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Elfriede Jelinek

JELINEK, ELFRIEDE (1946– ), Austrian novelist and playwright. Jelinek grew up in Vienna in a working-class family. Although her father was of Czech-Jewish origin, Jelinek attended a Catholic kindergarten and then a convent school. During this time she studied organ and piano at the Vienna Conservatory and later theater and art at the University of Vienna. Jelinek started writing and publishing in the late 1960s with her first collection of poems, Lisas Schatten (1967). Her first works were influenced by the so-called Wiener Gruppe (Vienna Group) – a group that had been established by H.C. Artmann – and by Jelinek's political commitment to the Grazer Gruppe (Graz group). Her earliest works criticize capitalism and the consumer society. Her first novels wir sind lockvoegel, baby! (1970) and Michael: Ein Jugendbuch fuer die Infantilgesellschaft (1972) demonstrated this combination of avant-garde art and political engagement. These texts are dominated by experimental language: montage, grotesque images, simulation of nursery rhyme and imitation of pop songs. Both novels anticipate Jelinek's style of writing in her future texts. In her essay Die endlose Schuldigkeit (1970) Jelinek delineated the innocence and ignorance of society about cultural myths and images. Deconstructing existing myths became Jelinek's main issue in writing. In the 1980s she addressed the patriarchal society with biting criticism and aimed at deconstructing the myths of love, marriage, and family. Die Liebhaberinnen (1975; Women as Lovers, 1994) was considered Jelinek's first feminist piece of literature and applauded by the critics. Especially Die Klavierspielerin (1983; The Piano Teacher, 1988), which contains autobiographical elements, is the story of a female protagonist making her stand against her extremely protective mother. The novel became a bestseller and served as basis for a movie.

In 1989 Jelinek wrote her second bestselling novel Lust (Eng. 1993). As was typical in this phase of her writing, Jelinek depicts marriage as legalized prostitution and portrays the town and its inhabitants as greedy and corrupt. The protagonists in this novel are incapable of liberation because they are driven by socioeconomic forces. Their consumer ideology leads to the degradation of human beings to the status of objects.

Jelinek also wrote for the theater. Her first plays Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte; oder Stuetzen der Gesellschaft (1978) and Clara S. musikalische Tragoedie (1984) show the futile attempt of her female protagonists to determine their lives independently. At the same time Jelinek wrote Burgtheater: Posse mit Gesang (1984), in which she used a language that illustrates and unmasks fascist ideas in daily life. Subsequent works also remained focused on the theme of lingering fascism in today's society. Her plays Wolken Heim (1990) and Totenauberg (1991), as well as the novel Die Kinder der Toten (1995), are thematically linked with fascism and its philosophical nationalistic roots. Especially the last-mentioned novel is a grotesque picture of zombies living their lives between suppression of history and oblivion of death.

In the 1980s her works were widely and ambivalently reviewed. Whereas some critics praised her aesthetic language, Jelinek always had to face harsh criticism in her home country of Austria. Here critics attacked Jelinek personally and limited their criticism to the explicit sexuality and abusiveness of her texts. Especially with the play Burgtheater: Posse mit Gesang Jelinek had to deal with personal assaults. This play is evocative of the Austrian participation in the Holocaust and the Third Reich. Jelinek was henceforth labeled a hater of Austria. Nonetheless Jelinek earned much praise from the international public and received among many others awards the Heinrich Böll Prize in 1986 and, in 1998, the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize. With this positive reception Jelinek's work was also praised in Austria. In the Burgtheater she celebrated the premiere of her play Ein Sportstueck (1998) which received standing ovations. Sport here is portrayed as another form of war, a mass phenomenon charged with violence. Various voices weave a texture of human behavior and contemporary social structures.

In the 1990s Jelinek's writing became more and more political. Jelinek had been a member of the Austrian Communist Party and had already criticized capitalism in her early works. Her later work concentrates mostly on the historical past of Austria and unmasks the myth of Austrian innocence during the Third Reich. Her political activism included sharp criticism of the election of Kurt Waldheim with his Nazi past, and later she protested against Joerg Haider and his right-wing party FPÖ. Haider's farewell speech, made when he stepped down from the national leadership of his nationalistic party, was transposed into the play Das Lebewohl (2000). The monologue can be read as a statement of a seducer yearning for power ad infinitum.

Jelinek's subsequent works were short dramas consisting of dense monologues. Der Tod und das Maedchen I–V (2003) depicts in five plays the death of the maiden in a male-dominated world. One of these plays, Jackie, was made into a radio play and received the highest recognition with the Blind War Veterans' Radio Theatre Prize.

Jelinek received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2004. In its official announcement the committee cites the "musical flow of voices and counter-voices" in her work, that "with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveals the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power." Jelinek did not attend the official ceremony, as she did not feel capable of dealing with such an imposing public.


P. Janke, Werkverzeichnis Elfriede Jelinek (2004); A. Johanning, KoerperStuecke: der Koerper als Medium in den Theaterstuecken Elfriede Jelineks (2004); Y. Hoffmann, Elfriede Jelinek: Sprach- und Kulturkritik im Erzaehlwerk (1999); S. Kratz, Undichte Dichtungen: Texttheater und Theaterlektüren bei Elfriede Jelinek (1999); M. Szczepaniak, Dekonstruktion des Mythos in ausgewaehlten Prosawerken von Elfriede Jelinek (1998); C. Guertler, Gegen den schoenen Schein: Texte zu Elfriede Jelinek (1990).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.