The reluctant voice of Vienna

In a rare interview, Elfriede Jelinek reveals how an agoraphobic novelist copes when she wins the most coveted international literary award.

greed book 88 298 (photo credit: )
greed book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Greed: A novel By Elfriede Jelinek Serpent's Tail 352 pages When the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004, she responded - true to her dim view of humanity - with gloom. After hearing that she was nominated, Jelinek later told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper that she desperately hoped the Swedish Academy would prefer fellow Austrian novelist Peter Handke. "I prayed that he wouldn't die or get sick," she said. There was no question in Jelinek's mind that she was chosen over Handke because she was a woman. Today, Jelinek recoils from those remarks. In a rare e-mail interview, on the eve of the English-language publication of Greed, published in German in 2000, the agoraphobic novelist explains that she merely feared the fishbowl of a laureate's life. "Of course, I'm very happy and proud to have received it," she says. "My problem is that, because of my anxiety disorder, publicity is close to torture." Her phobia barred her from attending the ceremony; Jelinek delivered her acceptance speech by telecast. A renegade anti-patriot in her homeland, Jelinek came to international attention in 2001, through Michael Haneke's screen version of her 1983 novel, The Piano Teacher. Her novels and plays attack the fascism latent within Austria's proud celebrations of high culture, natural beauty and folk traditions. "Cruelty, the lack of consideration of the strong for the weak, and the master-servant relationship, in the Hegelian sense; these are my themes," she says. Reviled by the Right, Jelinek polarizes the Left. She specializes in satirical critiques of patriarchy, yet her masochistic heroines are the opposite of feminist role models. She was a member of the Austrian Communist party from 1974 to 1991, but her sarcastic portrayals of the working class are far from empathetic. Despite her trenchant criticism of the objectification of women, she is a legendary style-queen who loves Yves Saint Laurent. Jelinek's shrill anti-capitalism and feminism means that her novels are often dismissed as sermons. In 2004 The Weekly Standard accused the Swedish Academy of "destroying literary standards" by selecting an "unknown, undistinguished, leftist fanatic" whose works "verge on gross pornography." The New Criterion pronounced the Nobel committee a "laughing stock" for lavishing prestige on Jelinek's "shameless wallowing in cliches." The Nobel citation put it differently, applauding her "musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's cliches and their subjugating power." Jelinek's experimental prose plays with everyday scenes from popular culture, lampooning the electronic media, fashion magazines, pulp fiction, pornography, political slogans, press releases and tourist brochures. "For me, reality appears more clearly in cliches than in the most subtle psychological description," she says. "The balance of power in society is wrapped up in them." Greed follows a sadistic country policeman, Kurt Janisch, who treats sex as an instrument for accumulating property. Janisch embarks on an extra-marital affair with the middle-aged narrator, Gerti, and forces her to surrender her villa as a trade-off for his affections. Gerti's plight parodies the popular view of romance. As Jelinek writes in Greed: "Love doesn't pull down barriers, as is often said, it builds them up, so that behind them people learn to wait and are not always pointlessly kicking the iron bannisters." Jelinek's characters are agents of ideology, more caricatures than personalities. Thus Gabi, the 16-year-old minx who fatally falls prey to Janisch's charm, is described as: "Golden haired. Good as gold to get used to the inevitable, that is: gold makes the world go around." As Jelinek explains, "The characters are marionettes of their social conditions... for me, the psychology of a character is deduced retrospectively - that is, from their involvement in the plot, not the other way around." Her novels evoke a hyperreality, where authentic experience is eclipsed by the recycled images of the mass media. In Greed, Jelinek observes: "Nature doesn't exist anymore, so why should it suddenly come back?" She mimics and undermines tourist industry commonplaces: "Come right in, you cute comparison of mountain lake with diamond set among the mountains, how well I know you, just lie down there! No, but not on my toes!" Jelinek says: "I cannot view the landscape from a naive perspective, as though nobody has ever seen it like I have before." Greed inverts the storybook picture of an alpine paradise. Ecologists are ridiculed as "jolly comedians." "The beauty of Austria - under which the corpses of the Nazi period are buried - has covered up much of its history," says Jelinek. Her 1980 novel, Wonderful, Wonderful Times, traces the transmission of Nazism to the children of perpetrators, as four disaffected adolescents commit random violent acts in the late 1950s. "In post-war Germany, the crimes were worked through, letter by letter," says Jelinek. "But in Austria, because we wanted to be viewed positively by the Allies, we needed to deny our complicity with the Nazis and portray ourselves as 'little innocents.' One mustn't forget that Hitler learnt his anti-Semitism from trashy magazines in Austria and was exported to Germany as a complete political mind. Anti-Semitism was once our great export, so to speak." Jelinek's critique of Austria's historical blindness makes her the bete noire of conservative pundits. When The Piano Teacher was first published, Die Welt likened her writing to spit, thundering: "She hates music, she hates Vienna, she hates people. And above all, she hates herself." The Piano Teacher remains her most powerful work because Jelinek reins in her avant-garde excesses and allows her characters a measure of psychological realism. The novel autobiographically explores the disturbed sexuality of Erika, a 36-year-old pianist, who has lived alone with her cruelly authoritarian mother since her father was interned in a mental asylum when she was a child. Also an only child, Jelinek was born in 1946, when her mother was 43. Her father was a Jew who saved himself by working for the Nazis as a chemist. He went mad while she was still at school, dying in an asylum in 1969. "He was certainly not made to be a father to a small child," says Jelinek. Her mother was a paranoid psychotic, who forbade her daughter from leaving the house to play or have friends. She imposed a strenuous daily program of piano practice, composition and ballet lessons, convinced that her daughter was a genius. Any form of pleasure was prohibited. "My mother wasn't just neurotic, she was extremely neurotic - a terrorist of normality," says Jelinek. "I have had the strange fate of having two crazy parents, but seeing as the whole world is crazy, maybe this is normal! People are, without exception, neurotic. I cannot cope with people and therefore avoid them. This is certainly a result of my extremely unhappy childhood." Jelinek turned to writing aged 18, after she suffered a mental breakdown that derailed her university studies in art history and theater. After a year recuperating at home, she earned a diploma as an organist from the Vienna Conservatory, and fell in with the "Vienna Group" of surrealist poets. "I then pursued these techniques into the realm of realism and tried to combine them," she says. "I work with phonetics - with the sounds of language. I would not have followed this method without my music background. The disadvantage of this is that it is difficult to translate my work." At 28, she married film composer Gottfried Hungsberg, who collaborated with the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Jelinek and her husband maintained a long-distance marriage: she visited him in Munich, while continuing to live with her mother in Vienna most of the time. The arrangement remained until her mother's death in 2000, aged 96. Nowadays Jelinek splits her time between both cities. "My mother was completely mad, though not demented - she was very intelligent until her end," she says. "Of course, I had to stay. I couldn't leave her in this state. It was mere blank horror. Still today, unfortunately, I feel culpable. I am happy every day that she is finally dead, otherwise I surely would be." Jelinek's treatment of her characters is so pitiless that it might seem to mimic the tyranny of her mother. Yet Jelinek insists she is not parodying the suffering of her characters, but rather the ideologies that reduce them to playthings: "I see myself as a kind of scientist, who looks in the Petri dish of society without enthusiasm and without anger. You can always see more if you look at the bigger picture, despite a seeming lack of sympathy, than if you just look at things up close. But if you read between the lines, you can see much enthusiasm, anger and confusion." Jelinek is drawn to write about murder because, through violent death, "the brutality of society hisses out in a surge, as though it were the vent of a pressure-cooker." She attributes the superiority of female crime writers - Dorothy L. Sayers, Ruth Rendell and P.D. James - to their subordinate status: "The underdog, which in a patriarchal society is the woman, must study power in order to overcome it, as the slaves did in Rome. This is why women write such good crime novels; they know the mechanisms of power." Greed is billed as a thriller, despite its bare-bones plot and absence of tension. The murderous Janisch resembles the far-right politician Jorg Haider - also a passionate alpine sportsman - who has posed bare-chested in publicity shots, in chilling deference to Aryan body culture. During the 1999 National Council elections, Haider launched a poster campaign against "degenerate" artists, with billboards posing the question: "Do you want Jelinek or do you want Art?" From 2000 to 2002, when Haider's Freedom party was a partner in the governing coalition, Jelinek protested the country's far-right lurch by prohibiting the performance of her plays in state theaters. But surely Austria's right-wing elements would have welcomed the boycott? "It was certainly the wrong decision, but hindsight is a wonderful thing," she says. "When the atrocity of the formation of the government occurred, I tried despairingly to do something. Of all countries, it was Austria which was the first to reinstall an extreme right-wing government post-war." Jelinek had supported the Communist party, as a counterweight to Austria's right-wing consensus. "In genuine socialist countries, I would certainly have been a member of the opposition. Unfortunately, I never really believed in the history-making power of the working class." Jelinek is considering publishing only in German on her Web site in the future, to protect herself from attacks. She was wounded by the Austrian reception to Greed. "I just don't understand why so much hate is brought against me," she says. "I don't mean negative reviews, which are of course acceptable, but contemptuous and hate-filled writings, which have destroyed me personally." Winning the Nobel prize may not have made her less vulnerable, but she is certain that it has diminished her sexual status. "A man can increase his erotic value through success, regardless of whether he is 30 or 80," she says. "A woman is erotically devalued by achievement, because she becomes intimidating. She is forever chained to her biological being."