1918. The political authorities after World War II followed the same general tack, representing Austria to its citizens and to the outside world as an apolitical (neutral) nation with not much history apart from that of its lasting cultural accomplishments. The complicity of Austrians in implementing Hitler’s policies, above all the monstrous cruelty that Austrians inflicted on Austrian and other Jews–whose own legitimate claim to Austrian identity reaches deep into Habsburg history–seemed to evaporate. But the celebrated cultural ascendency in question was mostly historical: Beethoven and the various Strausses, not Schoenberg or György Ligeti; Arthur Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, not Hermann Broch or Thomas Bernhard; museums of art, not contemporary artists. In many ways the working artists of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s felt Austria was a mausoleum of high culture. However, the avant-garde art scene was also intensely lively in Austria, and often intensely adversarial. Consequently, Jelinek and many of her fellow artists stridently challenged and still challenge the supremacy of official high culture, what Mann had referred to as the dignity of form and its supposed power to redeem. In Austrian cultural life, high culture is a cog in the machinery of forgetting.
One of the most shocking responses to this culture, but in many ways most telling and most characteristic, was the Viennese Actionism movement of the early 1960s. It was a variety of performance art that featured blood, excrement, and disemboweled animal carcasses, sometimes with nude people in action. What may be characteristic of the Austrian scene here is the extremity and the focus on horror and violence. Actionism is perhaps best understood as a return of the repressed, an expression of a national unconscious that finds manifestation only along the margins, for, needless to say, the movement did not find a wide audience. Together with Bernhard and many other writers, Jelinek has been criticized for her rhetoric of excess, for the brutality, crudity, and violence of her writings. The grotesquerie, the satirical extremity, and the exhaustion of high culture are central features of Jelinek’s imaginative world. Naturally this rejection of traditional art is not total; Jelinek is also an organist trained and accredited by the Vienna Conservatory. But as a writer, she seeks a path into the future via the avant-garde. She wants to disrupt the language of media, of high culture, and of everyday life. Her means are puns, unconventional use of verb tense, satirically pointed quotation, and verbal horseplay of all sorts. Speaking to interviewer Gitta Honegger in 1994, Jelinek described her aim, with characteristically vivid force, as a desire “to smash language, to strip it to the bone, to tear the last bits of truth out of it, to rip open its chest.”
This attitude is not so unusual in Austria. Jelinek’s crucial association in the 1960s was with the circle of writers in the Wiener Gruppe (Vienna Group) and in Graz, where various cliques found an outlet in the journal manuskripte. Both avant-garde groups take the verbal dimension of literature–the importance and flexibility of words and their texture, of sound, syntax, orthography, grammar, and appearance–as decisive. The avant-gard-ists of Vienna and Graz largely abandoned the conventional forms of poetry, drama, and fiction to see where a more open and playful but also adversarial approach to words and performance might lead. It did not lead to popular forms. The general mistrust of official culture in this first phase of Jelinek’s life as a writer registered first as a literary exploration and demolition of the pop culture that enveloped her generation and still does. The distrust of high culture did not entail enthusiasm for the media of popular culture, much of which was imported from the United States.
In wir sind lockvögel baby! (1970, We’re Decoys Baby!) and Michael: Ein Jugendbuch für aie Infantilgesellhchaft (1972, Michael: Juvenile Literature for the Infantile Society)–her first two “novels,” if that word fits the nonlinear structure of the works–Jelinek mounts a critique of a world in which the commodification of just about anything seems not only possible but likely. Both works present people not as flourishing individuals but as puppet-like consumers awash in the desires imposed on them by advertising, radio, sports, movies, television, and the other forces of conformity at work in the postwar recovery.
In Die Liebhaberinnen (1975; translated as Brassiere Factory, 1988; as Women as Lovers, 1994) Jelinek takes up the question of domestic life in rural Austria. The extraordinary natural beauty of the Austrian mountains forms the setting for this parable of modern life. Two young women, Brigitte and Paula, are ground down by circumstances mostly beyond their control, working in a ladies’ undergarment factory and being married to worthless, cruelly thoughtless men. The main protagonist is teenaged Paula, a country girl, who marries a handsome but dull-witted woodcutter, a moped enthusiast who soon becomes a drunkard and then an enthusiastic wife-beater. Brigitte, the grasping town girl, sexually hooks and reels in a fellow whom she foolishly imagines to have good prospects in life, but she is deceived. Obese, fatuous, and spoiled by his doting parents, her husband will not serve her as a means of attaining the good life. Brigitte will have to make do with the household appliances her husband’s standard of living makes available to her. A third protagonist, Susi, is the complacently pretty middle-class girl angling for a university-educated husband and a better life than working-class Paula and Brigitte. She presents herself as a prancing thoroughbred alongside two plodding workhorses and offers Jelinek a means of exploring small-town class resentments. Each of the three–brainwashed by magazines, television, and movies–thinks of love as a universal solvent that will melt away the loneliness, isolation, and sadness that imprisons them. Jelinek’s basic theme is the concentric circles of entrapment from which none of them can ever escape: entrapment in self, in family, in marriage, in sex, in class, in work, in consumer culture, and in their own shabby, stunted imaginations.
In outline Die Liebhaberinnen sounds like a dreary morality play. What makes it work as a novel, though, is the form of Jelinek’s prose. It has some of the incidental trappings of her avant-garde background: the absence of capital letters, for instance, an affectation that Jelinek soon abandoned. More important is her mode of storytelling. It is basically satirical parody, modeled on forms of popular narrative, in this instance the romance novel–a genre that Jelinek turns upside down. Most broken of all is erotic love, which is presented as an illusion dear to girls and women. They believe that sex gives them power over men, and so also over their own lives. Jelinek’s protagonists become slaves to cherished illusions, and she is harshly critical of their willing complicity in their fates. Aware of the danger that readers will identify with them as victims and engage in moral sentimentalizing, Jelinek uses a narrative ploy resembling Bertolt Brecht’s classic alienation effect in theater. She systematically holds readers’ empathy at bay, constantly reminding them that the story is a fiction, that the characters are types and not individuals. Her narrator is archly detached from the story, commenting freely in apostrophes to the reader and keeping the reader distant from the unfolding events. Moreover, the crude and lurid sexual language presents eros in its most sordid aspect. Jelinek intends neither to titillate (as in the obligatory eroticism of conventional movies and fiction) nor even to shock (as in the avant-garde’s traditional antibourgeois gesture of self-congratulation) but rather to arouse disgust and so force her readers into a defensively critical and reflective posture. Certainly many readers are put off by this tactic: “shrill” and “strident” are the usual terms of censure directed at her. Still, a majority of the Nobel panel accepted her visceral approach as a legitimate artistic mode of expression.
In 1980 Jelinek continued her exploration of postwar Austrian life in the novel Die Ausgesperrten, which literally means “the outsiders” or “those locked out.” It appeared in English as Wonderful, Wonderful Times (1990). The motivating force of her art is perhaps clearest in this work. The setting is Vienna of the 1950s; the story unfolds at the historical moment when Austria is still reeling under the impact of the war, and the economic boom is making the war easy to forget. Thus, it is also a time of blithe hedonism that masks a deeper, pent-up violence. Her protagonists are four teenagers who embody both the outer forms and the inner impulses of postwar Austrian culture. Anna Witkowski is a budding pianist, and her twin brother, Rainer Maria (named for poet Rainer Maria Rilke), writes poetry. Vienna is the city of high culture, but the twins live in low, impoverished circumstances. The father is a bitter, resentful, and sexually depraved former SS officer with a modest pension, and their cow-like mother is more or less his slave. The father’s service revolver hangs in the family home, and as Anton Chekhov famously observed of such props, it will have to be fired by the end of the story. Sophie Pachofen, in a reprise of the Susi-type from Die Liebhaberìnnen, is a rich girl, pretty and spoiled. Hans Sepp is working class, an electrician’s apprentice, and like Rainer he is in love with Sophie, which is to say they are in love with upward mobility. The novel begins as the four friends ferociously attack and brutalize a lone man walking in a public park.
The Austrian novelist Ingeborg Bachmann once remarked that fascist brutality in Austria did not end when the war ended; instead, it simply migrated into family and private life. Much of Jelinek’s writing, and perhaps the beginning of Die Ausgesperrten in particular, appears to be predicated on this thought. The rage that drives Anna, Rainer, Sophie, and Hans cannot easily be accounted for psychologically. Jelinek does not write psychological fiction. It is more a matter of ethical, historical, and political allegory. In this case the urge to destroy arises from a sense of imprisonment that links Die Ausgesperrtento Die Liebhaberinnen. Where Paula and Brigitte hoped that sex might provide them with relief, these teens seek the pleasure of violence and inflicting pain as a way of relieving the nausea and hatred they feel. Their sadism and nihilism are directed at the Austrian world but also at their families. In the end Rainer turns his father’s SS service pistol on his parents and his sister.
Anna’s last thoughts are of Schoenberg’s opus 33a, a piece she was trying to master. As a pianist, she had sometimes entertained thoughts of immigrating to the United States and starting over–a rare ray of optimism in Jelinek’s fictional world. Her art seemed to hold some promise as a way out. This aspect of Die Ausgesperrten is also developed in Jelinek’s next novel, Die klavierspielerin (1983; translated as The Piano Teacher, 1988). Erika Kohut, the eponymous pianist, is a sort of grown-up version of Anna Witkowski. Like Anna’s mother, Erika’s mother has invested great hopes (and money) in the daughter’s talent. In Vienna, world capital of Western music, art promises transcendence. However, Erika has already failed as the novel begins. She has not reached the level of achievement that her mother had envisioned for her, which means that their dreams of wealth and power, measured in terms of property and household appliances, have come to nothing. The father is absent (a victim of mental illness, though presumably his awful wife literally drove him crazy), so Erika lives alone with her petulant, tyrannical mother in their small apartment (images of cramped space abound in Jelinek’s fiction). Erika is a piano teacher instead of a concert pianist. She is middle-aged, sexually frustrated, and embittered. Erika bullies her music students at the conservatory much as her mother bullies her, so that a complete cycle of misery is formed. Her only outlet is voyeurism, which she pursues with the same kind of iron discipline with which she pursues her music. Basically, though, Erika is numb both to erotic pleasure and to music. Her characteristic lack of feeling is expressed in her pathology: she secretly cuts herself with razor blades. Even pain is better than no feeling at all.
In Die Klavierspielerin Jelinek deftly weaves together her themes of art, sex, and violence. A young man, Walter Klemmer, is attracted to Erika’s icy, forbidding manner. The erotic attraction is a matter of the power relationship rather than affection: he is the student, and she is the teacher. He works to break down the reserve and seduce her. Klemmer, a good-looking, athletic fellow, sees in her a challenge to his virility. He intends to master Erika, who accepts the challenge in the spirit he offers it, at first leading him on and sexually teasing him. Filled with self-loathing, Erika makes unseemly demands of him, requesting–in writing–sadistic acts to satisfy her masochistic desires but at the same time hoping that love will prevent him from harming her. Like Paula and Brigitte, Erika nurses a deep wish for redemptive male love. And like them Erika has virtually no experience of life and consequently has become entrapped in private fantasies. She has been both driven and sheltered by her tyrannical mother. Her dedication to art has been a cloister from which she can only guess at and glimpse (as if at a peep show) what living might be like.
Confused, Klemmer refuses her demands in disgust, less from love or compassion than because Erika is still giving the orders. Even in abjection she is the master, he the servant of her will. Eventually Klemmer reaches his breaking point. He beats her savagely, rapes her, and goes his own way, gloating over his manly victory. The next day Erika leaves the house with a knife in her purse, but with no clear purpose in mind. She looks for Klemmer, evidently thinking of stabbing him. Still numb even after all the abuse she has taken–perhaps the more so because of it–she stabs herself in an effort to recover some kind of feeling.
Erika Kohut is Jelinek’s most vivid, most striking creation. As a novelistic character, Erika belongs to a tradition of negative protagonists that includes figures such as Franz Kafka’s Josef K. and Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten. In fact, there is a perhaps excessive allusion to Josef K.’s quasi-suicide on the last page of Die Klavierspielerin. Like K. and Jakob, Erika is locked out of life and exploring the dark margins of what it means to be incapable of participating in the world, hence the theme of her numbness. She is betrayed by sex and by art. In trying to use them as means to an end–to dominate Klemmer and to take high art as a means of clawing her way into what she thinks of as life (that is, commercial success)–Erika has mistaken the very nature of sex and music, which are ends in themselves. Both are closed to her because she takes them not as features of lived experience but as mere instruments to be exploited for ulterior gain.
In 1989 Jelinek returned to the milieu of smalltown Austria with Lust (translated, 1992), this time setting the action in a ski resort rather than a brassiere factory. The thematics are familiar–brutal sex and gratuitous violence that send up the genre of pornographic novel–but in this work she is more firmly in control of the rhetorical means she has been developing. The material is dreadful; yet, the tone is breezy. Jelinek’s narrator has the air of a television voice-over, rather like a sports-show announcer describing a man catching fish or hunting pheasant. This voice has the same sort of voluble, disinterested enthusiasm as it describes how the bear-like Direktor of the resort treats his wife in bed:
Seine Flinte will der Direktor heute noch einmal abschießen, um sich seiner Frau wieder sicher zu sein, wenn sie blutend daliegt, da sie ihm zur Unzeit in den Weg gelaufen ist. Sie atmet and würgt. Der Schlaf weht ihr aus den Augen. Fast würde sie erbrechen vor dem, der da in ihr sausendes, brausendes Haus einbricht.
(The Direktor wants to fire his gun again today. To be sure of his wife–lying there bleeding, breathing, retching. Sleep heavy in her eyes. Bile rising in her gorge as this intruder rises in her gorge.)
The puns, the heartlessly sportive language, and the cheery tone all serve to keep the reader off balance. There is not much reading pleasure of the ordinary sort to be had in the prose; Jelinek uses every means at her disposal to push readers away from the story. The pleasure has more to do with catching onto the satire than becoming involved with the lives of the characters.
This narrative mode is characteristic for Jelinek. For example, in Gier: Ein Unterhaltungsroman (2000, Greed: A Trashy Novel; translated, 2006) she takes pulp trashiness over the top. The greed in question is mainly that of Kurt Janish, a psychotic highway patrolman in rural Styria. He uses his position of authority to seduce women and girls, and then he murders them for their property, or just for the fun of it. Catching on to the satire here entails understanding that the form of Jelinek’s book mimics the classic American dime-store paperbacks from the mid twentieth century, the hardboiled crime stories of the sort popularized by James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and David Goodis. Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me (1952) bears an especially close resemblance to the contours of Gier, except that Jelinek inverts the genre and turns it against itself. The male reading pleasures of noir fiction–domination, voyeurism, and vicarious sexual exploits–are deflated rather than celebrated.
Jelinek’s novels have been widely translated into other languages, and her international prestige rests largely on her accomplishments as a fiction writer. Over the years, the Nobel Prize in Literature has gone to fiction writers much more often than to playwrights, perhaps because drama and theater often do not travel well. Before Jelinek’s Nobel Prize drew global attention to her and her work, productions of her stage works were somewhat rare outside the German world (though they have been staged in Sweden, Denmark, France, Hungary, and the Czech Republic). However, this scarcity is not to suggest that her works for the theater are somehow inferior to her novels. In fact, the spoken word may well be Jelinek’s most powerful mode. The speech act is central to her concept of art; the written word approximates it at second hand. Her stage works are powerful, demanding, and confrontational. Still, Jelinek’s dramas remain largely confined to the German stage, where they often meet with both praise and hostile criticism.
In the same sense that Jelinek mounts a frontal assault on genre works and lazy assumptions in fiction and fiction-reading, she also refuses to take theater conventions for granted, and she refuses to accept the conventional wisdom about the relation of theater to moral life. In her first play, Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte, oder, Stützen der Gesellschaften (1977; translated as What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband, or, Pillars of Society, 1994), Jelinek questions conventional feminist ideology by turning one of its cherished representatives, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (1879), into a factory worker. This Nora does not escape at all; instead, she becomes a pawn in male games of sex and power. Moreover, the language of the drama is not naturalistic dialogue. The characters are more like wooden puppets than the theatrical approximations of living, feeling people.
Her next play, Clara S.: Musikalische Tragödie (1984, Clara S.: Musical Tragedy; translated as Clara S.: Three Parts, 1997), hews close to the thematics of Die Klavierspielerin. Outlandishly, she brings together Robert Schumann, his gifted concert-pianist wife, Clara, and their young daughter Marie with the great novelist of decadence, Gabriele D’Annunzio, at his villa in fascist Italy. Her theme is the abject support that even the most gifted girls and women provide to enable the mad fantasies of male genius, which is identified with fascist authoritarianism. Little Marie embodies this female submission as she fellates D’Annunzio while he pontificates, a shocking scene that anticipates similar scenes and relationships in later works, above all in Die Klavierspielerin.
The central theater of the German world has long been Vienna’s Burgtheater. It is a cultural institution of supreme importance and therefore also an important target for Jelinek’s critique. In her play Burgtheater: Posse mit Gesang (1984, Burgtheater: Farce with Choral Music), written in 1982, Jelinek sends up its compromised status during the era of Austria’s romance with National Socialism. Many cultural celebrities were supporters of Hitler and actively used their prestige to promote his agenda. After the war, they were able to continue their careers as if nothing had happened. Jelinek’s play focuses attention on a family of Burgtheater celebrities, transparently modeled on the Burg actors Paula Wessely and her husband, Attila Hörbiger, and their daughters. These people are caught up in acting out roles on the stage and in life that are not only phony but also morally corrupt. With language itself at the center, Jelinek carefully works out a false-sounding idiom that contains admixtures of Viennese patois, stage German, and Nazi jargon. This violence to natural language goes hand in glove with the characteristic physical violence of the play. As the Russians arrive in 1945, these voices comically seek to divest themselves of Nazi chatter and once again become the innocent speakers of a selfconsciously un-German Austrian dialect. Verbally, they have become the hapless victims of a foreign invasion rather than its willing sympathizers.
The Heideggerian thought that humans are more that which is spoken than they are speakers opens into Wolken. Heim. (1990, Clouds. Home.), which consists largely of a montage of citations from classic writers and thinkers including Martin Heidegger, Heinrich von Kleist, Friedrich Hölderlin, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Heidegger is also at the center of Jelinek’s Totenauberg (1991). The title refers to Heidegger’s mountain retreat, actually Todtnauberg, a cabin he liked to think of as a wholesome refuge from modern technology and urban life. Heidegger, the central philosopher of language and nature in the German tradition, was also a member of the Nazi party and liked to wear lederhosen and other folkloristic garb in moments of repose. Such predilections and habitual patterns of verbal expression cannot easily be separated from nationalist and fascist habits of mind. In this theater piece Jelinek links the jargon of the contemporary ecology movement to the kind of language that Heidegger cultivated, a way of speaking and writing that was perniciously implicated in a Nazi rhetoric that traded on cliches of nature, race, sex, blood, and soil.
This problematic entwinement of language and life is a well-established international theme. George Orwell famously dealt with some of its ramifications for the Anglophone world in his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946). Language not only expresses what people think and believe, but it also shapes thought, belief, and action. Modern German is in many ways a broken, polluted, and abused resource. It is not unique in this way, but German–because of its conspicuously fraught ideological history–is a particularly clear case of the more general problem that makes Elfriede Jelinek’s writing of more than local Austrian or German importance.
Jelinek’s response to her 2004 Nobel Prize was unusual. She refused to attend the award ceremony (citing her anxiety disorders as the reason) and delivered her inaugural address in absentia by video. Since it cannot be entirely secret whose names the Nobel committee may be weighing at any given moment, Jelinek must have known that she was being considered. Yet, she has repeatedly professed her surprise at being chosen. In interviews she has more than once offered the view that, among Austrian writers, Peter Handke would have been the more likely choice than she.
Surprise at her selection was general, and Handke would indeed have been the more conventional choice–though perhaps his public support of the Serbian cause since the 1990s has knocked him out of the running for good. Left or at least liberal political sensibilities appear to be a consistent feature of contemporary Nobel laureates in literature. Jelinek fits this pattern. She has been and remains a blunt, outspoken, and fearless critic of the reactionary status quo in Austria and elsewhere since the end of World War II.
However, now that the Nobel Prize has gained her international recognition, she has become rather more than an Austrian writer. As far as her own writing goes, she seems to have been encouraged to turn her critique to world affairs rather than her more narrowly focused attention on Austrian and German life. In her next works for the theater, Bambiland (performed in 2003, published in 2004) and Babel (published in 2004, performed in 2005) she turned her satire on the United States, its invasion of Iraq, and the media coverage of the war. It would also be fair to say, however, that few critics or readers in the United States have noticed the attack.
It appears unlikely that Jelinek, even with a Nobel Prize to her credit, will reach a much wider audience outside of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. First, the style of her prose–rich in complex allusion, wordplay, and elaborate turns of wit–does not lend itself readily to translation. She is the opposite of Samuel Beckett: where he pares language down, struggles against allusion and polysemy, and explores the realm of lessness, Jelinek writes in the vein of a satirical moreness and every manner of excess: intensely provocative themes, wildly luxuriant and verbally promiscuous language, and an archness that leaves many readers feeling acutely uncomfortable. Even since the Nobel award in 2004, several of her novels remain untranslated.
Second, genre also plays a role in Jelinek’s modest reception outside her native language. In Austria and Germany, the theater remains an important cultural venue–especially in Vienna–and one that is supported extensively by the state as a matter of course. Jelinek’s challenges to the theater as a cultural and political institution are moot outside of her own milieu. They do not translate into matters of pressing importance in many countries. Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature notwithstanding, few of the awards have gone to playwrights since the end of World War II. This decline presumably represents the waning importance of the stage in most countries, saturated as they are by electronic media venues. The theater remains prestigious, certainly, but its status is coming to resemble that of ballet or opera. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, however, theater remains a central form of artistic expression. But for the rest of the world, Jelinek the novelist may be of more importance.
In his presentation of Jelinek’s work to the Swedish Academy at the Nobel ceremony, Horace Engdahl emphasized Jelinek’s achievement: “Elfriede Jelinek deliberately opens her work to the clichés that flood the news media, advertising and popular culture–the collective subconscious of our time. She manipulates the codes of pulp literature, comics, soap operas, pornography and folkloristic novels (Heimatsroman), so that the inherent madness in these ostensibly harmless consumer phenomena shines through. She mimics the prejudices we would never admit to, and captures, hidden behind common sense, a poisonous mumble of no origin or address: the voice of the masses.”
Gitta Honegger, “The German Language . . . An Interview with Elfriede Jelinek,” Theater, 25, no. 1 (1994): 14–22;
Brenda L. Bethman, “My Characters Live Only Insofar as They Speak: Interview with Elfriede Jelinek,” Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature and Culture, 16 (2000): 61–72.
Katherine Arens and Jorun B. Johns, eds., Elfriede Jelinek: Framed by Language (Riverside, Cal.: Ariadne, 1994);
Daniela Bartens and Paul Pechmann, eds., Elfriede Jelinek–Die internationale Rezeption (Graz: Droschl, 1999);
Maria E. Brunner, Die Mythenzenrtrümmerung der Elfriede Jelinek (Neuried: ars una, 1997);
Oliver Claes, Fremde, Vampire: Sexualität, Tod und Kunst bei Elfriede Jelinek und Adolf Muschg (Bielefeld: Aisthesis, 1994);
Annette Doll, Mythos, Natur und Geschichte bei Elfriede Jelinek: Eine Untersuchung ihrer literarischen Intentionen (Stuttgart: M&P Verlag für Wissenschaft und Forschung, 1994);
du: Zeitschrift für Kultur [Zurich], special Jelinek issue, 700 (October 1999);
Allyson Fiddler, Rewriting Reality: An Introduction to Elfriede Jelinek (Oxford: Berg, 1994);
Fiddler, “Staging Jorg Haider: Protest and Resignation in Elfriede Jelinek’s Das Lebewohl and Other Recent Texts for the Theater,” Modern Language Review, 97, no. 2 (2002): 253–265;
Gail Finney, “Komödie und Obszönität: Der sexuelle Witz bei Jelinek und Freud,” German Quarterly, 70, no. 1 (1997): 27–38;
Finney, “Performing Vienna: Theatricality in Jelinek’s Burgtheater” German Politics and Society, 23, no. 1 (2005): 24-38;
Konstanze Fliedl, “Natur und Kunst: Zu neueren Texten Elfriede Jelineks,” in Das Schreiben der Frauen in Österreich seit 1950, edited by the Walter-Bucheb-ner-Gesellschaft (Vienna: Böhlau, 1991), pp. 95–104;
Brigid Haines, “Beyond Patriarchy: Marxism, Feminism, and Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Liebhaberinnen” Modern Language Review, 92, no. 3 (1997): 643–656;
Beatrice Hanssen, “Elfriede Jelinek’s Language of Violence,” New German Critique, 68 (1996): 79–105;
Petra Heyer, Von Verklärern und Spielverderbern: Eine vergleichende Untersuchung neuerer Theaterstücke Peter Handkes und Elfriede Jelineks (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2001);
Pia Janke and others, Werkverzeichnis Elfriede Jelinek (Vienna: Edition Praesens, 2004);
Janke, ed., Die Nestbeschmutzerin: Jelinek & österreich (Salzburg: Jung &Jung, 2003);
Marlies Janz, Elfriede Jelinek (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1995);
Janz, “Das Verschwinden des Autors: Die Celan-Zitate in Elfriede Jelineks Stück Stecken, Stab und Stangl,” Celan-Jahrbuch, 7 (1997/98): 279–292;
Britta Kallin, “In Brecht’s Footsteps or Way beyond Brecht? Brechtian Techniques in Feminist Plays by Elfriede Jelinek and Marlene Streeruwitz,” Communications from the International Brecht Society, 29 (2000): 62–66;
Joanna Kavenna, “The Untranslatables,” Daily Telegraph, 27 November 2004, Books pp. 1–2;
Matthias Konzett, The Rhetoric of National Dissent in Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and Elfriede Jelinek (Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000);
Barbara Kosta,“Murderous Boundaries: Nation, Memory and Austria’s Fascist Past in Elfriede Jelinek’s Stecken, Stab und Stangl,” in Writing Against Boundaries: Nationality, Ethnicity and Gender in the German-Speaking Context, edited by Kosta and Helga Kraft (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), pp. 81–98;
John Pizer, “Modern vs. Postmodern Satire: Karl Kraus and Elfriede Jelinek,” Monatshefte, 86, no. 4 (1994): 500–513;
Jay Rosellini, ‘Jelineks Haider: Anmerkungen zur literarischen Populismus-Kritik,” Text & Kontext (2003): 125–138;
Erika Swales, “Pathography as Metaphor,” Modern Language Review, 95, no. 2 (2000): 437–449;
text + kritik, special Jelinek issue, edited by Heinz Ludwig Arnold, expanded edition, no. 117 (1999);
Sabine Treude, “Vom Übersetzen zum Verschwiegenen: Einige Überlegungen zum Übersetzungsverfahren in den Texten von Elfriede Jelinek und Martin Heidegger,” Sprache im technischen Zeitctlter, 153 (2000): 75–87;
Treude and Günther Hopfgartner, ‘“Ich meine alles ironisch’: Ein Gespräch,” Sprache im technischen Zeitalter, 153 (2000): 21–31;
Sabine Wilke, “The Body Politic of Peformance, Literature, and Film: Mimesis and Citation in Valie Export, Elfriede Jelinek, and Monika Treut,” Paragraph, 22, no. 3 (1999): 228–248.