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Elfriede Jelinek (b. 1946)


Austrian novelist, poet and playwright, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 2004. Elfriede Jelinek's most famous novels include Wonderful, Wonderful Times (1980), The Piano Teacher (1983), and Lust (1989). Due to her themes of dominance and submission she has often been regarded essentially as a feminist writer, although in Jelinek's work women's subordination basically illuminate the relations of power, control, and manipulation in class societies.

"Erika is such a live wire, such a mercurial thing. Why, she may be running around at this very moment, up to no good. Yet every day, the daughter punctually shows up where she belongs: at home. Mother worries a lot, for the first thing a a proprietor learns, and painfully at that, is: Trust is fine, but control is better." (from The Piano Teacher)

Elfriede Jelinek was born in the alpine resort of Mürzzuschlag, but she grew up in Vienna. Jelinek's father, Friedrich Jelinek, a chemist, was of Czech-Jewish origin. He died in 1969 in a mental hospital. Jelinek's mother, Olga was from a well to do Catholic family; she died in 2000. Jenikek was the only child of her parents, who relatively old when he was born, her father being 46 and her mother being 42.

From 1960 Jelinek studied piano and organ at the famous Music Conservatory. After graduating from high school, she studied theatre and art history for a few months at the university. Jelinek collapsed mentally, and left her studies. The strick training toward perfection added to a self-consciousness of the body; her characters are constantly at odds with their physical organs. Jelinek's play Ein Sportstück (1998, Sports Play) dealt with both directly and indirectly Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian bodybuilder, who rose to stardom and political power by transforming his muscles into a spectacle for the public. The play tells the story of a young "wannabe Arnold," whose body is destroyed by overuse of anabolic steroids. As for her own physical appearance, Jelinek has expressed nothing but disdain for it, with the possible exception of "her arms, back, and shoulders," as she has remarked in her brief article 'Mode' (Elfriede Jelinek: Writing Woman, Nation, and Identity, A Critical Anthology, edited by Matthias Piccolruaz Konzett and Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger, 2007, pp. 225-230).  

In 1967 Jelinek devoted herself entirely to writing. Her first book, Lisas Schatten (1967, Lisa's  Shadow), was a collection of poems. Jelinek's early works were written under the influence of Dadaism, Expressionism and the so-called Vienna group, established by the writer H. C. Artmann. In 1974 Jelinek married Gottfried Hüngsberg, who worked in several films with German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Between the years 1974 and 1991 she was a member the Austrian Communist Party. However, she never adopted the standard aesthetic doctrines of the Socialist Realism.

Like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange (1962), Jelinek took the subject of Die Ausgesperrten (1980, Wonderful, Wonderful Times) from the pointless life of young criminals. The story is set in the late 1950s. In the beginning an attorney is beaten up in a park by four teenagers, the protagonists, not for money, but on principle. "And then: Police! But no one's listening. Anna takes this as a reason to kick him in the balls, since she is against the police on principle, as anarchists always are." Jelinek refers critically to Existentialist philosophy: one of the characters reads Albert Camus's famous novel The Stranger (1942), in which violence, killing a man, becomes a way of escape from meaningless to its amoral hero. Jelinek's female characters are suffering victims; her men are malicious, insatiable, and aggressive. 

Mental and sexual problems are intertwined in the lives of Jelinek's characters. The themes of sex, sadism, and authoritarianism in modern day Austria were further developed in Die Klavierspielerin (1983, The Piano Teacher), partly autobiographical novel about the love-hate relationship of mother and daughter. In the story Erika Kohut, a piano teacher, lives with her tyrannical Mother (with capital "M") and entangles one of her students, Walter, in her secret, manipulative and self-destructive way of life. Walter rapes her and she returns to her mother, unable to kill Walter or commit suicide. Jelinek has described Erika as "a phallic woman who appropriates the male right to watch, and therefore pays for it with her life."

The film version of the novel, directed by Michael Haneke and starring Isabelle Huppert, won in 2001 three major prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. Lust (1989), in which insatiable sexual hunger of a paper plant director is paralleled with capitalistic greed, provoked accusations of pornographic sadism. Jelinek's argument was, that sexual relationships in class societies are power structures. Jelinek regards fashion as tool of power. In the 1990s, she adopted the "Heidi-look" with braids, red cap, and quasi-folkloristic dress as an ironic statement and for an interview with Stern magazine he had herself photographed tied-up in kinky fashion.

Jelinek's dramas continue the anti-theater tradition created by Bertolt Brecht, which rejects illusions to create distance between the audience and the actors. "Ich will kein Theater," Jelinek once said. Totenauberg (1991), which premiered in Vienna, dealt with the legacy of the Nazi era through the famous relationship of Martin Heidegger, who joined the Nazi party in 1933, and Hannah Arendt, his student, who was of Jewish origin. In her most acclaimed play of the 1990s, Ein Sportstück, Jelinek associated sports with mass movements, war, and death. Der Tod und das Mädchen IV: Jackie (2003, Death and the Maiden IV: Jackie) resuscitated Jacqueline Kennedy from death and presented her as a vampire. Also the play Krankeit oder Moderne Frauen (1987, Illness; or, Modern Women) featured women as the undead.

Like Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), Jelinek has been labelled as the "Nestbeschmutzer" (someone who fouls his own nest). Both Burgtheater (1984), allegedly based on the lives of Paula Wessely and the brothers Attila and Paul Hörbiger, and Erlkönigin (1999), which staged a dead figure, examined the collaboration of the Burgtheater's (the Austrian National Theatre) performers with the National Socialists during the Third Reich. 

Jelinek has also written an opera libretto for Olga Neuwirth's Lost Highway, based on David Lynch's script and film. Two of her plays, Bambiland, partly inspired by Aeschylus' The Persians, and the sequel, Babel, have dealt with the Iraq war; in the latter its media reality is associated with porn. One of Jelinek's favorite playwrights is Georges Feydeau (1862-1921), whose comedies she has translated into German.

Jelinek was a fierce opponent of the ultrarightist Jörg Haider (1950-2008) and his Freedom Party, which dominated the political scene of Austria in the early 2000s. She forbade performances of her plays in Austria in protest after the party joined the govenrnment. In Jelinek's work, 'Heimat' (homeland), becomes often 'unheimlich' (uncanny' or unhomely). Das Lebewohl (The Farewell) attacked Haider and his rhetoric, when he was forced to resign: "You want to convice me to stay. Well, I would like to stay, thank you. No, I actually won't stay," says the Haider-speaker in his monologue.

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Jelinek had received numerous awards, including Heinrich Böll Prize (1986) for her contribution to the German literature, the Büchner Prize (1998), Germany’s most important distinction for letters, and Lessing Prize for Criticism (2004). Jelinek has also translated works by Goethe and Botho Strauss. Confessing the she suffers from a "social phobia", Jelinek decided not attend the Nobel Prize ceremony. She also moved from the house her father bought because its address was too well-known. Jelinek's Nobel lecture, entitled 'Im Abseits' was translated as 'Sidelined'.

In October 2010, Jelinek's Rechnitz (Der Würgeengel) stirred protests in Düsseldorf, where it was produced. The play was originally a prose essay. Based on 'The Thyssen Art Macabre,' it tells of a party in 1945 at the castle of Margit Batthyány-Thyssen in Rechnitz, during which 180 Jews were shot – all in fun, as if it were target practice. Many in the audience left in the middle of the performance. When the play was staged in Vienna, members of the Hungarian Batthyány family wrote in an open letter, that it "serves sensationalism". "What made this massacre so monstrous," Jelinek has said, "was the linking with the orgiastic."

For further reading: Political Ideology and Aesthetics in Non-Feminist German Fiction by T.J. Levin (1979); Ich Gedeihe Inmitten Von Seuchen Elfriede Jelinek-Theatertexte by Corina Caduff (1991); Elfriede Jelinek: Framed by Language by Jorun B. Johns, Katherine Arens (1994); Elfriede Jelinek in der Geschlechterpresse: "Die Klavierspielerin" und "Lust" im printmedialen Diskurs by Anja Meyer (1994); Fremde, Vampire: Sexualität, Tod und Kunst bei Elfriede Jelinek und Adolf Muschg by Oliver Claes (1994); Rewriting Reality: An Introduction to Elfriede Jelinek by Allyson Fiddler (1994); Theatre and Performance in Austria: From Mozart to Jelinek by Ritchie Robertson, Edward Timms (1994); Elfriede Jelinek by Marlies Janz (1995); Vom Dialog zur Dialogizität: Die Theaterästhetik von Elfriede Jelinek by Maja Sibylle Pflüger (1996); Darstellung und Manifestation von Weiblichkeit in der Prosa Elfriede Jelineks by Veronika Vis (1998); Dekonstruktion Des Mythos in Ausgewahlten Prosawerken Von Elfriede Jelinek by Monika Szczepaniak (1998); Gewalt von Jugendlichen als Symptom gesellschaftlicher Krisen by Heidi Strobel (1998); The Rhetoric of National Dissent in Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, and Elfriede Jelinek by Matthias Konzett (2000); From Perinet to Jelinek: Viennese Theatre in Its Political and Intellectual Context by W. E. Yates, et al (2001); Formal Approaches to Function in Grammar: In Honor of Eloise Jelinek by Andrew Carnie, et al. (2003);  The Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama, edited by Gabrielle H. Cody and Evert Sprinnchorn (2007); Elfriede Jelinek: Writing Woman, Nation, and Identity, A Critical Anthology, edited by Matthias Piccolruaz Konzett and Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger (2007); The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, edited by Michael Sollars (2008)

Selected works:

  • Lisas Schatten, 1967 [Lisa's Shadow]
  • wir sind lockvögel, baby, 1970
  • Michael: Ein Jugendbuch für die Infantilgesell-schaft, 1973
  • Die Liebhaberinnen, 1975
    - Women As Lovers (translated by Martin Chalmers, 1994)
  • Die Enden der Parabel / Thomas Pynchon, 1976 (translator)
  • bukolit: hörroman, 1979
  • Ende: gedichte, 1966-1968, 1980
  • Die Ausgesperrten, 1980
    - Wonderful, Wonderful Times (translated by Michael Hulse, 1990)
  • Die Klavierspielerin, 1983
    - The Piano Teacher (translated by Joachim Neugroschel, 1988)
    - Pianonsoittaja (suom. Jukka-Pekka Pajunen, 2005)
    - film 2001, dir. by Michael Haneke, starring Isabelle Huppert, Benoît Magimel, Annie Girardot
  • Herrenjagd Drama / Georges Feydeau, 1983 (translator)
  • Burgtheater, 1984 (play)
  • Clara S, 1984 (play, premiered at Bonn)
  • Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte oder Stützen der Gesellschaft, 1984 (play)
  • Oh Wildnis, oh Schutz vor ihr, 1985
  • Floh im Ohr / Georges Feydeau, 1986 (translator)
  • Der Gockel / Georges Feydeau, 1986 (translator)
  • Krankeit oder Moderne Frauen, 1987 (play, premiered at Bonn in 1987)
  • Die Affaire Rue de Lourcine / Eugène Labiche, 1988 (translator)
  • Lust, 1989
    - Lust (translated by Michael Hulse, 1992)
    - Himo (suom. Jukka-Pekka Pajunen, 2008)
  • Wolken: Heim, 1990 (play, premiered at Bonn in 1998)
  • Die Dame vom Maxim Drama / Georges Feydeau, 1990 (translator)
  • Malina, 1991 (screenplay)
    - film based on Ingeborg Bachman's novel, directed by Werner Schroeter, starring Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Carrière, Can Togay
  • Totenauberg, 1991 (play, premiered in Vienna in 1992)
    - Death / Valley / Summit (translated by Gitta Honegger, in Drama Contemporary: Germany, 1996) 
  • Die Kinder der Toten, 1995
  • Stecken, Stab und Stangl / Raststätte / Wolken. Heim, 1997 (plays)
  • Ein Sportstück, 1998 (play)
    - Sports Play (translated by Penny Black with translation assistance and a foreword by Karen Jürs-Munby, 2012)
  • Er nich als er (zu, mit Robert Walser), 1998 (play, premiered in Hamburg)
  • Macht nichts. Eine kleine Trilogie des Todes, 1999 (plays)
  • Erlkönigin, 1999 (play, in Macht nichts. Eine kleine Trilogie des Todes)
  • Das Lebewohl, 2000 (play)
  • Das Schweigen, 2000 (play, premiered in Hamburg)
  • Gier, 2000
    - Greed (translated by  Martin Chalmers, 2006)
  • Der Jude von Malta Drama / Christopher Marlowe, 2001 (translator)
  • In den Alpen, 2002 (play, premiered in Munich and Zürich )
  • Prinzessinnnendramen: Der Tod und das Mädchen I-III und IV-V, 2002 (play, premiered in Hamburg and Berlin)
  • Das Werk, 2003 (play, premiered in Vienna)
  • Bambiland, 2003 (play, premiered in Vienna)
    - Bambiland (translated by Lilian Friedberg, 2006)
  • Ernst sein ist alles / Oscar Wilde, 2004 (translator)
  • Irm und Margit, 2004 (play, premiered in Zürich)
  • Babel, 2004 (play)
  • Ulrike Maria Stuart (play), 2006
  • Über Tiere, 2006 (play)
  • Neid, 2007 (Internet novel,
  • Rechnitz (Der Würgeengel), 2008 (play; first performed by the Münchner Kammerspiel)
  • Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns. Eine Wirtschaftskomödie, 2009 (play)
  • Der ideale Mann / Oscar Wilde, 2011 (translator)
  • Winterreise: ein Theaterstück, 2011 (play)

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