Elfriede Jelinek: Language Spinner

At 60, Elfriede Jelinek Continues to Weave Stories While Her Critics Unravel the Meanings

Elfriede Jelinek had been excited and smiled on her way home from seeing Otta Breicha, director of the Austrian Literature Association. He had told her she was “somehow gifted for literature.” It was 1967, and she was only 21.

But while Breicha’s support opened up a new horizon, it hardly anticipated the important literary career that followed for Jelinek, who turned 60 on Oct. 20 – much less her 2004 Nobel Prize, the only ever awarded to an Austrian writer.

Instead, Breich suggested that “a heap of rubble” awaited her. He taught her that “when you’re used to living in the garbage dump, when you love it, then you will not want to live anywhere else, and out of this heap of rubble, you will be able to take something out from it, you are allowed to cut a slice from it, eat until you’re filled up by the gnawed off chicken bones, the rumpled up milk cartons, and the wrapped up chewed gum.”

Elfriede Jelinek has always been a rebel, someone who took slices of the grey and the dark sides of the world and decided to reinvent language to become a voice of her own, a daunting endeavor that may carry its own risks.

Some think her plays, novels and essays are difficult to read and even more to understand. And translators of her work find it very hard to bring out in a different language the essence of Jelinek’s thought.
Alexander Litsauer who helped translate the Spanish version of the plays Bambiland and Babel, didn’t have a strong connection to Jelinek’s work beforehand.

“I had not built a rapport as a reader of Elfriede Jelinek, because I found her texts unreadable (at least for the one who looks for suspense and amusement in reading) and each time I was left with a feeling of powerlessness and anxiety,” said Litsauer this year in a letter published by the Elfriede Jelinek Research Center.

Jelinek was born in the Austrian region of Styria and raised in Vienna. She learned to play the piano, flute, violin, and viola as a child. Writing also became a kind of instrument, only with a different type of language in which to give form to her ideas.

“A new instrument had joined the others: Language, that which opens all and closes it as well, and locks itself on all and is itself everything,” wrote Jelinek in a memoir dedicated to Breicha.  She builds new languages that are similar but different from what already exist. Jelinek’s goal in the novel Lust was to write a pornographic vocabulary for women. But her critics seem to get lost in the translation, accusing her of writing not literature but violent, obscene, and vulgar pornography.

One of her harshest critics was Nobel Academy judge Knut Ahnlud, 82, who resigned the Academy a year later as a protest to Jelinek’s Nobel Award. He told Die Welt the Academy had chosen Jelinek “because they thought they would be well regarded if they gave the award to a radical feminist.” He himself, he admitted, had not even read her work before she was given the award. The Academy, however, defended its decision in a letter sent to the Associated Press last year, commenting that Ahnuld had had no role in the selection process since1996, thus his ignorance of her work had been irrelevant.

Jelinek succeeded in her desire to produce new words and forms of speech, both actively or passively. Her provocative works cause a reaction in others and thus, the web of words is spun out of control. New narratives build over the old ones and new ideas are born.

Long before the anger she awoke among conservative literary critics, Breicha urged her to follow her own path, even when others didn’t like it.

“Chewing gum balls, a thousand times chewed up, sucked dry, spat out, from which the essence of the grey is settled, in the way that we see it and are allowed to see it as we wish,” wrote Jelinek about her mentor’s lessons.

“Go ahead girl, go ahead” said Breicha, “it will be worth while, even when it doesn’t become the absolute of absoluteness, when you don’t become that-which-is or even advance, it doesn’t matter either. It is then something else, but by all means go ahead, regardless of where you end up.”

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