Elfriede Jelinek's Nobel Prize

By Bob Corbett
This essay appeared in the Guardian Newspaper in England the day after Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize in 2004

Elfriede Jelinke's Wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, 2004
October 2004

Nobel Prize for Literature.

I discovered the writings of Elfriede Jelinik in 1998 while teaching in Vienna. She challenged me deeply with her bitter and uncompromising pessimism. Her anger, even rage at the world stunned and repelled me, but the power in her writing made me sit up and take notice. My first read was her novel WONDERFUL WONDERFUL TIMES, the title itself harsh irony. I later used this novel in courses I taught on philosophical fiction.

Five young people in post-war Vienna are in the throes of meaninglessness and decide that random unprovoked violence against others is a way out of this dark hole. Their leader, Rainer Maria Witkowski outraged me as he pretended to have a defense of this violence from the writings of Albert Camus, an important influence on my own life.

I seethed, but I read on and on. Jelinik took me by storm since I had to recognize these were very real people. True, they didnít live in my neighborhood, but I knew they were legion. I pride myself on being a realist and was taken aback by my repulsion of these very real people. I had to deal with that. I had to come to terms with Jelinek.

For me thatís what a great artist does. She sees the world, her world, some corner of the world, and reveals it to the rest of us in her medium, words in Jelinekís case. I want to know my world, but I need the stimulation and challenge provided by artists, and Jelinek has become very important to me in my later years.

Her realism rang true, but her pessimism in the face of that realism was less compelling. Why not just accept these people and their ugly worlds and go on? I sort of think that is my world. I found it marvelously ironic that I began to regard her very rage, anger and disgust at the world as not at all pessimistic, but a quiet optimism. She may not believe the world can be a better place, but she is furious that this is so. She is morally outraged. I nearly envy her.

At the English book shop in Vienna back in 1998 the clerk was very pleased I was shopping for Jelinekís books. She claimed Jelinek was fairly much unknown outside Austria. However, in discussion with Austrian friends I discovered she was little known INSIDE Austria as well and not much liked. I was delighted at the wisdom of the Nobel Prize establishment for recognizing her talent and important place in literature. Perhaps now more than these four slim novels will become available in English. I will be looking hopefully for new translations.

The other three works currently available are her best known work THE PIANO TEACHER and two fairly short novels LUST and WOMAN AS LOVERS.

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Bob Corbett is professor emeritus of philosophy from Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri, USA. He currently spends much of his time in retirement reading philosophical novels and writing comments on them. His comments may be found on his web page at: http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/personal/reading.html

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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