Since "Wonderful Wonderful Times" is set in the 1950s gloom of postwar Vienna; since everyone in it is crass, corrupt or distorted; and since it ends in a horrible blood bath, the title could justifiably be taken as gallows humor of the crudest kind.
It is, in fact. Jelinek's characters, and the voice she uses to tell of them, are fashioned with black irony and jarring distortion. Yet the ultimate effect is grace, a dark image delivered in terms appropriate to it, but in a draftsmanship that conveys a hint of delicacy and lyricism, as if these had been ejected from the room but continued to haunt it. We think of George Grosz.
Like Thomas Bernhard, her older Austrian compatriot, Elfriede Jelinek writes of the still-unsettled accounts of the 20th Century. Austria is the place to do it, of course; with the dismemberment of her one-time empire, the bitter chaos following World War I, her acceptance of the Nazi version of being German, and her abdication of a version of her own.
The unhealed guilts were never confronted they way they largely were in Germany. Avoidance is paid for in the figure of an internationally shunned president whose history is as unclear as that of his country. And in the harsh, surreal denunciation by such writers as Bernhard and Jelinek.
The sleep of memory, like that of reason, produces monsters. Rainer, his twin sister Anna, and their buddies Hans and Sophie, are monsters of a sort, as they rampage around Vienna. They are teen-agers for whom the word wilding would be invented 30 years later; they waylay passersby, rob and savagely beat them.
But Jelinek does not write of this violence as we write of American wilding--as awful and arbitrary acts afflicted upon a troubled but still coherent society. It is Vienna, and the society that emerged from its past without naming it, that is awful and arbitrary. Monstrosity is the history that the four young people breathe. And because it is, Jelinek can endow them with a measure of perverted innocence. Fleetingly, we perceive the innocence along with the perversion.
When we meet them at the start, the four are at work upon an unfortunate innocent who happens to be walking through the park. Anna, thin and perpetually raging, concentrates on scratching his face and eyes. Hans, a factory worker, punches stolidly away. Sophie, from a rich family, keeps her distance and uses the points of her expensive boots. Rainer, the intellectual, does little actual damage; he concentrates mainly on fumbling for the wallet.
I referred to the victim as "an innocent," but Jelinek's narrator does not altogether agree. Its voice suggests that to have a wallet is already not to be altogether innocent. It is a disembodied voice, sardonic, amused, nihilistic, with an occasional moralizing phrase that parodies respectability, like a teen-ager trying on his aunt's hat.
We hear it describing the initiation of Sophie into the gang. Rainer--whose mother named him after the poet Rilke--is an existentialist, an admirer of Camus and Sartre. When he sits with the others in a cafe, something they do a lot of, he tries to practice Sartrean "nausea," though he only manages queasiness. Sophie, he decides, must commit an existential free act, so they all go off to the Vienna Woods carrying a sack that twitches:
"In Jean-Paul Sartre's 'The Age of Reason' is a character who wants to drown his acts, and so today they are planning to drown this cat too, though this cat also has a right to live. Rainer says that he himself has an equal right to nonexistence, just as this cat does, this cat which he is going to assist on its way to nonexistence before it can count to three. The cat has its suspicions. Hence the brouhaha in the sack."
Sophie gets her designer dress muddy and botches the job. Hans smacks her on the mouth. Both the mud and the smack are piquancies for her; she hangs out with the others as a diversion from her privileged life. She brings the gang home mainly to annoy her mother; she makes Hans strip and masturbate but won't let him touch her. She has the coldness of the rich and powerful, and will leave the others at the end to go to school in Switzerland.
Hans, son of the widow of a Communist labor leader, rebuffs his mother's efforts to make him socially conscious. He burns her pamphlets; he wants to be a rock star; he is besotted with Sophie. Since he can't have her, he has energetic sex with Anna.
She, like her brother, is an intellectual, or tries to be. In fact, her philosophical fury masks perfectly conventional longings; she falls helplessly and romantically in love with Hans. As for Rainer, he too is obsessed with Sophie and tries to win her from Hans by talking incessantly. After one of the gang's sorties, he begs her to stay with him. "I need someone to explain everything to," he says, imagining himself a fashionable savant to whom beautiful women are bound to flock the way they do--he has heard--in Paris.
If the gang's maraudings and arguments are narrated with a sardonic lightness, the comedy is grimmer when it comes to Anna's and Rainer's parents. The father is a former SS man, now crippled and working at a humdrum job. He is as filled with rage and fantasies as Anna is, but his are real and deadly.
"His one-time enemies got away through the chimneys and crematoria of Auschwitz and Treblinka," the narrator savagely tells us. He can't kill Jews, but he can beat his wife. He interrupts her cooking to make her strip and pose for pornographic photographs; it is hard, he tells himself, for a man to be satisfied with one naked alive woman when he has seen piles of naked dead ones. For real arousal, he pulls out his pistol and rushes into the kitchen to "rape" his wife. She is wearily submissive, but it is necessary for him to think of it that way.
Hans, with his rock-star fantasies, represents the corruption of the working class; Rainer's father, the corrupt history of the middle class; Sophie's all-but-invisible parents, the continuing corruption of the wealthy and powerful. Their grotesquerie fills gradually with horror.
Rainer's intellectual fantasies, which have protected him from his own and the world's rage, give way in a scene of wild bloodiness. Until then, except for the manipulative Sophie, the young people were like frail and jaunty paper boats floating in a sewer. Its contents--Austria's unpurged history of denial--is backed up. Of course, it will rise and engulf them.