The Austrian Riveter: Why Patriots Need a Body: on Elfriede Jelinek by Lucy Jones

Four bodies lie about, motionless. A broken sign next to them says ‘Roma, go back to India’.   A reporter on the scene asks them to stand up because the show must go on. A woman hides shards of glass in the pocket of a young pianist to prevent her from playing at a concert. A headlong collision between two buses on a winding road strews passengers across the hillside.(1)

To appear as a character in one of Jelinek’s settings is to risk your life; lucky escapees stagger about as zombies. But their voices – lamenting, criticising, or quoting, from speeches made by Treblinka commanders and articles by tabloid hacks or Bible passages – are unrelenting. Look at what’s being said about us in the press, they say. Look at what’s been done to us. They depend on Jelinek to carry on telling their stories. Watching one of her plays or reading one of her novels is like listening to a radio crackling with news, talk shows and song lyrics while someone turns the dial. On every channel, the programme is tuned to social critique.

Jelinek has never been afraid to challenge her country’s stance towards its history and for this, she has been pilloried in Austria, most publicly in 1995 by the populist Freedom Party-FPÖ leader Jörg Haider on his party’s election campaign poster: ‘Lieben Sie Scholten, Jelinek, Häupl, Peymann, Pasternak … oder Kunst und Kultur?’ (‘Do you love Scholten, Jelinek, Häupl, Peymann, Pasternak … or art and culture?’) A character appears in Jelinek’s Die Kinder der Toten (‘Children of the Dead’) whose tanned and athletic physique embodies the ideals of the ‘Buberlpartie’, those young male gangs popular during the late Haider’s heyday. Her protagonist is a young political leader whose flashing white teeth hide his otherwise crooked face and who has lifted his plans for the Third Republic from a similar figure. (2) Jelinek’s warning of the consequences of right-wing populism in 1995 was played down by most Austrian writers. Maybe now they would re-evaluate her warnings as timely and accurate?

Readers and critics have always been polarised by Jelinek’s writing. No doubt about it, her almost complete erasure of a narrative voice – replaced by a stream of populist invective, tabloid press jargon and Biblical gravitas – makes for difficult reading. If only the references were a bit clearer, I think to myself. Many are lost on me because I don’t have enough knowledge of Austria’s history or its politics. And yet, beneath the surface, I glimpse flashes of deeper meaning. Multi-layered doesn’t even get close to describing her technique. The flickering insights I’ve gained over the years, whether at performances of her plays or reading perhaps her most accessible novel, Die Klavierspielerin (The Piano Teacher), have opened up completely new worlds of writing.

Once, during a literature seminar, the late Max Sebald told us we should dig ourselves into one corner of the library rather than trying to read everything. In the niche I picked, Jelinek was sitting close to Kafka, by mere adjacency of surnames. The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) and Die Klavierspielerin had more in common than I initially suspected: Kafka’s ‘monstrous insect’ (3) was the more obvious metaphor for physical alienation. But no less striking was Erika’s sadomasochistic relationship to her own body. Neither character could see an escape from the ‘locked-down regime of violence and submission’ (4) or from the body in which they were trapped.

Die Klavierspielerin stayed with me for years and the play version kept me in my seat long after everyone else had trooped out of the theatre. I stayed, waiting for one of those glimpses of insight, and was often rewarded. It made me think that Jelinek had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature because her writing lent a voice, if not a body, to the unheard and murdered. Self-styled patriots place the body at the heart of their ideology: the skin colour of these bodies determines who is permitted to cross borders, who is left to drown, be trafficked or disposed of, and who is selected for a higher purpose. The ears of those bodies are attuned to the dog whistles and sirens of the powerful. Jelinek, on the other side, is an Austrian voice who, by disinterring the dead and rejected, in some small measure returns them their voices.

Lucy Jones

1 References to Stecken, Stab und Stangl (1996), Die Klavierspielerin (Rowohlt, 1983) / The Piano Teacher, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988) and Die Kinder der Toten (Rowohlt, 1995) / Children of the Dead, trans. Gitta Honegger, forthcoming, Yale University Press.

2 Paraphrased from Verena Mayer and Roland Koberg’s Jelinek biography, Elfriede Jelinek, ein Porträt (Rowohlt, 2006, p. 199).

3  From Susan Bernofsky’s latest translation of The Metamorphosis (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014).

4 (last accessed 16.11.2022).

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