Elfriede Jelinek (born 20 October 1946) is an Austrian feminist playwright and novelist. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004 "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."
Jelinek was born in Mürzzuschlag, Styria, Austria. Her father, of Czech origin ("Jelinek" means "little deer" in Czech), was a chemist and worked in strategically important industrial production during the Second World War, thereby escaping persecution. However, several dozen family members became victims of the Holocaust. Her "dominating" mother, with whom she shared the household even as an adult (compare The Piano Teacher) and with whom she had a difficult relationship, was from a formerly prosperous Vienna family. As a child, Elfriede suffered much from what she considered over-restrictive education in a Roman Catholic convent school. Besides, her mother planned her career as a musical Wunderkind. At an early age, Elfriede was instructed in piano, organ, guitar, violin, viola and recorder. Later, she went on to study at the Vienna Conservatory, where she graduated with an organist diploma. Jelinek also studied art history and drama at the University of Vienna, however she had to discontinue because of an anxiety disorder that prevented her from following courses. Jelinek's biography reflects strongly in her opus.
Critics and politics
Her work—largely unknown outside the German-speaking world, before the Nobel Prize announcement—bears only a cursory semblance to that of acclaimed Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard: the pathology of destruction and its concomitant comedian abrogation. Nevertheless Jelinek's writing is deeply rooted in the tradition of Austrian literature . At its best it combines Robert Musil's sadness and Franz Kafka's sense of humor.
Jelinek's political philosophy, in particular her stance regarding feminism and her views regarding Austria's political parties, is of vital importance in assessing her work. It is also part of the reason for the vitriolic public controversy surrounding her. Jelinek was a member of Austria's Communist Party from 1974 to 1991, a fringe movement frequently accused of unreconstructed Stalinism by Austrian public intellectuals, even professedly left-leaning ones. She became a household name during the 1990s due to her vociferous clash with Jörg Haider's Freedom Party. Following the 1999 National Council elections and the subsequent formation of a coalition cabinet consisting of the Freedom Party and the Austrian People's Party, Jelinek became one of the new cabinet's most vocal critics. Citing the Freedom Party's alleged nationalism and authoritarianism, many European and overseas administrations swiftly decided openly to ostracize Austria's administration. The cabinet tried to construe the sanctions imposed against it as sanctions against Austria as such and attempted to prod the nation into a national rallying (Nationaler Schulterschluss) behind the coalition parties. Jointly, these courses of events provoked a temporary heating of the political climate severe enough for dissidents such as Jelinek to be accused of treachery by coalition supporters.
Partly purposeful political writing, partly self-therapy, her work is many-faceted and highly controversial. Her prose and plays are acclaimed by some and crushed by other leading German critics. Likewise, her political activism, hardiness, consistency and persistence in following her convictions on and off the stage, evoke highly divergent reactions - either positive or negative, depending on one's personal views. Despite the fact that some who do not share her views devaluate her work rather than merely objecting to her opinion, Jelinek has won many distinguished prizes, among those the Georg Büchner Prize (1998), the Müllheim Dramatists Prize (twice: 2002 and 2004), the Franz Kafka Prize (2004) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (2004, see below).
Prevalent topics in her prose and dramatic work are female sexuality , its abuse and the war of the sexes in general. Texts like Wir sind Lockvögel, Baby! (we are decoy, baby), Die Liebhaberinnen (Lovers) or Die Klavierspielerin (The Piano Teacher) illustrate her point nicely and shock the reader with the unemotional description of brutality and power play in human relations. According to Jelinek, power and aggression are often driving forces of relationships. Her provocative novel Lust is a description of sexuality, aggression and abuse with pornographic qualities. It received little acclaim by many critics, but was considered misunderstood and undervalued by others. Rather than the plot itself, the cold description of moral failures was perceived as haunting. Readers who wish to indulge in female "lust" will certainly fail to meet their expectations, as Jelinek rather aims at the contrary.
In her later work, Jelinek has somewhat abandoned female issues to focus her energy on social criticism in general and Austria's difficulties to owing up to its Nazi past in particular e.g. in Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead).
Her plays often involve an emphasis on choreography like Sportstück which explores the issue of violence and fascism in sports. From what has been pointed out above, it is not astonishing that her plays are considered taciturn, yet lavish productions by some people, and a celebrated new form of theater by others.
Jelinek's novel Die Klavierspielerin was turned into The Piano Teacher, an acclaimed movie by Austrian director Michael Haneke, with Isabelle Huppert playing the repressed pianist.
The Nobel Prize
Commenting on the Nobel Prize, she said that she was very happy but also felt despair: "despair for becoming a known, a person of the public". Paradigmatic for her modesty and subtle self-irony, she — a reputed feminist writer — wondered if she had been awarded the prize mainly for "being a woman" and suggested that among German authors, Peter Handke whom she praises as a "living classic" would have been a more worthy winner.
Jelinek was criticized by some for not accepting the prize in person, instead a video message was presented at the ceremony. Others appreciated that Jelinek openly disclosed that she suffers from agoraphobia and social phobia, anxiety disorders which can be highly disruptive to everyday functioning yet are often concealed by those affected out of shame or feeling of inadequacy. Jelinek has said that her anxiety disorders make it impossible for her even e.g. to go to the cinema or to board an airplane (in an interview she wished to be able to fly to New York to see the skyscrapers one day before dying), and she felt incapable of taking part in any ceremony. However, in her own words as stated in another tape message: "I would also very much like to be in Stockholm, but I cannot move as fast and far as my language."
- bukolit. hörroman; Wien 1979
- wir sind lockvögel baby!; Reinbek 1970
- Michael. Ein Jugendbuch für die Infantilgesellschaft; Reinbek 1972
- Die Liebhaberinnen ; Reinbek 1975
- Die Ausgesperrten ; Reinbek 1980
- Die Klavierspielerin ; Reinbek 1983
- Oh Wildnis, oh Schutz vor ihr ; Reinbek 1985
- Lust; Reinbek 1989
- Die Kinder der Toten ; Reinbek 1997
- Gier ; Reinbek 2000
- Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte; 1977
- Clara S.; 1981
- Burgtheater; 1983
- Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen; 1984
- Präsident Abendwind; 1987
- Wolken.Heim; 1988
- Totenauberg; 1991
- Raststätte; 1994
- Stecken, Stab und Stangl; 1996
- Ein Sportstück; 1998
- er nicht als er; 1998
- In den Alpen
- Das Werk
- Bambiland; 2003
- Lost Highway, adapted from the film by David Lynch; music by Olga Neuwirth; 2003