Sunday, July 01, 2007

"How to Read Elfriede Jelinek"

Okay, that's a question that interests me. The latest NYRB has an essay which tries to answer it. I didn't like the two books by her, Lust and The Piano Teacher, that I have read so far. In fact they often irritated me. I found them intriguing at places but overall not worth all the trouble and effort. It wasn't really because of the subject matter. I am not really a fan of humanity in general and I am already totally convinced that social institutions and conventions, specially those dealing with human sexuality (like marriage, romance, family etc.) are plagued by very serious political problems and deserve serious critical scrutiny. But I would rather have read an essay on Feminism and Marxist Theory of Alienation and a critique of patriarchy than have plodded through Jelinek's weird prose. The case of The Piano Teacher on the other hand was a little different. It is a much more complex work. But I think it was because I had seen the Amazing Michael Haneke film before reading the book that was responsible for my disappointment. I was basically looking for the Isabelle Huppert character in the book and couldn't find it there. The Erika in the book was far less interesting than the Erika in the film. (I even had a few nightmares after watching the film. Extreme caution advised if you haven't seen it and plan to.)

The essay also has this interesting excerpt from her interview where she compares herself to her fellow Austrian misanthrope Thomas Bernhard:

The extremity of Jelinek's tirades soon won her comparisons with Thomas Bernhard, who had also remorselessly attacked the residual fascism of modern Austria. Seeking, in an interview with Gitta Honegger, a respected theater critic and biographer of Bernhard, to distinguish her approach from his, Jelinek claimed that as a man Bernhard "could claim a position of authority," projecting an identity with which readers could relate and giving a coherent, rhetorically convincing account of Austrian society, whereas, being a woman, even this form of "positive" approach was denied her; a woman working in a man's world and language could not present a coherent identity (a play of Jelinek's has the female parts mouthing words that are actually spoken by male voices, as if women could not really possess the language). Starting from this po-sition of "speechlessness," a woman writer could only work by subversion, exposing the language's prejudices and crassness and attacking its perverse and mindless momentum. As the narrator puts it in Wonderful, Wonderful Times, "everything that's said is a cue for something else."

Also worth reading in the same issue, a letter exchange on the wonderful German film The Lives of Others, Anita Desai on Primo Levi's collection of stories which has just come out in English and an extract from J. M. Coetzee's forthcoming novel.


Space Bar said...

Me too: I found the Erika of Jelinke's prose unsupportable and the writing itself heated and prolix. The fil said it all much better.

And about mght want to rephrase that? It makes it sound as if he's still alive and has many more collections of stories in him!

Alok said...

Have changed it, yes it sounded a little strange.

If you see the book independently of the film and as an experiment, it works better. She is not interested in coherence, linear narrative, psychological plausibility, conventional "literary" language etc... she will denounce all these as patriarchal and reactionary, as playing by the rules set by men. As that quote about Thomas Bernhard suggests she sees all literature as men's business, women writers can only write through subversion. It is interesting in theory but then one would rather read a polemical essay.