Austrian Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Times Staff Writer

Elfriede Jelinek, an intensely shy, quirky Austrian writer whose highly political works infused with feminism both unsettle and enthrall her readers, has won the Nobel Prize in literature, the Swedish Academy announced Thursday.

Jelinek is considered one of the most important, and contentious, voices of modern German-language literature. An unexpected choice, she becomes the first Austrian and only the 10th woman to win literature’s highest accolade since the prize was established in 1901.

The academy cited Jelinek “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.”


Her newest works are sharply critical of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.

Her best-known work, the semiautobiographical 1983 novel “The Piano Teacher,” was made into an award-winning film starring Isabelle Huppert in 2001 by German director Michael Haneke. In it, a repressed middle-aged woman, who teaches music and lives at home with a domineering mother, has a secret life cruising Vienna’s seedy neighborhoods in search of sadomasochistic sex.

At her home on the outskirts of Vienna, Jelinek, 57, said Thursday that she was honored but terrified to have been named a Nobel laureate. She said she suffers from a “social phobia,” fears crowds and probably will not attend the Dec. 10 ceremony in Stockholm.

“I am a critical person, I try to criticize society,” she said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “But when you get such a huge prize, they want to put you in their pocket, and this is a danger for me.

“Perhaps I should go away.”

Jelinek’s novels, plays and poems have shined a glaring light on relationships between men and women, exploring the dynamics of power, sex and violence in unforgiving terms.

She has skewered her Austrian homeland for its Nazi past and today’s Europe for a resurgence of fascism and anti-Semitism, and she has satirized the American entertainment industry.

Her novels, the Nobel jury said, “present a pitiless world where the reader is confronted with a locked-down regime of violence and submission, hunter and prey.”

In one novel, “Wonderful, Wonderful Times,” published in 1980, an Austrian SS officer forces his wife into pornographic poses; in another, “Lust,” from 1989, a woman is trapped between a sexual predator of a husband and an equally abusive lover who says he will rescue her.

The subjugation of women is a central theme of much of her work, part of what she sees as her continuing goal to cast light on cruelties of modern society.

“I am always on the side of the powerless, never on the side of the powerful,” Jelinek said Thursday. But, she added, “this is not easy when you get such a prize.”

Jelinek was born in 1946 in the town of Muerzzuschlag, in the southeastern province of Styria, to a Czech-Jewish father and Viennese mother. A musician from an early age, Jelinek studied at the Vienna Conservatory, and for a time pursued a degree in theater and art history at the University of Vienna.

After a debut in 1967 with a volume of poetry, “Lisa’s Shadow,” her works turned increasingly dark and critical through her involvement in leftist student movements and, later, membership in the Communist Party.

Jelinek’s 2003 play, “Bambiland,” offers a sarcastic and bleak assessment of U.S. actions in Iraq and the American media’s portrayal of the war. She said she wrote it while sitting beside the television, incorporating the language and images of the newscasts in her play.

“It was so overwhelming seeing the embedded journalists, so I became a kind of embedded writer,” she said. “I am a great fan of America, but I am hostile against the Bush administration.”

Jelinek’s newest work, “Babel,” is due to premiere in spring 2006. The play deals with, among other subjects, the treatment by U.S. guards of Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad and the killing of private security contractors in Fallouja by Iraqi insurgents. A book comprising “Bambiland” and “Babel” will be published next year.

Still, the Nobel committee said its selection should not be seen as a political commentary.

The academy’s permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, told Associated Press that by the time “Bambiland” was translated into English this year, the Nobel decision was “well underway.” He said the play depicts how “patriotic enthusiasm turns into insanity.”

“She’s completely right about that,” Engdahl said.

Jelinek’s 1995 novel, “Children of the Dead,” depicts Austria as a land of the dead, replete with zombies straight out of a Hollywood horror film.

Elisabeth Juliane Vogel, a professor of modern German literature at the University of Vienna, said “Children of the Dead” is “the most important Austrian book of the ‘90s.” She called it an uncompromising critique of the country’s failure to come to terms with its Nazi past, in which the war dead literally come back to haunt Austria.

“This book shows what happens when you displace guilt and mass murder for such a long time,” Vogel said.

Several of Jelinek’s books have been translated into English, but not “Children of the Dead.” Jelinek, who also works as a translator, acknowledged that her work -- written in a unique dialect that many German speakers find difficult -- defies easy translation.

“They cannot be translated,” she said. “I am sort of a provincial writer, because my works cannot be read by many people.”

Admirers of Jelinek said they were happy for her but surprised that the Nobel nod would go to such a provocative, unconventional writer.

“She is a big fighter, and a tender angel, at the same time,” said Claus Peymann, director in chief of the Berliner Ensemble, the former theater of Bertolt Brecht. “For me she is some kind of a Cassandra of the current theater scene. A Cassandra who sees the evil coming, who screams it out standing on the edge of the abyss -- but nobody believes her.

“I never have deciphered her,” Peymann told German TV. “She carries a big, beautiful and strong secret in herself.”

Klaus Bachler, director of Vienna’s Burgtheater, which regularly stages Jelinek’s theatrical pieces, called the author “truly contemporary.”

“She has her finger in the wounds -- she writes what she sees, what she feels, what makes her angry,” Bachler said.

Austrian politicians lost no time hailing Jelinek’s win. President Heinz Fischer called it “a victory for Austrian literature as a whole,” and Andrea Wolfmayr, a lawmaker with the coalition-leading center-right People’s Party and herself a novelist, said, “Austria can be proud.”

But Jelinek characteristically resisted such sentiments, telling Swedish radio that she did not wish her honor to be “a flower in the buttonhole for Austria.”

Jelinek has been a fierce critic of the Austrian government since 2000, when the far-right Freedom Party became part of the ruling coalition. In protest, she banned domestic productions of her plays for a time.

Politicians on the right have blasted her work as immoral. And patrons at some productions of her plays in Austria have booed or walked out.

Indeed, Jelinek’s work, often shrill, violent and graphic, is by no means everyone’s cup of tea.

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the doyen of German literary critics and no fan of Jelinek, congratulated her in ambivalent terms.

“My admiration for her works is limited,” Reich-Ranicki told German news agency DPA. “But my sympathy for her courage, her radicalism, her determination and her fury is enormous.”


Christian Retzlaff in The Times’ Berlin Bureau and staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Rome contributed to this report.