Hannes Richter

Feather in the Cap or Thorn in the Flesh?

Hannes Richter

by Margareta Ploder

Elfriede Jelinek

On December 10, 2004, the Austrian writer, Elfriede Jelinek, born in 1946, was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature "for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power." The announcement came as a surprise, insofar as Jelinek’s name was not among those dropped in the speculative discussions preceding the Swedish Academy's decision.

However, it was not unexpected. For all the controversies her work has stirred up in Austria, there is no doubt that she has been perceived as one of Europe’s most eminent literary figures long before the Nobel Prize. She is the recipient of many notable literary awards; her plays are performed at leading theatres and festivals, including the Vienna Burgtheater and the Salzburg Festival. She has an audience which is fascinated and inspired by her writing, and her work is a regular subject of academic discourse on contemporary literature.

On the other hand, many misunderstandings persist in the reception of Elfriede Jelinek’s work. In Austria, debates on her criticism of Austrian politics eclipsed discussions about the quality of her texts. She is a public figure that some groups love to hate, in particular, journalists of tabloid or conservative newspapers or people that prefer a traditional cultural mainstream.

Much unfair criticism is directed not at her work but at her person. One political party even went so far as to name her pejoratively on election campaign posters. But also abroad she is often simplistically labeled as a "writer of sex, violence and politics," to quote the headline of an article in the New York Times on October 8, 2004, the day after the public announcement of her selection as Nobel Laureate.

Of course, all three topics are central in her work, but alleged pornography or "Austria-bashing" alone would not have earned her the acclaim of the literary world.

Jelinek uses extremes to exemplify, to drastically make us aware of how oppression, violence, fascism and cruelty work and to unmask their mechanisms. Her technique has once been characterized as one in which she "entstellt ihr Material zur Kennt-
lichkeit," which can be translated as "she distorts her material until it becomes recognizable."

She uses exaggeration, shocking images and the breaking of taboos for the sake of enlightenment, to awake us from passivity and indifference, to make us attentive to what she has to say. It is a frequent mistake to take just the one or the other shocking scene or provocative statement and present it - often in a pejorative way - as the essence of Jelinek's oeuvre. Her messages are more complex, more serious, and the compelling truth that she reveals is often more shocking than its formal presentation.

Elfriede Jelinek has been called a penetrating analyst and diagnostician, a dissector of authoritarian structures in its various disguises, and her instrument, her scalpel, is her language. There are few writers that equal her powerful, piercing, unmasking, and yet musical language. She is a composer with words and syntax, and her compositions have a clear purpose: To uncover what is behind linguistic phrases, to reveal a higher truth. So she unmasks fascist ideology in the idiom of patriotism or sports as well as manipulation in the jargon of consumerism and the entertainment industry, and oppression and violence in the language men use vis-à-vis women.

Austria often serves as a metaphor, one she knows well, for criticizing wrongs such as prejudices, hypocrisy, discrimination and nationalism that exist in any country and in any society. However, it is often overlooked that Jelinek is also a very humorous author. She has a knack for expressing sad facts in a funny way. In that sense, as well as in her social criticism and her critical relationship to language, she is a great writer in the Austrian tradition of Johann Nestroy, Karl Kraus, Ödon von Horváth, Elias Canetti, Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard.

After being awarded the Nobel Prize, Elfriede Jelinek was keenly aware of the risk of being exploited, to say it in her own words, as a "Blume im Knopfloch Österreichs," what could be translated as "a feather in Austria’s cap." Many praise her now publicly as a great Austrian, and some of them are the same that had accused her previously of defaming Austria. However, the soaring national and international recognition of Elfriede Jelinek will hopefully contribute to raising awareness of how important it is for our societies to listen to voices of bold, critical dissent: vital thorns in our flesh that spur our moral conscience.

When Elfriede Jelinek received the Heinrich Böll Prize of the City of Cologne in 1986, she stated in her acceptance speech with critical reference to Austria: "Heinrich Böll would have said a lot here, but
no one would have approved until after he had received the Nobel Prize." Now Elfriede Jelinek has
received the Nobel Prize. It’s time for approval.

The English translation of a number of essays as well as of the play Bambiland can be accessed at Elfriede Jelinek's homepage: http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/elfriede
Elfriede Jelinek’s Nobel lecture:

List of Elfriede Jelinek’s works translated into English

-The Piano Teacher (Die Klavierspielerin), novel translated by Joachim Neugroschel, New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1988.
-Wonderful Wonderful Times (Die Ausgesperrten), novel translated by Michael Hulse, London: Serpent's Tail, 1990.
-Lust, novel translated by Michael Hulse, London: Serpent’s Tail, 1992.
-Women as Lovers (Die Liebhaberinnen), novel translated by Martin Chalmers, London: Serpent's Tail, 1994.
-Death/Valley/Summit (Totenauberg) play translated by G. Honegger (1995), In: Drama Contemporary Germany, New York 1996.
-President Evening Breeze (Häuptling Abendwind), play translated by Helga Schreckenberger and Jacqueline Vansant, In: "New Anthology of Contemporary Austrian Folk Plays," Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 1996.
-Clara S., play translated by Ken Moulden, In: "Women's Words, Women's Works: An Anthology of Contemporary Austrian Plays by Women," Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 2001.
-What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband or Pillars of Society (Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte oder Stützen der Gesellschaft), play translated by Tinch Minter, In: Plays by Women, London: Methuen Drama 1994.

Margareta Ploder is Director of the Austrian Cultural Forum at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C.