By Elfriede Jelinek.
Translated from the German by Michael Hulse (from the 1980 German edition).
253 pages
London: Serpent's Tale, 1990.
ISBN: 1-85242-168-1

Comments of Bob Corbett
September 2000

Elfriede Jelinek creates a chilling and depressing story of four more to less disaffected youth in Vienna toward the end of the 1950s. The economy is booming and three of the four are gymnasium students being provided with superior educations and likely to have the opportunity to succeed in new economy. But for various reasons they will have no part of it. Instead they wallow in hate, self-pity and the need for adventure, even meaningless and harmful violence. They manage to bring themselves from talk of it all to committing two rather brutal muggings in which they beat the victim far beyond anything necessary for a robbery. The money, as one character unconvincingly tells us, is not what it is about.

The four main characters, are all near 18 years old, Hans is perhaps a bit older. They are:

Jelinek takes us through several weeks of their pointless lives as the three of them both prepare for their school leaving exams as though they have a normal future, while at the same time going on and on about the meaninglessness of it all, and how only through random violence can they achieve freedom, which is the asserted ultimate value. Rainer is the one who drives these wild fantasies and he is reading Albert Camus' THE STRANGER during much of the novel. It is ironic that shortly before the tragic end he announces to his beloved (the love is NOT returned) that they will next read THE PLAGUE. It's hard not to wonder if time had allowed for them to get that far, would Camus' much more hopeful, caring and loving novel have changed the spirit which dominated Rainer's life.

It is fairly clear during much of the novel that Sophie and Hans are only play acting and this will definitely be a short stage in an other ways fairly traditional lives. Anna is more difficult to figure. She desperately wants love and recognition and fixes on Hans to provide it. Just at the very end she seems to have a decent shot at this and just before the end Jelinek leaves us believing she has a path out of her life of hatred and suffering.

But it is much harder to see what might ever bring Rainer around to meaningfulness. He lives a self-deluding contradiction between an announced life of utter meaninglessness with the only possibility being the achievement of freedom via random and purposeless violence, while, on the other hand, creating fantasies that the love of Sophie and admittance into her world will provide him with a comfortable bourgeois life as a professor of literature. What is even more difficult in seeing any out for Rainer is that his entire world is such a delusion from his misreading of Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet and others, to his utter fantasy which is put down each day, that Sophie actually loves him and is preparing to give herself to him.

There is a supporting case of three other less developed characters, but not much more loveable. Rainer and Anna's parents are a child's nightmare. His father is an ex-SS officer who lost a leg in the war and now beats his wife and children as he once did his prisoners. He is also engaged in a brutal sadistic "hobby" of pornographic photography using his wife as model. She is herself a pathetic figure who simply allows herself to be beaten and used by this brutal and frightening, but seriously crippled man. Their slovenly and disgusting home life added to they degeneracy of their moral world is enough to account for Rainer and Anna.

Hans' mother is a somewhat more sympathetic figure, but she's still fixated upon the Marxist view of socialist labor from the 1930s and wants only that Hans follow the path laid by her dead husband (a victim in the war of the likes of Rainer and Anna's father) and herself. She never lets up on Hans with her dreams of the world that never was and the heroism that has long since died. Perhaps it is the very fact that while a sad character, she is not nearly as disgusting or pathetic as the Witkowski twins' parents, that allows Hans to also be a much less hopeless figure.

The novel ends in catastrophic tragedy shattering and ending lives in the process.

Elfriede Jelinek is a masterful writer. She creates these horrible people, makes them amazingly real and keeps one riveted and reading despite the terrible distaste (and sadness) one feels for virtually everyone who appears in the book. She employs style of short sentences with parentheses to constantly bring us inside the mind of this or that character, or identify who it is that is speaking. The mix of what is actually said, and what is only thought, of what all know and of what only WE know, is brilliantly conceived and carried off with skill.

Along the way Jelinek raises such philosophical themes as the power of families to shape their children and the implication of the obligation to do so with seriousness of purpose; the question of the mind set of the German people after the war and the impact of the war on the entire culture; comments on the massive dislocation of the culture which was created in the aftermath of the war, or for that matter, in any dramatic revision of the fundamental economy of a society.

But for me two particular issues stood out and challenged me a great deal: Questions of the adequacy of the Existentialist account of meaninglessness, the subjective morality that follows from it and the account of life as an individual; the second problem is closely related to the first -- just what is the moral responsibility of the intellectuals for the ideas they create and the possible, even likely, misunderstanding of them by disturbed people like Rainer Witkowski. This latter raises the questions again which Plato raised in his REPUBLIC about the role of the artist in society.

Rainer has read a fair amount of Existentialist writings and gotten them in a fairly muddled manner, mixing his understand of the text with his other agendas and doing virtually nothing to seriously challenge his understand, thus elevating his understandings to the status of truth. I'm not much concerned with that problem first. Rather, how is one to understand the Existentialist account of human relations and morality in a world whose meaning, if any, is unknowable to the human, and is thus, for all intents and purposes, to be taken as objectively meaningless?

I won't deal with that particular problem here. It is a topic that needs to be treated in some depth and I have plans to do that in another place. But, Jelinek's novel is virtually a text book case of the problematic.

The second fundamental issue that troubles me with Jelinek's case is just what is the responsibility of Existentialist writers for the misunderstandings or slants on their work such as that Rainer takes? Jean-Paul Sartre in his essay "Existentialism Is A Humanism" says accurately, "[Existentialism] is the least scandalous, the most austere of doctrines. It is intended strictly for specialists and philosophers." I think Sartre is correct about this. However, many Existentialist express their philosophical thought in the form of novels, claiming, again rightly, that the attention to detail of the situation is so important that this form of communication is more useful that "straight" philosophy. However, the novel is much more accessible to most people than difficult philosophical texts like Sartre's BEING AND NOTHINGNESS or Heidegger's even more difficult BEING AND TIME.

It's a hard problem. The artist, the thinker, the scientist simply MUST uncover the world, reveal new things, new ways of seeing the world, challenge and criticize limited views and make the case for the world as they see it. At the same time, ideas are very dangerous things, people come to them, grasp them with more or less accuracy and very often with less, and act in ways it is highly unlikely they would have acted were they not to have been inspired by the ideas which they understand as they do, perhaps well and accurately, perhaps not.

Are the authors responsible for anything more than the creation of their versions of the truth?

My tendency is very strongly to say that the artist, the philosophy, the scientist, he or she who uncovers or tries seriously to uncover truth, must simply do it and present those findings to the world. Then along comes a book like Jelinek's and one cannot help but shutter a bit at what the disturbed Rainer does with those ideas.

Again, I cannot develop these themes here in any depth; I don't even have anything to say about this particular problem that approaches depth. But the Elfriede Jelinek's novel certain is troubling.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu