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“What does language make happen?” asks a character towards the beginning of Her Not All

“What does language make happen?” asks a character towards the beginning of Her Not All Her, the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek’s 1998 play of the life of Robert Walser. In typical Jelinek fashion, the title is itself preoccupied with language, a play on the sound of Walser’s name when spoken aloud in both the original German—er nicht als er, “He not as he”—and in Damion Searls’s English translation. The character soon answers their own question: “Language is worth as little as life itself, for it is life itself.”

Language and life and its values—its debts and deaths, its violence and vicissitudes, the dense cacophony of its hidden meanings—are at the core of Jelinek’s monumental oeuvre, spanning some fifty years and nearly fifty volumes of novels and plays, countless essays, a few early volumes of poetry, some screenplays, radio plays and libretti and even a translation of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. In her work, disaffected teenagers rob innocents in the streets of postwar Vienna, voyeuristic piano teachers mutilate themselves, fairy-tale princesses soliloquize about their reflections, and Austria’s Nazi past lies buried but not forgotten, sometimes literally rising from the dead like something out of a zombie movie. To read a book by Jelinek is to find oneself in a world of florid violence, of hyperkinetic puns. In 2004, the Nobel Prize committee, upon giving her the prize in literature, cited her “musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that … reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.” The theme of subjugation—man versus woman, capitalist versus worker—is one that Jelinek returns to time and time again, in works that are as punishing in their linguistic excess as a slap across the face. This is, in fact, part of her work’s allure: to read Jelinek is to find oneself confronted with the liberating realization that a book can be ugly—as ugly as the world it describes.

To expand language’s possibilities—isn’t that a point of literature? But though she has her scattershot devotees in the English-speaking world, Jelinek remains curiously underread, with references to her work and its influence popping up only rarely—a Kathy Acker letter here, a Kate Zambreno interview there. Internationally, she fares better, with writers such as South Korea’s Bae Suah and Norway’s Vigdis Hjorth citing her, but her reputation still pales in comparison to two other major Austrian writers of the postwar literary scene, Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard. “There’s no serious reception of my work by the press,” she once observed to her longtime translator, Gitta Honegger, in a 2006 interview about her reception in Austria. “I can’t explain this dichotomy between the scholarly reception and the feuilleton. They didn’t do that to Bernhard. Yes, they clobbered him, but there always was this great respect for this great stylist. That always was undisputed.”

It is both Jelinek’s style and her subject matter that provoke a public reaction, consisting of emotion both positive and negative but almost always so strong as to border on the pathological. A 1988 New York Times review from Michiko Kakutani of the autobiographical The Piano Teacher, arguably Jelinek’s most famous work, criticizes it as “willfully perverse,” “equally artificial and contrived.” In the 1990s, the far-right Austrian politician Jorg Haider launched a poster campaign against the work of her and other Austrian artists on the left, asking, “Do you love Jelinek or do you love art and culture?” In the U.K., Annie Lord of the Independent once called The Piano Teacher “a disgusting book to read” (this might have been a compliment), while Philip Hensher of the Telegraph referred to 2000’s Greed (Jelinek’s first novel to be translated into English following the Nobel win, by Martin Chalmers) as “atrocious.” Of Greed, Tim Parks of the New York Review of Books complained in 2007 that Jelinek “embraces only the negative, denunciatory energies of left-wing politics and shares none of its constructive optimism.” The Financial Times once dismissed her politics—she is famously a committed leftist and feminist who belonged to the Austrian Communist Party for seventeen years—as “shrill.” After she was awarded the Nobel, one member of the Swedish Academy resigned in protest, calling her work “whingeing, unenjoyable, violent pornography.” And though Germany’s Die Welt proclaimed, after the publication of The Piano Teacher, that “She hates music, she hates Vienna, she hates people. And above all, she hates herself,” so too is it true that her work has received widespread and popular acclaim, including a research center at the University of Vienna dedicated to her oeuvre, a 2001 movie adaptation of The Piano Teacher by Michael Haneke and, lest we forget, that 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature.

A Jelinek book is a visceral reading experience, one that provokes a passionate response. Even as a fan, I sometimes wonder what compels me to read her, what moves me to endure her long, unbroken sentences, her confusing or nonexistent plots, her occasional didacticism. There is an addictive, masochistic quality to her writing; a Jelinek book is one that might drive you to masturbate or vomit, perhaps even at the same time. (She herself has compared the act of writing to projectile vomiting.) She renders literature dangerous, even subversive, freeing it from the consumerist impulses fostered by publishers keen to reach a market. The reader of Jelinek’s work experiences the same violent emotion toward the strictures of “good taste” that her character Anna feels towards the color white in Wonderful, Wonderful Times: “Whenever Anna sees something white she promptly wants to stain it.”

Born in 1946 in the small town of Mürzzuschlag in southeastern Austria, to a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, Jelinek was raised in postwar Vienna, a city fabled for its artistic lineage, in a country grappling with its very recent past. This would prove to be a potent combination. “The beauty of Austria—under which the corpses of the Nazi period are buried—has covered up much of its recent history,” she once remarked.

Her childhood was unhappy, dominated by a strict mother who kept her daughter under close watch, busy with long hours of musical instruction and practice. (Jelinek would go on to study the organ at the famous Vienna Conservatory.) Her father narrowly escaped persecution from the Nazis through his work as a chemist and would later in life be confined to a mental institution. His daughter’s disillusionment with her country of origin and its economics came at an early age. She tells Honegger, “I went to a Catholic elementary school, and I quickly found out that the children of parents who were rich and donated a lot were much more respected. That’s when I understood capitalism.”

Postwar Vienna, though, was also a site of fertile artistic exploration. “In Austria in 1968 there was nothing comparable to the movements in Germany,” says Jelinek. “But what’s really interesting is that in Austria, where there were no student wars like in America or in Germany, it was always the artists who stepped in, most importantly the Vienna Actionists; in literature, it was the Vienna Group.” A loose coalition of artists founded by Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, the Actionists created explosive, extreme works of performance art, often featuring mutilation, human shit and a ruthless attitude towards national pride. In 1968, Brus was sentenced to six months in prison following a work in which he masturbated, smeared himself with his own excrement, vomited and sang the Austrian national anthem.

A similarly confrontational energy appears in Jelinek’s early work. “tonight / the three popes / proclaim / the revolution / against teenage television,” goes a stanza in the poem “Tonight” (translated in 2007 by Michael Hofmann), while her first two novels—which still remain untranslated into English—combine collage techniques with characters culled from pop culture and an anarchic distaste for authority. Her first novel, 1970’s wir sind lockvögel, baby! (We are decoys, baby!), features the American superheroes Batman and Robin and is dedicated to the Austrian army. A line in English near the beginning loudly proclaims, “RUN THAT UP YOUR PENIS & SEE HOW IT COMES!” The title of her next book Michael. Ein Jugendbuch für die Infantilgesellchaft, sarcastically echoes “the fascist Bildungsroman written by the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels which he entitled Michael. Ein deutsches Schicksal in Tagebuchblättern,” writes the academic Allyson Fiddler in her 1994 monograph on Jelinek (the first to be written in English).

By Jelinek’s third novel, 1975’s Women as Lovers, these cerebral exercises in formal experimentation would combine with a newfound approach to representing reality, producing the books she is most well-known for, including The Piano Teacher, Lust (her darkly funny “feminist pornography” that turned out to be a surprise bestseller in Germany, thanks to the men who purchased it under the mistaken belief that it was actual pornography) and her 666-page magnum opus on memory and the Holocaust, as yet unpublished in English, Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead). Her incorporation of “realistic” aspects of life differs from the mode commonly designated as “realism” in the American classroom, and even from that which is understood as such in the English-speaking context of the history of the novel; even as she at last begins to use the familiar structures of plot, settings and characters, Jelinek is quick to highlight their essential, inescapable artificiality, calling the reality of both her novels and the world they imitate into question. “at this point we have to interrupt brigitte’s fate a little abruptly,” interjects a chapter title in Women as Lovers, as translated by Martin Chalmers. Hers is, as Fiddler has claimed, a super-concentrated approach to reality: “It is almost as if Jelinek were using a particular kind of lens regarding the world about her, one which detects the ugliest, most cruel and brutal aspects and which blows these up to oversize proportions, thus distorting the picture.”

Women as Lovers applies this technique on a granular level, riffing off the familiar prattle of fairy tales (a genre Jelinek is fond of mining) in its portrayal of Brigitte and Paula, two working-class teenage girls whose very fates depend on how successfully they can navigate the rules of love, sex and marriage in an Austrian mountain village. “do you know this BEAUTIFUL land with its valleys and hills?” sneers the narrator. The book’s stringent use of the lowercase is itself a critique of the hierarchies embedded in the German language, which capitalizes all nouns. Brigitte plays the game successfully and weds the dim-witted but financially stable Heinz, thus ultimately raising and securing her socioeconomic status. Paula overplays her hand and falls pregnant by the alcoholic woodcutter Erich, ultimately finding herself chained to her lower-class position and working in a lingerie factory. “paula should not want to get above her obstinate little self complains the serialised novel,” Jelinek writes, explicitly tying the social mores expounded by a popular form of commercial fiction to the oppression felt by her working-class characters.

Jelinek abandoned this commitment to the lowercase in her next novel, 1980’s Wonderful, Wonderful Times (translated by Michael Hulse), but her high-pitched representation of reality remains. We now have an explicit time and place: Vienna in the 1950s. Our protagonists are four teenagers—the lower-middle-class Rainer and his twin sister Anna, the working-class Hans and the upper-class Sophie. Theirs is a world of decay disguised as beauty: “Vienna, the City of Flowers: a perennial favourite for school essay-writing competitions, Rainer has already won a prize twice … Now [the Russians are] gone, and the Nazis, both the neos and the old guard, can come out of their grey nesting boxes into the daylight again, like flowers. Hail fellow, well met.”

There it is again—that link between Austria’s natural beauty, its flowers and foliage, and its active participation in fascism and genocide. Violence undergirds nearly every interpersonal relationship in the book. Hans’s father, killed in a work camp, is evoked constantly by Hans’s mother; Sophie fantasizes about planting a bomb in their secondary school and eventually does so, avoiding punishment through the slipperiness of inherited wealth (she wins a trip to America over the more-qualified Anna for the same reason). Rainer and Anna’s father, a former SS officer, takes pornographic photos of his wife, their mother, and loudly rapes her in an adjacent room of their small apartment. The book opens with the teenagers stealing a wallet from a man passing by them in a park. “Anna is one of those who perpetrate wrongs,” writes Jelinek. “The victim is always better because he is innocent. At this time, of course, there are still a good many innocent perpetrators. With their wartime memories, their souvenirs, they stand gazing into the audience from windows bright with flowers, all friendliness, waving, or else they are in high office. With geraniums.”

What is the point, Jelinek seems to be asking, of pleasant sentences when real life is so unpleasant, when language can so easily be used to hide something like Austria’s wartime atrocities? “This dog, language,” she calls it in her Nobel speech, given from her home rather than Sweden due to her severe agoraphobia. In the video of her speech, Jelinek stands before a music stand, sheet music replaced by her notes. “This dog, language, which is supposed to protect me, that’s why I have him, after all, is now snapping at my heels. My protector wants to bite me.”

Anna, murdered alongside her parents by Rainer at the end of Wonderful, Wonderful Times, reads like an early prototype of Erika Kohut, the protagonist of The Piano Teacher and Jelinek’s most famous creation. Both are prone to nervous tics and obsessive behaviors; both define themselves by their relationship to the piano, the instrument that Anna spends hours practicing and that Erika spends hours teaching at the Vienna Conservatory. Anna enthusiastically engages in sexual intercourse, especially with Hans—and Jelinek has a real knack for making any kind of sex sound disgusting, from the “extract of the roast beef and the bread dumplings” that Heinz shoots into Brigitte in Women as Lovers, to Hans’s physical arousal described in terms of another bodily function; “he slides to and fro on his chair as if he’d shat himself.” Erika, however, is frigid, closed off after a lifetime of disappointing sexual and romantic encounters. She is 38 and still lives with her domineering mother, and spends much of the novel engaging in a sadomasochistic affair with a pupil. Like her character Erika, Jelinek studied at the Vienna Conservatory, majoring in organ performance, and has been open about her difficult relationship with her own perfectionist mother. “Most writers start with an autobiographical text, or it comes at the end,” Jelinek has said of this work. “It was my fourth book.”

The disgust that The Piano Teacher incurs is puzzling. It is hardly Jelinek’s most punishing text to read, nor is it her longest or most obscure. It is the mixture of sex and violence, though, that shocks, particularly given the twisted sort of half-agency with which Erika expresses her desires. She visits a porn theater alone, penetrating that most private of male spaces. She spies on a couple having sex in the Prater, Vienna’s famous amusement park, and, rather than masturbating, crouches to piss on the ground. Like Anna in Wonderful, Wonderful Times, too, she takes a knife to herself, often around the genitalia; “When SHE’s home alone,” writes Jelinek, “she cuts herself, slicing off her nose to spite other people’s faces.”

Erika’s affair with her student, Walter Klemmer, further twists the boundaries of power that govern heterosexuality. In one scene, she refuses to finish him off after arousing him inside a bathroom at the Conservatory. In a climactic scene toward the end, she bequeaths to him a letter detailing every kind of physically torturous act she imagines him performing on her. (“This paragraph says: Use a rubber hose—I’ll show you how—to stuff the gag so tightly into my mouth that I can’t stick out my tongue. The hose is ready!”) Klemmer is not impressed: “He stares at this woman, who wants to be swept away by bliss, and he asks himself: Who can understand the female sex anyway? All she thinks about is herself.” Instead of giving into Erika’s demands, he rapes her, thus restoring the balance of power to its familiar equilibrium.

There are no safe words in The Piano Teacher, no coy role-play, no pretend worlds, nowhere to turn. “Only the things that have proven their worth will continue to do so in this city,” writes Jelinek. “Its buttons are bursting from the fat white paunch of culture, which, like any drowned corpse that is not fished from the water, bloats up more and more.” In art, sex and public life, there is only the raw stink of power differentials, and this makes for a morbid view of gender relations. “I describe the relationship between man and woman as a Hegelian relationship between master and slave,” she explained to the New York Times in 2004. “As long as men are able to increase their sexual value through work, fame or wealth, while women are only powerful through their body, beauty and youth, nothing will change.”

Again and again, Jelinek portrays women who, raised within a world that encourages their self-destruction, choose self-destruction for themselves. But it’s not exactly agency that fuels their choice to do so, but rather the fatalistic path set up for them by their societies. Hers is a bleak view of how women and men interact with one another, and yet there’s something bracing in its intensity. Why pretend anymore? As Freud is purported to have mused a century ago, what is it that women want? Jelinek, who in interviews steadfastly refuses to attribute psychological motivations to her characters, lays out a discomforting answer in the barest of terms: in a society that treats women as less-than and that encourages our self-destruction, what we in fact want most is that very self-destruction. The violence of Jelinek’s work becomes a dark joke about femininity and female desire, pushed to its logical extreme. The Piano Teacher ends with Erika, dressed in the clothes of someone half her age, stabbing herself in public.

“I don’t want to play, and I don’t want to see others play, either,” begins a 1983 essay in which Jelinek expands on her theory of the theater and overall aesthetic vision. “People shouldn’t say things, and pretend they are living. I don’t want to see that false unity reflected in the faces of actors: the unity of life. … I want to be shallow!”

Over the last twenty years especially, much of Jelinek’s output has consisted of works for the stage, including her latest two books to be translated into English, the “stage-essay” rein GOLD, published in 2021 by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and the Trump-themed play On the Royal Road: The Burgher King, released in 2020 by Seagull Books. (Both were translated by Gitta Honegger.) Performances of Jelinek’s work can be difficult to find for the English-speaker, both online and on the stage, but even on the page, the language crackles, playing, again, with her familiar themes of, as she has termed them, “cruelty, the lack of consideration of the strong for the weak, and the master-servant relationship, in the Hegelian sense.”

The immediacy of the theater also allows Jelinek to more directly engage with the news. “I want an event to immediately charge me,” she has said, “like sticking your finger into an electric outlet.” 2004’s Bambiland deals with the Iraq War and Abu Ghraib, and is highly critical of the Bush administration in the U.S. (“Compared to their activities,” she told the New York Times, “even Thomas Pynchon’s paranoid conspiracy theories are just children’s books”). 2014’s Charges (The Supplicants) focuses on the migrant crisis in Europe (“I lie here in the church, on the cold stone floor and I am worth as much as you! Believe it or not.”). In rein GOLD, Wagner’s Das Rheingold is remixed and rewritten with the global financial crisis in mind: “Papa had this fortress built for him and now he can’t repay the credit,” Brünnhilde explains. “A situation as in any other family.”

As in her novels, in the plays there are also the familiar slippages of language, words rubbed against one another until they erode and gesture at hidden meaning. Free associations and Freudian slips reveal a shadow world lurking beneath familiar phrases or rhymes; I mean … I mean … I mean is a frequent, winking refrain. It is astonishing to read translations of Jelinek and to realize that this punning, as clever as it is in English, spins out even further, in different directions, in the original German; even in translation, though, it is a treat to read for anyone that likes word games. “Let’s have the massacre, I mean the mascara,” slips the Prince in Sleeping Beauty, one of her “Princess Plays” (a series that also includes Snow White and Jackie Kennedy). “The product,” says the Seer in On the Royal Road while riffing on automatization in the workforce, “will soon produce itself and then it will be our God, who also came to be by Himself and out of Himself, an autocrat—, I mean auto-creator.” The title of the On the Royal Road: The Burgher King (Auf dem Königsweg – Der Bürgerkönig in the original German), too, is a pun, playing on both Burgher / Bürger—“citizen”—while simultaneously evoking Donald Trump’s well-known penchant for fast food.

It is fascinating to read On the Royal Road as an American, mostly because Jelinek captures the sour and sad grandiosity of the Trump presidency so well, although she has never visited the States. “Art in the age of Trump” has become such a well-worn phrase as to now be a cliché, but upheaving clichés allows Jelinek to shine; as she has said, “For me, reality appears more clearly in cliches than in the most subtle psychological description. The balance of power in society is wrapped up in them.”

The play, written quickly in the weeks after Trump’s election, is straightforward, a monologue told from the perspective of a seer—albeit one who takes the form of Miss Piggy, eyes bloodied à la Tiresias, and is prone to statements like, “I’ll buy up the truth or lease it, depending on what’s the better deal, I’ll buy it on credit like everything else.” What concerns the seer, and what she’ll spend most of the play fretting about, is the new king, and just what exactly is to be done about him. The king has recently ascended the throne and is a loathsome figure; his business debts have gotten him far, and he displays a worrisome love of power. Borders are his obsession, and he stokes his voting base’s racism while speaking loudly about the construction of a wall. “He shows himself,” the seer says, “go ahead, look at him, don’t shy away from the sight,

you’ll get to see worse ones!, as the path-breaker of a certain political and nativist style, nonsense, not nativist, he does not have to emphasise the nativist aspect, there is only one nation in the world, one Volk, that goes without saying, we are not in Germany now!, been there, done that, it’s over.

“It is totally inconceivable to me that such a man could become president,” Jelinek elaborates in an interview with Honegger, the play’s translator, published in Theater, in which both go on to reminisce about the sense of promise, novelty and even hope that the U.S., filtered through its pop culture, represented to them as children in postwar Austria. It is interesting to read a non-American’s take on recent American politics; a close follower of the news, Jelinek touches on Occupy Wall Street, the class and race disparities in the U.S. and her own naïve childhood love of the United States: “America is my—how do you say—my Brigadoon, really, the country of my dreams. When I just think of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, those were the most important factors of my socialization.” This is a familiar trope, the old world’s simultaneous disapproval of and fascination with the new world, but I read no condescension in it; rather, there’s a sense of real alarm. By drawing parallels between her country’s twentieth-century experiences with fascism and the United States’s worrisome rightward turn in 2016, Jelinek situates the United States within a larger global conversation. Is Trump a fascist? What does fascism look like in the 21st century? The debate is ongoing in the U.S., and with its outsider’s perspective, On the Royal Road doesn’t give a definitive answer. But even without an answer, Jelinek’s portrayal of a particularly fraught moment in American current events, and its implications for the rest of the world, is still effective. It is a strike against American exceptionalism, the United States’s cliché of itself—however false—as an irreproachable moral beacon. No, Jelinek’s play reminds the American reader, you are vulnerable to this, too—and coming from an artist who has made it her life’s work to puncture the legacy of authoritarianism that still lingers in her own native country, in her own native language, it is, for the American artist, a particularly potent, even sobering, reminder of the importance of applying this same kind of linguistic scalpel to their own art, their own country, and their own language.

But On the Royal Road also raises the question of whether and to what extent art can truly create real-life political change and action—and if experimental art is really the tool with which to do so. Jelinek herself is uncertain about this. Her work often despairs over the role of the artist. “Why do anything?” she writes in rein GOLD. “Why publish a book of poems, a novel, this play which is not one; he who brings something to many, brings nothing to anyone.” It isn’t that she’s afraid of didacticism; this isn’t a case for art for art’s sake. In the same 2017 interview with Honegger about On the Royal Road, she says, “I have the sense to possibly stir up someone, but that’s ludicrous, for who will come to the theater? It is preaching to the choir. That’s always a big problem political theater cannot overcome.” Who engages most often with experimental art, after all? Often, those who make up its audiences are the same privileged classes that the work is critiquing.

Jelinek’s solution to this problem is to again focus on the language. “By my applying the utmost I am capable of linguistically, well, this is my method, which works with the sound of words to over-the-top punning, that is, with language itself, so I use everything I’ve got and go as far as I can go linguistically, and if that is right the political is too.” This might not solve the problem of an audience’s inaction, but it points to a different sort of revolutionary potential embedded within experimental works of art, one that artists themselves may overlook: Jelinek functions as the spy inside the system, creating explosions from within. And this is one of the more interesting contradictions in her work, and often in other experimental works of art: despite its attack on the bourgeois power structures that have created the literary forms and literary market it inhabits, it is still inhibited by these same power structures. It echoes the same dynamics of gender and desire that her earlier works highlight: Is self-destruction also the only option for experimental art? Destroy the audience’s self-assurance, destroy the language that believes itself to be beautiful, to be good. Destroy the metaphors that seek to hide away the brutalities of power. With luck, these oppressive systems will collapse from within.

The American writer reading this might wonder if it is enough. But the American writer reading this also might turn their sight to, say, the English language, to the wrongs to which it has been put in the service of politics, art, interpersonal relationships. I am angry with my language, this tool that can sound like drones bombing or police sirens wailing, but of course I am in love with it too, I am in love with what else the English language can do. This eternal contradiction. As Jelinek writes, “Language knows what it wants. Good for it, because I don’t know, no not at all.”