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by Bamber Gascoigne

Elfriede Jelinek (b. 1946)


Austrian novelist, poet and playwright, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2004. Elfriede Jelinek's most famous novels include Wonderful, Wonderful Times (1980), The Piano Teacher (1983), and Lust (1989). Due to her themes of dominance and submission she has often been regarded essentially as a feminist writer, although in Jelinek's work women's subordination basically illuminate the relations of power, control, and manipulation in class societies.

"Erika is such a live wire, such a mercurial thing. Why, she may be running around at this very moment, up to no good. Yet every day, the daughter punctually shows up where she belongs: at home. Mother worries a lot, for the first thing a a proprietor learns, and painfully at that, is: Trust is fine, but control is better." (from The Piano Teacher)

Elfriede Jelinek was born in the alpine resort of Mürzzuschlag, but she grew up in Vienna. Jelinek's father, Friedrich Jelinek, a chemist, was of Czech-Jewish origin. He died in 1969 in a mental hospital. During the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany from 1938 to 1945, he narrowly avoided being sent to the concentration camps because his job was considered valuable to the German war effort. "My whole life I wanted to avenge my father," Jelinek once confessed. ('Jelinek, Elfriede' by P.B.M. [Paul B. McCaffrey], in World Authors 2000-2005, edited by Vineta Colby, 2007, p. 390) Her mother, Olga was from a well to do Catholic family; she died in 2000. Jenikek was the only child of her parents, who relatively old when he was born, her father being 46 and her mother being 42.

From 1960 Jelinek studied piano and organ at the famous Music Conservatory. In 1971 she received an organist's diploma. After graduating from the Albertsgymnasium high school, she studied theatre and art history for a few months at the University of Vienna. Jelinek collapsed mentally, and left her studies. She spent  the whole of 1968 secluded in her parents' home. Although Jelinek never graduated, and she  found it difficult to leave the house, she  got involved in the student movement of the late 1960s.

In 1967 Jelinek devoted herself entirely to writing. Her first book, Lisas Schatten (1967, Lisa's  Shadow), was a collection of poems. Jelinek's early works were written under the influence of Dadaism, Expressionism and the so-called Vienna group, established by the writer H. C. Artmann. In 1974 Jelinek married Gottfried Hüngsberg, who worked in several films with German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Between the years 1974 and 1991 she was a member the Austrian Communist Party. However, she never adopted the standard aesthetic doctrines of the Socialist Realism.

Like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange (1962), Jelinek took the subject of Die Ausgesperrten (1980, Wonderful, Wonderful Times) from the pointless life of young criminals. The story is set in the late 1950s. In the beginning an attorney is beaten up in a park by four teenagers, the protagonists, not for money, but on principle. "And then: Police! But no one's listening. Anna takes this as a reason to kick him in the balls, since she is against the police on principle, as anarchists always are." Jelinek refers critically to Existentialist philosophy: one of the characters reads Albert Camus's famous novel The Stranger (1942), in which violence, killing a man, becomes a way of escape from meaningless to its amoral hero. Jelinek's female characters are suffering victims, whom she approaches his with an impassioned detachment; her men are malicious, insatiable, and aggressive; there's generally more emotion involved in their portrayal. 

Mental and sexual problems are intertwined in the lives of Jelinek's characters. The themes of sex, sadism, and authoritarianism in modern day Austria were further developed in Die Klavierspielerin (1983, The Piano Teacher), partly autobiographical novel about the love-hate relationship of mother and daughter. In the story Erika Kohut, a piano teacher, lives with her tyrannical Mother (with capital "M") and entangles one of her students, Walter, in her secret, manipulative and self-destructive way of life. Walter rapes her and she returns to her mother, unable to kill Walter or commit suicide. Jelinek has described Erika as "a phallic woman who appropriates the male right to watch, and therefore pays for it with her life." (Stuff Theory: Everyday Objects, Radical Materialism by Maurizia Boscagli, 2014, p. 120)

The film version of the novel, directed by Michael Haneke and starring Isabelle Huppert, won in 2001 three major prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. Lust (1989), in which insatiable sexual hunger of a paper plant director is paralleled with capitalistic greed, provoked accusations of pornographic sadism. Jelinek's argument was, that sexual relationships in class societies are power structures. Jelinek regards fashion as tool of power. In the 1990s, she adopted the "Heidi-look" with braids, red cap, and quasi-folkloristic dress as an ironic statement and for an interview with Stern magazine he had herself photographed tied-up in kinky fashion.

"Ich will kein Theater" (I don't want any theatre), Jelinek said in Ich möchte seicht sein (1983). Her dramas continue the anti-theater tradition created by Bertolt Brecht, which rejects illusions to create distance between the audience and the actors.

Jelinek's strick training toward perfection added to a self-consciousness of the body; her characters are constantly at odds with their physical organs. One of her most controversial plays, Ein Sportstück (1998, Sports Play), dealt with both directly and indirectly Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian bodybuilder, who rose to stardom and political power by transforming his muscles into a spectacle for the public. There is no doubt about Jelinek's "anti-sports" attitude. When a young "wannabe Arnold" destroys his body by overuse of anabolic steroids, his mother, who originally had pushed her son into sport, mourns his death like a character in Euripides' play. The frequently cited opening stage instructions have guided the directors in other plays too: "The author does not give many stage directions, she has learned her lesson by now. Do what you like." As for her own physical appearance, Jelinek has expressed nothing but disdain for it, with the possible exception of "her arms, back, and shoulders," as she has remarked in her brief article 'Mode' (Elfriede Jelinek: Writing Woman, Nation, and Identity, A Critical Anthology, edited by Matthias Piccolruaz Konzett and Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger, 2007, pp. 225-230). 

Totenauberg (1991), which premiered in Vienna, dealt with the legacy of the Nazi era through the famous relationship of Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi party in 1933, and Hannah Arendt, his student, who was of Jewish origin. In her most acclaimed play of the 1990s, Ein Sportstück, Jelinek associated sports with mass movements, war, and death. Der Tod und das Mädchen IV: Jackie (2003, Death and the Maiden IV: Jackie) resuscitated Jacqueline Kennedy from death and presented her as a vampire. Also the play Krankeit oder Moderne Frauen (1987, Illness; or, Modern Women) featured women as the undead.

Like Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), Jelinek has been labelled as the "Nestbeschmutzer" (someone who fouls his own nest). Both Burgtheater (1984), allegedly based on the lives of Paula Wessely and the brothers Attila and Paul Hörbiger, and Erlkönigin (1999), which staged a dead figure, examined the collaboration of the Burgtheater's (the Austrian National Theatre) performers with the National Socialists during the Third Reich. 

Due to her use of a peculiar German dialect, Jelinek's plays have not been easy to translate to other languages.Two of her plays, Bambiland, partly inspired by Aeschylus' The Persians, and the sequel, Babel, have dealt with the Iraq war; in the latter its media reality is associated with porn. Bambiland, first published online on Jelinek's website, was mosaic of pre-existing texts, phrases, and CNN news broadcasts, added with the author's commentary. Its title refers to the Walt Disney's animated film from 1942, which was adapted from the novel Bambi: A Life in the Woods (1923) by the Austrian author Felix Salten.

Jelinek was a fierce opponent of the ultrarightist Jörg Haider (1950-2008) and his Freedom Party (FPÖ), which dominated the political scene of Austria in the early 2000s.  Haider and FPÖ launched the first series of attacks on her already in 1995, using language that recalled the Nazis' campaign against "degenerate art". She forbade performances of her plays in Austria in protest after the party joined the govenrnment. In Jelinek's work, "Heimat" (homeland), becomes often "unheimlich" (uncanny or unhomely). Das Lebewohl (The Farewell) took a look at Haider and his rhetoric, when he was forced to resign: "You want to convice me to stay. Well, I would like to stay, thank you. No, I actually won't stay," says the Haider-speaker in his monologue.

In addition to the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded by the Swedish Academy, Jelinek has received numerous awards, including Heinrich Böll Prize (1986) for her contribution to the German literature, the Büchner Prize (1998), Germany’s most important distinction for letters, and Lessing Prize for Criticism (2004). One of Jelinek's favorite playwrights is Georges Feydeau (1862-1921), whose comedies she has translated into German. Among other authors, she has translated works by Goethe and Botho Strauss. She has also written an opera libretto for Olga Neuwirth's Lost Highway, based on David Lynch's script and film. Curously, Jelinek has paid little attention to the opera – in spite of her education in music. In Rein Gold (2013), her reimagination of Wagner's Das Rheingold, W and B (Wotan and Brünnhilde) deliver their monologues without singing.

Confessing the she suffers from a "social phobia," Jelinek decided not attend the Nobel Prize ceremony: publicity is close to torture to her. She also moved from the house her father bought because its address was too well-known. Jelinek's Nobel lecture, entitled 'Im Abseits' was translated as 'Sidelined'. She delivered her acceptance speech via telecast. A year later Knut Ahnlund resigned from the Swedish Academy due to Jelinek's award, dismissing her work as "whining, unenjoyable public pornography" and "a mass of text shovelled together without artistic stucture." ('Elfriede Jelinek wins the Nobel Prize in Literature' by Jerome de Groot, in Books, edited by Lucy Daniel, 2007, p. 773)

In October 2010, Jelinek's Rechnitz (Der Würgeengel) stirred protests in Düsseldorf, where it was produced. The play was originally a prose essay. Based on 'The Thyssen Art Macabre,' it tells of a party in 1945 at the castle of Margit Batthyány-Thyssen in Rechnitz, during which 180 Jews were shot – all in fun, as if it were target practice. Many in the audience left in the middle of the performance. When the play was staged in Vienna, members of the Hungarian Batthyány family wrote in an open letter, that it "serves sensationalism". "What made this massacre so monstrous," Jelinek said in an interview, "was the linking with the orgiastic." ('Jelinek's 'Rechnitz': The Horror of Silence' by Dardis McNamee, in The Vienna Review, June 01, 2010) Jelinek's play on President Donald Trump, Auf dem Königsweg (2017, On the Royal Road), premiered in Hamburg, and was then performed  throughout Germany. The monologues are performed by Muppets, who have degenerated to the point where they are nearly unrecognizable. One of speakers is Miss Piggy, a blind female seer in the play. "And then there's the text, outraged and funny, mixing Greek tragedy and Shakespeare with political, pop cultural and social media references." ('A Nobel Prize Winner Puts Trump in Her Sights' by A.J. Goldman, The New York Times, April 25, 2019)

For further reading: Political Ideology and Aesthetics in Non-Feminist German Fiction by T.J. Levin (1979); Ich Gedeihe Inmitten Von Seuchen Elfriede Jelinek-Theatertexte by Corina Caduff (1991); Elfriede Jelinek: Framed by Language by Jorun B. Johns, Katherine Arens (1994); Elfriede Jelinek in der Geschlechterpresse: "Die Klavierspielerin" und "Lust" im printmedialen Diskurs by Anja Meyer (1994); Fremde, Vampire: Sexualität, Tod und Kunst bei Elfriede Jelinek und Adolf Muschg by Oliver Claes (1994); Rewriting Reality: An Introduction to Elfriede Jelinek by Allyson Fiddler (1994); Theatre and Performance in Austria: From Mozart to Jelinek by Ritchie Robertson, Edward Timms (1994); Elfriede Jelinek by Marlies Janz (1995); Vom Dialog zur Dialogizität: Die Theaterästhetik von Elfriede Jelinek by Maja Sibylle Pflüger (1996); Darstellung und Manifestation von Weiblichkeit in der Prosa Elfriede Jelineks by Veronika Vis (1998); Dekonstruktion Des Mythos in Ausgewahlten Prosawerken Von Elfriede Jelinek by Monika Szczepaniak (1998); Gewalt von Jugendlichen als Symptom gesellschaftlicher Krisen by Heidi Strobel (1998); The Rhetoric of National Dissent in Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and Elfriede Jelinek by Matthias Konzett (2000); From Perinet to Jelinek: Viennese Theatre in Its Political and Intellectual Context by W. E. Yates, et al (2001); Formal Approaches to Function in Grammar: In Honor of Eloise Jelinek by Andrew Carnie, et al. (2003); Elfriede Jelinek: Writing Woman, Nation, and Identity, A Critical Anthology, edited by Matthias Piccolruaz Konzett and Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger (2007); 'Jelinek, Elfriede' by P.B.M. [Paul B. McCaffrey], in World Authors 2000-2005, edited by Vineta Colby (2007); 'Jelinek, Elfriede' by Karen Bell, in The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, edited by Michael Sollars (2008); Elfriede Jelinek: Werk und Rezeption by Pia Janke; with  Verena Humer, Teresa Kovacs, Christian Schenkermayr (2014); Staging Elfriede Jelinek in Australia: Poetics - Ethics - Politics by André Bastian (2016); Anti-War Theatre after Brecht: Dialectical Aesthetics in the Twenty-First Century by Lara Stevens (2016); Heimat und Horror bei Elfriede Jelinek, ed. by Klaus Kastenberg & Stefan Maurer (2019)

Selected works:

  • Lisas Schatten, 1967 [Lisa's Shadow]
  • wir sind lockvögel, baby, 1970
  • Michael: Ein Jugendbuch für die Infantilgesell-schaft, 1973
  • Die Liebhaberinnen, 1975
    - Women As Lovers (translated by Martin Chalmers, 1994)
  • Die Enden der Parabel / Thomas Pynchon, 1976 (translator)
  • bukolit: hörroman, 1979
  • Ende: gedichte, 1966-1968, 1980
  • Die Ausgesperrten, 1980
    - Wonderful, Wonderful Times (translated by Michael Hulse, 1990)
  • Ich möchte seicht sein, 1983 (play)
  • Die Klavierspielerin, 1983
    - The Piano Teacher (translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1988)
    - Pianonsoittaja (suom. Jukka-Pekka Pajunen, 2005)
    - film 2001, dir. by Michael Haneke, starring Isabelle Huppert, Benoît Magimel, Annie Girardot
  • Herrenjagd Drama / Georges Feydeau, 1983 (translator)
  • Burgtheater, 1984 (play)
  • Clara S, 1984 (play, premiered at Bonn)
  • Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte oder Stützen der Gesellschaft, 1984 (play)
  • Oh Wildnis, oh Schutz vor ihr, 1985
  • Floh im Ohr / Georges Feydeau, 1986 (translator)
  • Der Gockel / Georges Feydeau, 1986 (translator)
  • Krankeit oder Moderne Frauen, 1987 (play, premiered at Bonn in 1987)
  • Die Affaire Rue de Lourcine / Eugène Labiche, 1988 (translator)
  • Lust, 1989
    - Lust (translated by Michael Hulse, 1992)
    - Himo (suom. Jukka-Pekka Pajunen, 2008)
  • Wolken: Heim, 1990 (play, premiered at Bonn in 1998)
  • Die Dame vom Maxim Drama / Georges Feydeau, 1990 (translator)
  • Malina, 1991 (screenplay)
    - film based on Ingeborg Bachman's novel, directed by Werner Schroeter, starring Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Carrière, Can Togay
  • Totenauberg, 1991 (play, premiered in Vienna in 1992)
    - Death / Valley / Summit (translated by Gitta Honegger, in Drama Contemporary: Germany, 1996) 
  • Die Kinder der Toten, 1995
  • Stecken, Stab und Stangl / Raststätte / Wolken. Heim, 1997 (plays)
  • Ein Sportstück, 1998 (play)
    - Sports Play (translated by Penny Black with translation assistance and a foreword by Karen Jürs-Munby, 2012)
  • Er nich als er (zu, mit Robert Walser), 1998 (play, premiered in Hamburg)
  • Macht nichts. Eine kleine Trilogie des Todes, 1999 (plays)
  • Erlkönigin, 1999 (play, in Macht nichts. Eine kleine Trilogie des Todes)
  • Das Lebewohl, 2000 (play)
  • Das Schweigen, 2000 (play, premiered in Hamburg)
  • Gier, 2000
    - Greed (translated by  Martin Chalmers, 2006)
  • Der Jude von Malta Drama / Christopher Marlowe, 2001 (translator)
  • In den Alpen, 2002 (play, premiered in Munich and Zürich )
  • Prinzessinnnendramen: Der Tod und das Mädchen I-III und IV-V, 2002 (play, premiered in Hamburg and Berlin)
  • Das Werk, 2003 (play, premiered in Vienna)
  • Bambiland, 2003 (play, premiered in Vienna)
    - Bambiland (translated by Lilian Friedberg, 2006)
  • Ernst sein ist alles / Oscar Wilde, 2004 (translator)
  • Irm und Margit, 2004 (play, premiered in Zürich)
  • Babel, 2004 (play)
  • Ulrike Maria Stuart (play), 2006
  • Über Tiere, 2006 (play)
  • Neid, 2007 (Internet novel,
  • Rechnitz (Der Würgeengel), 2008 (play; first performed by the Münchner Kammerspiel)
    - Rechnitz: The Exterminating Angel  and The Merchant’s Contracts (translated by Gitta Honegger, 2015)
    -  Tuhon enkeli  (suom. Jukka-Pekka Pajunen, 2015)
  • Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns. Eine Wirtschaftskomödie, 2009 (play) - Rechnitz: The Exterminating Angel  and The Merchant’s Contracts (translated by Gitta Honegger, 2015)
  • Der ideale Mann / Oscar Wilde, 2011 (translator)
  • Winterreise: ein Theaterstück, 2011 (play)
  • Kein Licht, 2011 (play)
  • Die Straße. Die Stadt. Der Überfall, 2012 (play)
  • FaustIn and out, 2012 (play)
  • Rein Gold: ein Bühnenessay, 2013
  • Schatten. Eurydike sagt, 2013 (play)
  • Aber sicher!, 2013 (play)
  • Die Schutzbefohlenen, 2014 (play)
  • Das schweigende Mädchen, 2014 (play)
  • Wut, 2015 (play)
  • Auf dem Königsweg, 2017 (play)
    - On the Royal Road: The Burgher King (translated by Gitta Honegger, 2017) 
  • Die Schutzbefohlenen; Wut; Unseres, 2018
  • Eine Partie Dame, 2018 (herausgegeben von und mit einem Nachwort versehen von Wolfgang Jacobsen)
  • Schwarzwasser; Am Königsweg: zwei Theaterstücke, 2020

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