Elfriede Jelinek

also available in German

Austrian author, 2004 Nobel laureate for literature

born 20. Oct. 1946 in Mürzzuschlag, Styria



elfriede jelinekElfriede Jelinek, whose mother (Olga, née Buchner) was the personnel manager of a major firm and whose father (Dr. Friedrich Jelinek) was a chemist with a working-class background, grew up in Vienna. She later described her years in a Catholic kindergarten and then a convent school as extremely restrictive. While still in school she took organ and piano lessons at the Vienna Conservatory. She studied art history and theater arts at the University of Vienna and concluded her study of organ in 1971.

Since 1966 she has worked as an author, living alternately in Vienna and Munich. In 1974 Jelinek married Gottfried Hüngsberg, who at the time composed film music for Rainer Werner Fassbinder but since the mid-1970’s has worked in Munich in the field of information technology.

elfriede-jelinekJelinek’s oeuvre can be grouped into three phases. Her earliest works criticize capitalism and the consumer society. In the 1980’s she aims biting criticism at patriarchal society. “In the novels Oh Wildnis, oh Schutz vor ihr (Oh Wilderness, Oh Protection from It, 1985), Die Klavierspielerin (The Piano Teacher, 1988), Lust (Lust, 1989), Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead, 1995), the dramas Was geschah, nachdem Nora ihren Mann verlassen hatte oder Stützen der Gesellschaft (What Happened After Nora Left Her Husband or Pillars of Society, 1979), Clara S. (1982) and Krankheit oder Moderne Frauen (Sickness or Modern Women, 1984) Jelinek describes the deadly traps in which female figures are ensnared” (D. von Hoff) – without, however, creating positive heroines. Since the end of the 1980"s she has attacked the fascist past and anti-semitic present of Austria and Germany. In 1998 Jelinek was awarded the prestigious German Büchner Prize.

elfriede jelinekElfriede Jelinek is the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004. In its official announcement of October 7 the committee cites the “musical flow of voices and counter-voices” in her work, that “with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveals the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.”

Jelinek is the tenth woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her predecessors in this otherwise 90% male-occupied province are:

1909 Selma Lagerlöf, Sweden (1858-1940)
1926 Grazia Deledda, Italy (1871-1936)
1928 Sigrid Undset, Norway (1882-1949)
1938 Pearl S. Buck, USA (1892-1973)
1945 Gabriela Mistral, Chile (1889-1957)
1966 Nelly Sachs, Sweden/Germany (1891-1970)
1991 Nadine Gordimer, South Africa (*1923)
1993 Toni Morrison, USA (*1931)
1996 Wislawa Szymborska, Poland (*1923)

Luise F. Pusch. Translated by Joey Horsley.

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Quotations and commentary on Jelinek’s work

“This country needs lots of space up above, so that its blessed spirits can hover properly above the waters. In some places it rises over three thousand meters. So much nature has been lavished on this country that it, perhaps in order to pay back its debt to nature, has for its part always dealt rather liberally with its people, tossing them away after barely tasting them.” (Die Kinder der Toten / The Children of the Dead, 1995) – In her critical regional novel Jelinek writes 50 years after the war’s end about the repressed Nazi past and how the new Austrian republic rests upon the precarious foundation of millions of disavowed murder victims. According to literary critic Sigrid Löffler, Austria has never been more horribly portrayed as a realm of the dead and of killers. (Dagmar von Hoff)

Unfortunately the aesthetic power of her works has often been underestimated and the author has been pathologised; this is practically guaranteed by Jelinek’s interview strategy of reflecting the questioner’s own perspective back to him. (Dagmar von Hoff)

The critics have found her literature to be torturous reading, to be pornography, and her reading public tends to leap from the viciousness of the text to a presumed viciousness of the writer: One often succumbs to the error of considering the author to be inhuman, unloving and cynical simply because she is able to describe inhumanity and lovelessness with such cynicism. (Sigrid Löffler in Emma 10/1985)

The singularity of Jelinek’s work stems from her politically explosive themes and the disruptive aesthetic power of her texts…. One of the best known and most controversial authors in the German language, she writes prose fiction and dramas that admit of no central interpretation which might penetrate the heart of her texts. Rather, she develops a decentering structure. For this structure she breaks apart various bodies of text, dissects them, and fuses particles in a new way. She dissects the words of others, trivial phrases, literature, and theoretical discourses, and recombines them in a textual web that has a decomposing and disintegrative effect, but also constructs. (D. von Hoff)

Quotations of Elfriede Jelinek

Elfriede Jelinek in conversation with author Marlene Streeruwitz, published in Emma, September/October 1997:

I was never as popular with men as [Ingeborg] Bachmann was.

Of course it’s also true that by my way of dressing and using make-up I’m trying to compensate for the fact that I didn’t learn the feminine role in time or really well.

After they limited woman for centuries to her biological function, they can get rid of her entirely now.

We find the words for what’s going on, but nothing changes.

We’re not permitted to say “I.” And at bottom we aren’t able to either … That’s why I write in such an “exemplary” way; I don’t portray individual fates. I describe a female It and actually have the feeling that I’m writing for and with all women.

And then as a woman you also learn that intellect reduces the erotic value of a woman. That’s painful.

It’s exclusively scholars involved in women’s research who study my work … The only ones who take me and my work seriously are female dissertation-writers.

It’s constantly being said that feminism is superfluous since women have of course already achieved everything; but you only have to look at how much of the world’s wealth is controlled by women. In fact exactly 1 per cent. That is a joke. And on top of it all you have to justify yourself for being a feminist. As if one could possibly be anything else!

Luise F. Pusch

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Hedwig Dohm