Austrian writer Jelinek wins Nobel prize

Feminist lauded by academy for `musical flow of voices'

October 08, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN BOOK EDITOR

The Nobel Prize in literature was awarded yesterday to Austrian novelist, poet and playwright Elfriede Jelinek, a feminist writer with an uncompromisingly dark, disturbing and occasionally brutal vision of human nature.

Jelinek, a little-known author on this side of the Atlantic but one of the most celebrated voices in the German language, was lauded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for "her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's cliches and their subjugating power."

She is the first woman to win the literature prize since 1996 and only the 10th in the 103-year history of the prize.

"They assured me that I received the prize because they value my work, not because I am a woman," Jelinek, told the Associated Press in Vienna yesterday. She will not attend the December ceremony in Stockholm, she said, because she suffers from "a social phobia."

Although pleased about the prize, Jelinek said she "can't stand" the attention that comes with it. With her phone and doorbell constantly ringing, she said her plans for the coming days were simply "to disappear."

In her fiction, Jelinek, 57, has explored pornography, sadomasochism, persecution, and what she regards as the degradation of women at the hands of men. Her work is peopled by characters who are fractured, self-lacerating and pathologic.

If Jelinek is unyielding as a writer, she has been described as no less so as a person. During the student movement in Europe in the 1970s, she was a member of the Communist Party from 1974 until 1991. She has been a vituperative critic of Austria's lack of candor about its Nazi past (her father, who she has said went mad, was Jewish, her mother Catholic). She was so incensed in 2000 when the fascist Freedom Party was invited to join Austria's ruling coalition that she refused to let her plays be performed in her country. She took revenge on the Freedom Party's xenophobic, anti-Semitic leader, Joerg Haider, who had called her work "degenerate," by writing Das Lebewohl (The Farewell), a monologue satirizing him.

Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger, a fellow Austrian and head of the foreign language and literature department at Lafayette College, yesterday called Jelinek courageous for refusing to bow to pressures and continuing to "speak for the underdog, and not just women but many segments of society with no voice."

Her works tend to provoke, and her plays have sometimes been received with hooting and shouting matches.

Her 1998, award-winning Sports Play correlated competitive sports with Nazism. Her 1992 novel, Lust, which Jelinek said portrayed, "the violence by the man against the woman" in marriage, outraged many male critics in Europe who dismissed her as man-hating. Her best- known work in America, the 1983 novel, The Piano Teacher, is about a deeply unhappy woman who mutilates herself, frequents porno parlors and engages in degrading sex. It was adapted into a 2002 movie.

Her latest play, last year's Bambiland, is a relentless attack on the U.S. war in Iraq.

"The nature of Jelinek's texts is often hard to define," the Swedish academy said. "They shift between prose and poetry, incantation and hymn, they contain theatrical scenes and filmic sequences.

Jelinek defies easy categorizing. She is given to designer clothing and makeup, which at one time drew derision from feminists and Marxists. She once allowed a German magazine to photograph her tied to a bed. And she has described herself as a compulsive liar and a masochist.

If true, she is now a lying, masochistic Nobel laureate.

Nobel literature

Austrian novelist and poet Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize in literature yesterday. The decision to award the prize to a woman, and a poet, was the first since 1996.

Past winners

2003 M-r J.M. Coetzee, South Africa

2002 M-r Imre Kertesz, Hungary

2001 M-r V.S. Naipaul, Trinidad-born Briton

2000 M-r Gao Xing jian, Chineseborn French

Source: Nobel Foundation

-- Associated Press

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