October 20, 2017
Happy birthday, Elfriede Jelinek!
by Melville House
Happy seventy-first birthday to Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek!
Best known for her novels and plays, she’s also written essays, screenplays, and poems, all of them marked by stark intelligence, far left politics, and a special concern with the interrelations of gender, power, and violence. She can be sardonic, bleakly comedic, intensely brutal. Her many books include The Piano Teacher (which Michael Haneke adapted into an acclaimed movie), Lust, Greed, and Wonderful, Wonderful Times. Only a small portion of her huge output has been published in English translation.
Jelinek won the Georg Büchner Prize in 1998, and then in 2004 the Franz Kafka Prize and the Nobel Prize, the citation praising her “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.” Metal.
But even more metal is Jelinek’s Nobel Lecture, which she delivered by video. It’s called “Sidelined.” This is how it starts:
Is writing the gift of curling up, of curling up with reality? One would so love to curl up, of course, but what happens to me then? What happens to those, who don’t really know reality at all? It’s so very disheveled. No comb, that could smooth it down. The writers run through it and despairingly gather together their hair into a style, which promptly haunts them at night. Something’s wrong with the way one looks. The beautifully piled up hair can be chased out of its home of dreams again, but can anyway no longer be tamed. Or hangs limp once more, a veil before a face, no sooner than it could finally be subdued. Or stands involuntarily on end in horror at what is constantly happening. It simply won’t be tidied up. It doesn’t want to.
What follows is forty minutes of nuanced, idiosyncratic deliberation, in intensely clear, intensely personal prose. At one, she says:
What are you shouting and grumbling about over there? Are you doing it, language, so that I graciously take you in you again? I thought, you didn’t want to come back to me at all! There was no sign, that you wanted to come back to me, it would have been pointless anyway, I wouldn’t have understood the sign. You only became language to get away from me and to ensure that I got on? But nothing is ensured. And by you not at all, as well as I know you. I don’t even recognise you again.
Jelinek was an especially controversial winner — just before the next year’s winner was announced, author Knut Ahnlund resigned from the Swedish Academy in protest of Jelinek’s having received the award, calling her work “whingeing, unenjoyable, violent pornography.” Other academy members were swift to defend her, and permanent secretary Horace Engdahl clarified that Ahnlund, then eighty-two, had not been an active, voting academy participant in more than a decade.
More than maybe any Austrian writer of her generation, Jelinek has been committed to confronting and exposing her country’s Nazi past, and to fighting—while interrogating—the subjugation of women. She is avowedly anti-capitalist and unmistakably anti-fascist. When the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, under the leadership of regurga-fascist Jörg Haider, formed a coalition with the also-pretty-far-right Austrian People’s Party, who have been back in the news again this week, Jelinek became one of their fiercest critics.
She also translated Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow into German, has stood up for other writers when they’ve come under fire, and is kiiind of a monster piano player.
We’re wishing Elfriede Jelinek a very happy seventy-first birthday. For everyone who isn’t Elfriede Jelinek, may we recommend watching her truly searing Nobel lecture, delivered in German and with English subtitles by Martin Chalmers?
Seriously. Get a cup of coffee, hit play, and be glad you walked the same earth as Elfriede Jelinek. (Also, Jelinek’s house is awesome, because of course it is.)