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Melody of resistance

`On the one hand it's an honour and I'm happy, but on the other hand, I fear that my calm life is at risk,' said Elfriede Jelinek on her being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. A profile by SHELLEY WALIA.


Elfriede Jelinek has shown an extraordinary linguistic zeal that reveals the absurdity of society's cliches.

MANY women writers are obviously naive in their passions and sloppy in their scholarship. My own view is that this simulated position of critical superiority is one of the reasons that the women's movement has no clear agenda before it; and more often than not, writers personalise the issues, with no concrete outcome from any debate. I cast my doubts on their sincerity and I believe they are doing more harm than good to the cause of women. There are many who "never finished" reading The Second Sex, a text that is according to Toril Moi "rapidly genuflected to in prefaces and introductions; and then when it is engaged with, the text is usually read from a stance of critical impatience and superiority."

Use of the personal

The personal, the political and the philosophical are central to Jelinek but not that it must always turn out to be a sheer autobiographical account. Like Beauvoir she uses the personal, but only as an anecdotal method to illustrate the larger issues concerning women, not merely as a pressing need to talk incessantly about oneself. To illustrate an argument through one's experience is to only move towards an explication. One can use oneself as a philosophical case study to strike a robust dialogue with the reader through common experiences and language. Her novels and plays create a personal and a comprehending voice which sets up a vigorous debate and a response to the requirements of a positive development in issues pertaining to the problems of women. Very early in life she joined the student movement spurring her writing towards a deeply critical course. Jelinek demonstrates how the entertainment industry's clichés trickle into people's consciousness and paralyse resistance to class injustices and gender oppression.

At a young age, Elfriede Jelinek, the controversial Austrian writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2004, was instructed in piano, organ and recorder and went on to study composition at the Vienna Conservatory which finally resulted in her semi-autobiographical novel The Piano Teacher, made into a movie in 2001. The novel offers a release for daughters who are oppressed by their mothers, a rebellion towards all authority. It is also a vehement attack on all the trappings of a bourgeois society including its education system. Her severe and extensive schooling as a musician is evident throughout her work: "as theoretical debate in essays, as literary project in librettos, as a principle of linguistic composition, and as thematic or intertextual reference, e.g. to the texts of Franz Schubert's songs which are of deep interest to her." Serpent's Tail, the publishers in London, are also responsible for bringing out Women as Lovers in 1975 and Wonderful, Wonderful Times in 1980 and giving a fillip to her huge readership and tall acclaim in the west.

Accent on subjectivity


What is remarkably significant with her interest is the accent on subjectivity as opposed to the concept of identity. This saves her from the general metaphysical mischief as her approach is to present an analysis of specific subjects. In the play "Bambiland", she offers a contemptuous assault on the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The play "Das Werk" is concerned with the human craze for technological advancement. In her novel Wonderful, Wonderful Times, an Austrian officer browbeats his wife into posing for pornographic pictures. Often using obscene, offensive and profane language she succeeds in shocking the reader out of the middle-class complacency that numbs the senses of the public. The Piano Teacher has been called a blend of "Schubert, self-mutilation and porn". This arises out of the motivations of her interest in the subject as the subject of praxis — as the subject of acts, including speech acts which has a literary and political reason often missed out by her detractors. The linguistic rebellion is inherently used as an antagonistic literary tool towards popular culture and the entertainment industry and its misleading lifestyle of comfort and complacency. It is the polemical world of violence and submission, of the victim and the predator that her novels are made up of. Her anger becomes the politics of rejection of a pitiless world where the media and the state conspire to kill any opposition to its agenda. The public consciousness so complacently accepts the violence against women, which is the subject of her novel Lust. Maltreatment and aggression, class injustice, gender oppression through pornographic details disturb the far-right in her country, but she feels that a bitter description of all this is so indispensable in demonstrating the moral failure of our social system. And in a Bakhtinian mode, she uses, in her more recent writings, polyphonic voices intermingling as an interface that brings out various jostling ideologies from various levels of psyche and history. A pastiche of filmic scenes and theatrical devices conspire to give her writings no definite category except a significant nudge towards the polemical. Only fuming sentences, trite jokes, and crypto-citations; only abhorrence of the hideous and derision for the oppressors in society make her prose dramatic and dissident, though often bordering on the profane. The form so dexterously becomes the content in Elfriede Jelinek's hands.

Estrangement and esteem

Elfriede Jelinek appears sanguine on taking a politically confrontational view of women's writings only if they are to recognise the politics of their own theories so as to become politically effective. Her detached depiction of female sexuality, its abuse and the power play in human relations, and forthright political views expressing her anti-conservative stance, have estranged many of her countrymen but have also won her esteem as a daring feminist writer who makes a robust use of language.

Jelinek joined Austria's Communist Party from 1974 to 1991 and at the same time kept herself busy with criticism in her novels and plays which blatantly represent aggression against women, investigate sexuality and denounce Tory politics in Europe. The politics of literature and the subterranean ideologies that lie under the texts have been largely her concern taken up with extreme moral rectitude and earnestness. In all these areas, Jelinek has rehearsed, rethought and extended her distinguished contributions to feminist writings and analysis over the past two decades. Jelinek has over the years acquired a powerful reputation for her incisive and often controversial interventions into contemporary feminist assumptions as well as a number of other political and social issues concerning the world at large.

* * *

  • Born on October 20, 1946, Elfriede Jelinek is a gifted musician and studied piano and composition at the Vienna Conservatory before turning to languages, theatre studies and history of art.

  • Jelinek began writing poetry while still young. She made her literary debut with the collection Lisas Schatten in 1967 (Lisa's Shadow). Through contact with the student movement, her writing took a socially critical direction.

  • Among her novels are Die Liebhaberinnen, 1975 (Women as Lovers, 1990); Die Ausgesperrten, 1980 (Wonderful, Wonderful Times, 1994); Die Klavierspielerin, 1983 (The Piano Teacher, 1988); Lust, 1989 (Lust); Die Kinder der Toten, 1995 (Children of the Dead). Her novels have been translated into 18 languages.

  • Prominent themes in her work are female sexuality, its abuse and the war of the sexes in general. Novels such as wir sind Lockvoegel, Baby (We are Decoys, Baby), Die Liebhaberinnen or Die Klavierspielerin shock the readers with unemotional descriptions of brutality and power play.

    Jelinek's novel Die Klavierspielerin was turned into an acclaimed movie by Austrian director Michael Haneke with French actress Isabelle Huppert playing the repressed pianist.

  • In Lust, Jelinek's social analysis swells into a fundamental criticism of civilisation by describing sexual violence against women as the template for our culture.

  • Jelinek is a highly controversial figure in her homeland. Her writing builds on a lengthy Austrian tradition of linguistically sophisticated social criticism, with precursors such as Johann Nepomuk Nestroy, Karl Kraus, Oedoen von Horvath, Elias Canetti, Thomas Bernhard and the Wiener Group.

  • She has received many prizes, including the Georg Buechner Prize in 1998, and recently became the fourth person and the first woman to receive the Franz Kafka Award.


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