Elfriede Jelinek belongs to that select group of writers (Imre Kertész, Gao Xingjian and Herta Muller would be other recent examples) who remain relatively unknown to the English-language reading public, despite having been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Much of Jelinek’s work has yet to be translated, and even those of her novels which appear in English seem to have found few readers. This is a mystery to me, as she has all the makings of a cult figure a la Roberto Bolaño. Unlike Bolaño, who’s safely dead and available for mythologizing, Jelinek is still alive, if in seclusion because of her avowed “social phobia,” which prevents her from engaging in most forms of public activity.
Her 1980 novel Die Ausgesperrten (Wonderful Wonderful Times) was my book of 2009. The story of a group of nineteen-fifties Viennese teenagers who assault a man in a park, it’s a bleak and brutal tale, which skewers post-war Austria for what its author perceives as a kind of willful blindness to the fascist tendencies still at work in its society. I found the book remarkable for a particular tone, whose implications for my own writing I’ve yet to follow through. Jelinek’s characters are complex and compellingly drawn. She understands their desires and motivations, yet draws them without the slightest trace of sympathy. More than that – she eviscerates them without mercy. She is absolutely unforgiving of their many faults, their self-delusions, their pettiness. This gives a kind of doubleness to the writing. It’s simultaneously a broad (and sometimes very funny) satire and a piece of realism. Most satirists sacrifice realism; most realists deal in “sympathy,” which draws the reader into collusion with the characters and offers some kind of explanation or excuse for their actions. Jelinek’s writing, even in English translation, is compressed, blunt. Her observations are frequently cruel. I don’t want to live in her world, but suspect that in fact I do. This is what makes her a great writer.