Elfriede Jelinek Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Elfriede Jelinek 1946-

Austrian novelist, playwright, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Jelinek's career through 2002.

One of Austria's most prolific and political writers, Jelinek is best known for her outspoken feminism and sharp criticism of capitalist patriarchy. Although openly admitting to a feminist agenda, Jelinek is primarily concerned in her writing with the material conditions of the working class in a capitalist society, paying particular attention to its effects on the position of women. Her works typically feature female protagonists who become victims of male-perpetrated abuse, such as domestic violence or sexual exploitation. Heavily influenced by the works of dramatist Bertholt Brecht, Jelinek often uses graphic depictions and crude, deliberately shocking language to lampoon cultural assumptions, conventions, and taboos.

Biographical Information

Jelinek was born on October 20, 1946, in Muerzzuschlag, Steiermark, Austria. Raised in Vienna by her Romanian-German mother and Czech-Jewish father, Jelinek struggled under a rigorous schedule of academic studies and musical training. She was enrolled concurrently in a local parochial school and the Viennese Conservatory of Music, where she studied piano, organ, viola, and composition. While she was in secondary school, her father became mentally ill and was placed in a mental institution. Following her graduation, with distinction, from the Albertsgymnasium in 1964, Jelinek also suffered an emotional breakdown. During the two years following her collapse, Jelinek became interested in writing. She continued to write while studying art history and drama at the University of Vienna, and while completing her study of the organ at the conservatory. In 1966 Jelinek received her first critical recognition and encouragement for her writing after submitting some of her poetry to the Austrian Society for Literature. In 1969 she received prizes for both poetry and prose at the Twentieth Austrian Festival of Youth and Culture in Innsbruck. After the publication of her first two novels—Lisas Schatten: 7 Gedichte (1967) and Wir sind lockvögel baby! (1970; Wonderful, Wonderful Times)—Jelinek was commissioned to write several radio plays, receiving the Radio Play Award of the West German War Blind in 1973. She moved to Berlin in 1972 and later lived for extended periods in Rome and Paris. Her involvement with the student and feminist movements as well as her affiliation with the Marxist Party led to Jelinek's public break with bourgeois values, a process she chronicled in a series of essays published between 1970 and 1971. In 1974 she married Gottfried Huengsberg. Jelinek has received several awards for her work, including the Interior Ministry of West Germany award for best screenplay in 1979, the Heinrich-Böll award in 1986, and the Honorary Award for Literature of Vienna in 1989.

Major Works

Although most of Jelinek's novels are set in a fictitious rural Austrian village, her books typically are not concerned with regional characters or issues. Instead, Jelinek's narratives use a variety of verbal images borrowed from the media, television, and comic strips to deconstruct societal myths of family, love, self-determination, and free will. In Die Liebhaberinnen (1975; Women as Lovers) two young Austrian girls, Brigitte and Paula, struggle to find personal and financial independence. While both aspire to find true love, Brigitte settles for a financially stable marriage with an electrician. Paula, however, refuses to compromise her lifestyle and begins to work at a local factory. She later marries an alcoholic who beats her and her children. Die Klavierspielerin (1983; The Piano Teacher) chronicles the story of Erika Kohut, a shy, thirty-year-old piano instructor at the Vienna Conservatory of Music. When a young student named Walter Klemmer shows an interest in her, Erika begins to rebel against her domineering mother, indulging in voyeurism and a sadomasochistic sexual relationship with Klemmer. When her emotional and physical demands become too extreme, Klemmer attacks Erika and leaves. In Lust (1989) Jelinek portrays the impossibility of female desire through the wife of a factory owner who is treated as property by her husband.

Jelinek's plays address many of the same themes as her novels, focusing heavily on the injustices in capitalist societies and the marginalization of women. Her play Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren mann verlassen hatte oder Stutzen der Gesellschaften (1979; What Happened after Nora Left Her Husband or the Pillars of Society) was written as a sequel to Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, using Ibsen's protagonist, Nora, to show how a small capitalist elite is able to control political and economic institutions and, through them, the destinies of the many. In Jelinek's play Nora frees herself from her upper-class role as a wife and mother to become a factory worker. Clara S.: Musikalische Tragödie (1982; Clara S.: A Musical Tragedy) portrays a fictional meeting in 1929 between nineteenth-century German composer Clara Schumann and Gabriele D'Annunzio, a late nineteenth/early twentieth-century Italian author and political leader. Jelinek attracted public controversy with her play Burgtheater (1985), which depicted a selection of sordid scenes from private lives of well-known actors at the Burgtheater, Austria's national theater. Jelinek reveals the actors as shallow, petty tyrants and makes allegations about the theater's past collaboration with the Nazi regime. Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen (1987; Illness or Modern Women) is a graphic farce about gender relations that follows a woman named Emily and her friend Carmilla and their two husbands. Carmilla dies during childbirth, but is then turned into a vampire by Emily. Jelinek contrasts Emily and Carmilla's vampirism—a condition that leaves them neither dead nor alive—with the exaggerated vitality of Carmilla's husband, Dr. Benno Hundekoffer. Jelinek has also authored a number of radio plays, including Untergang eines tauchers (1973; Demise of a Diver), Die Bienenkönige (1976; The King Bees), and Erziehung eines Vampirs (1986; Bringing up a Vampire).

Critical Reception

Jelinek's unique narrative style has been the subject of much critical attention. Feminist critics have praised her examinations of the exploitation of women in patriarchal societies and her commitment to exposing the violence perpetrated against women. Nevertheless, some female scholars have argued that Jelinek's plays and novels work against feminist causes because of their brutal depictions of female sexuality, masochism, and self-mutilation. Several male critics have concurred with this assessment, citing the cold and overly analytical nature of Jelinek's prose. Such criticism has caused the Austrian media to frequently refer to Jelinek as the nation's “best-hated author.” Commentators have also debated Jelinek's use of Marxist theory in her writing, noting the firm sense of class-consciousness in Die Liebhaberinnen and other works. Lust has attracted a great deal of critical controversy, with many reviewers arguing that the novel is a work of pornography. Still, Jelinek has been consistently praised throughout her career for her skill with satire and political commentary, earning comparisons to such authors as Johann Nestroy, Karl Kraus, and Elias Canetti.