BORN: 1946, Murzzuschlag, Styria, Austria
Women as Lovers (1975)
Wonderful, Wonderful Times (1980)
The Piano Teacher (1983)
Elfriede Jelinek. Jelinek, Elfriede, photograph. Roland Schlager / EPA / Landov.
Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek was the surprise choice 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 an overpowering degree of inner turmoil and that the world is a tremendously unjust place, especially for women.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Writing Through the Dark. Jelinek was born on October 20, 1946, as her native Austria was still struggling from the aftereffects of World War II and the country’s 1938 annexation by Nazi Germany. Although born in a town in the state of Styria, she grew up in Vienna. Her mother was a Roman Catholic of mixed Romanian and German heritage, while Jelinek’s surname reflects 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 the couple’s only child and emerged as a musical prodigy at a young age. Her childhood years were filled with after-school lessons in organ, violin, and flute, as well as ballet classes, and she entered the esteemed Vienna Conservatory of Music when she was still in her teens.
By 1964 an eighteen-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 Lisa’s Shadow appeared in 1967 and marked her as a rising young literary star.
Successful Novels and Controversial Plays. Jelinek eventually completed her Vienna Conservatory of Music exam in the organ; afterward, she began traveling throughout Europe. She spent time in Berlin and Rome and worked on her debut novel, Wir sind Lockviigel, Baby! (We’re Decoys, Baby!), published in 1970. She garnered impressive reviews for her 1975 novel, Die Liebhaberinnen, which would later be translated into English as Women as Lovers. 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, Die Ausgesperrten, published in 1980 and translated as Wonderful, Wonderful Times, was also hailed as a literary tour-de-force.
In the 1980s, Jelinek wrote a number of plays that were performed in Vienna, Germany, and Switzerland. In Austria, they drew a large amount of criticism for their incendiary themes. 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. 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. The rise of right-wing politician Jorg Haider and his Freedom Party in 2000 elections prompted Jelinek to declare that 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 in the 1930s.
International Recognition. Jelinek came to greater attention outside of the German-speaking world due to the popularity of her 1983 novel Die Klavierspielerin, which appeared in English translation as The Piano Teacher five years later and in 2001 was made into a French-language film by Austrian director Michael Haneke. The adaptation took several prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.
Jelinek was awarded a 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.
Works in Literary Context
The satirical-critical Eastern European-Jewish strand in Austrian literature represented by Joseph Roth, Karl Kraus, Elias Canetti, and Odon von Horvath persists in the work of Elfriede Jelinek. She shares with these authors mixed ethnic and cultural roots, a profound respect for language, and a commitment to using language to expose abuses of power. Because of the nontraditional aesthetic method she employs—her refusal to project herself into her characters’ minds and her portrayal of the destructive impact of individualism on popular culture—her work remains the subject of intense controversy in the German-language press and is only gradually finding acceptance within the academic literary establishment.
Jelinek is a unique stylist, combining verbal components culled from cartoons, comic strips, Beatles songs, and science fiction films to shock readers out of their cultural complacency. Literary critics have praised the author’s keen powers of observation and brilliant command of language but often object to her acerbic, reductive, arbitrary treatment of her characters and the vulgarity and artificiality of the world she created. Lust, for example, was condemned as pornography by some critics after its publication in 1989.
Jelinek has often spoken of her writing as an attempt to make apparent the economic and political structures that motivate people’s values, attitudes, and behaviors. Socialization of youth to dependency, manipulation of popular tastes, and violence against women and children are dominant themes in her work. With few exceptions the settings and characters are unmistakably Austrian; the problems, however, are common to all industrialized societies.
Marxist-Feminist Themes. Jelinek builds each of her fictions on a strong Marxist-feminist foundation. In novels such as Women as Lovers, The Piano Teacher, and Lust, her central themes involve female protagonists treated as commodities; usually they are victims of male-perpetrated crimes that include domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and human alienation. Accused by male critics for her coarse depiction of such acts, Jelinek has also received disapprobation from other feminists who condemn her depiction of female sexuality and masochistic behavior.
In addition to her characteristic graphic portrayal of brutality toward women, Jelinek is not hesitant about displaying her Marxist leanings. Her concern for the welfare of the working class within capitalist Europe is encoded within all her fiction. Both in her highly praised 1983 work The Piano Teacher and in Women as Lovers, Jelinek portrays human relationships as shaped by a dehumanizing economic system.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Jelinek's famous contemporaries include:
Peter Handke (1942-): Austrian novelist and playwright whose works are considered avant-garde and controversial.
Dean Koontz (1945-): Best-selling American writer known for his suspense-thrillers.
David Lynch (1946-): American screenwriter and film director whose films are noted for their disturbing themes and surreal, nightmarish quality.
Julian Barnes (1946-): English novelist whose works touch on a broad range of contemporary concerns.
Kathy Acker (1947-1997): American novelist known for her experimental prose style and feminist writings.
Salman Rushdie (1947-): Indian-British novelist who is well known for Satanic Verses, which led to protests from many Muslims.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Jelinek's works feature women who are the victims of crimes by men and who struggle to overcome the obstacles faced in a male-dominated world. Here are some other works with similar portrayals:
The Color Purple (1983), a novel by Alice Walker. This novel, set in the 1930s, explores the struggles of African American women in the southern United States, with graphic portrayals of the violence and exploitation faced by these women.
The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a novel by Margaret Atwood. In this novel about a dark future, women are subjected to the repressive practices of a male-dominated religious government.
The Passion of Artemisia (2002), a novel by Susan Vreeland. This novel tells the story of a woman overcoming a rape by her painting teacher and her subsequent struggles to forge a successful art career of her own.
Works in Critical Context
Jelinek’s unique narrative style has been the subject of much critical attention. Feminist critics have praised her examinations of the exploitation of women in patriarchal societies and her commitment to exposing the violence perpetrated against women. Nevertheless, some female scholars have argued that Jelinek’s plays and novels work against feminist causes because of their brutal depictions of female sexuality, masochism, and self-mutilation. Several male critics have concurred with this assessment, citing the cold and overly analytical nature of Jelinek’s prose. Her 1989 novel, Lust, attracted a great deal of critical controversy, with many reviewers arguing that the novel is a work of pornography.
Such criticism has caused the Austrian media to frequently refer to Jelinek as the nation’s ‘‘best-hated author.’’ Still, Jelinek has been consistently praised throughout her career for her skill with satire and political commentary, earning comparisons to such authors as Johann Nestroy, Karl Kraus, and Elias Canetti.
Surprise Over the Nobel Prize. When Jelinek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004, 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. Progressive reviewer Nina Siegal observed that Jelinek ‘‘wasn’t an obvious choice’’ for the prestigious and lucrative prize. ‘‘Her dense, strident political satires exploring sexual perversion and social decadence aren’t exactly mass-market fare. And because only a few of her novels have been translated, her work is largely unknown outside the German-speaking world,’’ Siegal commented.
The announcement of the award was greeted by reactions ranging from confusion from those who were not familiar with Jelinek and her work, to either outrage or unqualified approval from those who knew her work well. The controversy included harsh criticism from publications such as the Weekly Standard and others who ‘‘claimed that her books contain more hateful fury than artistic virtuosity,’’ observed a New Yorker reviewer. Others ridiculed the relative obscurity of her works. One of the Nobel panel’s eighteen lifetime members resigned in protest.
Despite the outcry, Jelinek received the award based on what the Swedish Academy described as ‘‘her musical flow of voices and countervoices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s cliches and their subjugating power.’’
The Piano Teacher. The Piano Teacher, first published in 1983, was viewed upon its publication as one of the author’s best works, and that assessment still held true when an English translation of the novel was finally published in 1988. Carole Morin, in a review for New Statesman and Society, called the book ‘‘a reckless recital that is difficult to read and difficult to stop reading. The racy, relentless, consuming style is a metaphor for passion: impossible to ignore.’’ Charlotte Innes termed the novel ‘‘a brilliant if grim exploration of fascism’’ in her New York Times Book Review assessment of a later Jelinek book. The general critical consensus is that the books that followed—especially the controversial Lust (1989; first published in English in 1992)—have failed to deliver on the artistic promise of The Piano Teacher and her earlier works. Like the novel, the film adaptation of The Piano Teacher written and directed by Michael Haneke was a critical success, winning the 2001 Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival.
Responses to Literature
1. Before turning to writing, Jelinek trained as a musician. In what ways is her musical education evident in her writing?
2. Critics have noted that Jelinek’s writings are based on her Marxist-feminist ideas. What types of Marxist and feminist ideas can you detect in her works? In what ways does she put these ideas forward? Are her works able to convince you that her ideas are correct?
3. The choice of Jelinek as a Nobel Prize winner caused quite a bit of controversy in the literary world. Some critics have claimed that Peter Handke would have been a better choice for an Austrian writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Write an essay either supporting or opposing this claim.
4. Jelinek’s writings have been labeled abrasive and even pornographic, and she has been noted for her graphic portrayal of brutality toward women. Jelinek also professes to be serving feminist goals with her writing. Write an essay identifying one or more of her feminist goals and analyzing how her writing style is either well suited or poorly suited for forwarding these goals.
‘‘Elfriede Jelinek (1946-).’’ Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Janet Witalec. Vol. 169. Detroit: Gale, 2003, pp. 67-155.
Fiddler, Allyson. Rewriting Reality: an Introduction to Elfriede Jelinek. Oxford, U.K.: Berg, 1994.
Janz, Marlies. Elfriede Jelinek. Stuttgart, Germany: Metzler, 1995.
Johns, Jorun B., and Katherine Arens, eds. Elfriede Jelinek: Framed by Language. Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne Press, 1994.
Mayer, Verena. Elfriede Jelinek: ein Portrat. Hamburg, Germany: Rowohlt, 2006.
Vansant, Jacqueline. Against the Horizon: Feminism and Postwar Austrian Women Writers. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988.