Author and playwright
Born October 20, 1946, in Mürzzuschlag, Steiermark, Austria; daughter of Friedrich (a chemical engineer) and Olga Ilona (Buchner) Jelinek (a personnel director); married Gottfried Hungsberg (an information-systems engineer), June 12, 1974. Education: Attended the University of Vienna and Vienna Conservatory of Music, 1960s.
Addresses: Office—c/o Serpent's Tail Publishing, 4 Blackstock Mews,
Began writing poetry in the mid-1960s; Lisas Schatten, her first collection of verse, published in 1967; first novel, Wir sind lockvögel baby!, appeared in 1970; first title to appear in English translation was The Piano Player, 1988, which was also made into a 2001 film, The Piano Teacher. Has also written extensively for the stage, with works performed regularly in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.
Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek was the surprise choice of the Swedish Academy for the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature. Jelinek's fiction, relatively unknown outside of the German-speaking world, is rife with passages of psychological and physical cruelty, reflecting its author's belief that all humans carry a fair share of inner turmoil, and that the world is a tremendously unjust place as well, especially for women. Elsewhere in her work, Jelinek has been sharply critical of Austrian society and its more conservative elements. "Her charges are carefully researched and laid out in uncompromising and meticulous prose. In the dock are mothers, men, Nazis, the state racists and rightwing politicians," asserted Penny Black in a Financial Times article. Prior to her Nobel win, Jelinek was perhaps best known as the author of a book that became the 2001 film The Piano Teacher, which took a trio of prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.
Jelinek was born on October 20, 1946, when her native Austria was still struggling from the aftereffects of World War II and the country's 1938 annexation by Nazi Germany. Originally from a town in the state of Styria, she grew up in Vienna, where her mother had also been raised. Her mother was a Roman Catholic of mixed Romanian and German heritage, while Jelinek's surname reflected her father's origins in Czechoslovakia. He was Jewish, and had escaped deportation to the Nazi extermination camps because he was a chemist working in a highly sensitive field. Jelinek was their only child, and emerged as a musical prodigy at a young age.
Her childhood years were filled with after-school organ, violin, and flute lessons as well as ballet classes, and she entered the esteemed Vienna Conservatory of Music when she was still in her teens.
By 1964, an 18-year-old Jelinek had completed her Conservatory courses, but suffered a nervous breakdown before her exam date. She later said that writing helped her out of this dark period in her life, and she turned toward a new direction in her studies when she began taking courses in theater and art history at the University of Vienna. She also began to gain a measure of renown for her poetry in Austria, and her first book, a collection of poems titled Lisas Schatten, ("Lisa's Shadow") appeared in 1967 and marked her as a rising young literary star.
After completing her Vienna Conservatory of Music exam in the organ, Jelinek began traveling through Europe. She spent time in Berlin and Rome, and worked on her debut novel, Wir sind lockvögel, baby! ("We're Decoys, Baby!") Published in 1970, "the novel was heralded in Western Europe as a brilliant literary realization of the aesthetic principles of pop art," noted a Dictionary of Literary Biography essay by Frank W. Young. "[It] has neither plot nor characters in the traditional sense. A quartet of metamorphic Viennese proletarians surfaces periodically to mingle with figures from cartoons, comic books, advertisements, and adventure films, and with personalities made famous by the media."
Jelinek's next novel, Michael. Ein Jugendbuch für de Infantilgesellschaft, ("Michael: A Young Person's Guide to Infantile Society") came out in 1972. It centers around two teenage girls who are so overly saturated by the media that they seem to become incapable of making decisions for themselves. Two years later, Jelinek had a minor hit in Austria with her play When the Sun Sinks It's Time to Close Shop, and also wed an information-systems engineer, Gottfried Hungsberg, that same year.
Jelinek garnered impressive reviews for her 1975 novel, Die Liebhaberinnen, which would later be translated into English as Women as Lovers. The plot centers around two female friends who head to an Alpine resort town in search of a change of pace and perhaps even romance. But change comes only because of new men in their lives, and does not bring fulfillment in the end. Strongly feminist and even Marxist sentiments about women's roles in contemporary society ran through the novel's subtext.
One of Jelinek's next novels was also hailed as a literary tour-de-force. Die Ausgesperrten, published in 1980 and in translation as Wonderful, Wonderful Times, follows a group of unhappy teenagers in late 1950s Vienna. Bored with their lives, they commit robberies not for the money, but merely for the thrill. The characters include a twin brother and sister, Rainer and Anna, whose mother is locked in a disturbingly abusive relationship with their father, a former Nazi S.S. guard. Anna is a talented pianist, but falls into lustful relationship with the working-class Hans. Sophie, the fourth member of the group, comes from a well-to-do family. "Chillingly uninvolved, a will-o'-the-wisp wealthy Sophie is simultaneously the ghost of Austria's past—of the bourgeoisie that welcomed Nazism—and a sign of the prosperous future," noted a review from Nation critic Charlotte Innes. "Like fascist acolytes, Rainer and Hans are drawn toward her aura of power."
In the 1980s, Jelinek wrote a number of plays that were performed in Vienna, Germany, and Switzerland, but they also drew a fair amount of criticism for their incendiary themes when they were staged in Austria. These included Burgtheater: Posse mit Gesang ("Burgtheater: Satiric Comedy with Music,"), a 1985 work that featured a fictional portrayal of a well-known Austrian actress of a previous generation who had supported the Nazi regime but was quickly forgiven for her transgression after the war. "For all her controversy, Jelinek conforms to a postwar school of exceptional Austrian writers who have urged their countrymen to be honest about themselves," a Sunday Times article noted.
In some stagings of Jelinek's plays, boos erupted from the audience, and the merits of her work were usually the subject of ardent debate in the press. Despite the controversial nature of her work, she was awarded West Germany's prestigious Heinrich Böll Prize in 1986. That same year, former United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim was elected president of Austria, and Jelinek became one of his most vociferous critics. Revelations surfaced that Waldheim had served with a paramilitary unit of the Nazi Party during World War II, though a subsequent investigation cleared him of charges of any war-criminal acts.
Jelinek's plays eventually drew the ire of Austrian cultural authorities, who in 1998 briefly banned their production because of their intense fixation on Austria's Nazi past. Her response was to sharpen her pen even more, and the rise of right-wing politician Jörg Haider and his Freedom Party in 2000 elections prompted Jelinek to declare she would refuse to let any of her plays be performed in Austria as long as he remained in office. Haider had been a staunch critic of her work, and even termed it "degenerate," the term the Nazi regime had attached to modern art back in the 1930s. In December of 2000, Jelinek's monologue Das Lebewohl ("The Farewell") was turned into a play by filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger and premiered at the Berliner Ensemble in Berlin. It featured a chorus of 13 actors dressed as Haider in his characteristically exuberant outfits. "They recite the text in stylized Greek-chorus fashion, while performing sporting activities onstage," noted New York Times critic Carol Rocamora. "The sight of 13 actors skiing, kayaking, rappelling, and roller-blading, dressed in blinding Kodachrome color, is stunning."
Jelinek came to greater attention outside of German-speaking lands because of her 1983 novel, Die Klavierspielerin, which appeared in English translation as The Piano Player five years later, and in 2001 was made into a French-language film by Austrian director Michael Haneke. The Piano Teacher starred Isabelle Huppert as Erika Kohut, a teacher of advanced piano students at the Vienna Conservatory who descends into an abusive, sadomasochistic relationship with a handsome, arrogant young male student. She lives with her overbearing mother in a small apartment, and the two women argue and even slap one another; at other times, Erika's inner tensions are dramatically depicted in episodes of self-mutilation. Huppert's performance gave Erika a disturbing intensity, and the work took several prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.
The Piano Teacher brought Jelinek a measure of international renown, though critics were admittedly confused by the themes in the work, and by what some saw as an autobiographical element—for Jelinek divided her time between a home in Munich with her husband and periods in Vienna with her mother, who was widowed when Jelinek's father died in a psychiatric hospital in 1969. "The book is written in a terse, almost simplistic style, which by the novel's end becomes completely subsumed in obscenity," assessed Ruth Franklin in a New Republic article. The filmed images were even more graphic, with the New Yorker's David Denby terming it an "audaciously brilliant" work; Denby admitted that some parts were disturbing indeed, but found it "a seriously scandalous work, beautifully made, and it deserves a sizable audience that might argue over it, appreciate it—even hate it."
Jelinek took another top German literary honor, the Heinrich Heine Prize, in 2002, before her Nobel Prize win was announced in October of 2004. She was only the tenth woman in 103 years of Nobel history to win in the literature category, and there was some surprise in literary circles that a writer whose work was largely unknown outside of the German-speaking world was so honored. Others remarked upon the darkly violent themes in her works, with their sometimes strident strain of feminism. But the Swedish Academy, in bestowing the honor, claimed Jelinek's works deserved merit "for her musical flow of voices and countervoices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power," a New York Times article by Alan Riding reported.
Long known for her reclusive nature, Jelinek announced she would not travel to Stockholm for the ceremony because of her agoraphobia. "It doesn't suit me as a person to be put on public display," a Sunday Times article quoted her as saying. "I feel threatened by it. I'm not in a mental shape to withstand such ceremonies." Her most recent work at the time, a play titled Bambiland, continued her mission to address the injustices in the world. Dealing with the U.S.-led war in Iraq, it contains references to the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal and is intensely critical of American foreign policy. "Unlike others, Jelinek has not calmed down as she has grown older, nor has she sold out," reflected Black in the Financial Times critique. "Perhaps her uniquely courageous gaze at what we do not want to see is just what we need."
Jelinek noted that literary fame, even a Nobel Prize, cannot alter the imbalances in the world, especially gender inequalities, which she claims remains similar to that of "master and slave," she told New York Times interviewer Deborah Solomon. "A woman's artistic output makes her monstrous to men if she does not know to make herself small at the same time and present herself as a commodity. At best people are afraid of her."
Lisas Schatten, Relief Verlag Eilers (Munich), 1967.
Wir sind lockvögel, baby!, Rowohlt (Reinbek bei Hamburg), 1970.
Michael. Ein Jugendbuch für de Infantilgesellschaft, Rowohlt, 1972.
Die Liebhaberinnen, Rowohlt, 1975; translation by Martin Chambers published as Women as Lovers, Serpent's Tail, 1994.
bukolit. hoerroman, Rhombus (Wien), 1979.
Die Ausgesperrten, Rowohlt, 1980; translation by Michael Hulse published as Wonderful, Wonderful Times, Serpent's Tail (London), 1990.
Die Klavierspielerin, Rowohlt, 1983; translation by Joachim Neugroschel published as The Piano Player, Weidenfeld & Nicholson (New York City), 1988.
Oh Wildnis, oh Schutz vor ihr, Rowohlt, 1985.
Lust, Rowohlt, 1989; translation by Michael Hulse, Serpent's Tail, 1992.
Totenauberg, Rowohlt, 1991.
Die Kinder der Toten, Rowohlt, 1995.
(With Jutta Heinrich and Adolf-Ernst Meyer) Sturm und Zwang. Schreiben als Geschlechterkamp, Klein (Hamburg), 1995.
Ein Sportstuck, Rowohlt, 1998.
Macht Nichts: Eine Kleine Trilogie des Todes, Rowohlt, 1999.
Das Lebewohl: 3 kl. Dramen, Berlin Verlag, 2000.
Gier: Ein Unterhaltungsroman Elfriede Jelinek, Rowohlt, 2000.
When the Sun Sinks It's Time to Close Shop, 1974.
Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hat, produced in Graz, 1979.
Burgtheater: Posse mit Gesang, 1985.
Krankheit oder moderne Frauen, produced in Bonn, 1987.
Präsident Abendwind, in Anthropophagen im Abendwind, produced in Berlin, 1988.
Wolken; Heim, Steidl (Gottingen), 1993.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 85: AustrianFiction Writers After 1914, edited by James Hardin and Donald G. Daviau, Gale, 1989, pp. 217-23.
Financial Times, October 11, 2004, p. 13.
Nation, March 18, 1991, p. 347.
New Republic, November 1, 2004, p. 32.
New Yorker, April 1, 2002, p. 98.
New York Times, May 13, 2001, p. 10; October 8, 2004, p. A3; November 21, 2004, p. 31.
Sunday Times (London, England), October 10, 2004, p. 19.
Times Literary Supplement, February 7, 1970, p. 702.