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 Jeli-nek 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 Lockvo¨gel, 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 Elfriede Jelinek Jelinek, Elfriede, photograph. Roland Schlager / EPA / Landov.
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 Jo¨rg 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 O¨ do¨n von Horva´th 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.
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 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 Vree-land. 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.
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.
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