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Elfriede Jelinek's works often contain harsh social criticismImage: dpa

Literature Nobel Prize Goes to Austria's Jelinek

DW staff (jam)
October 8, 2004

For only the ninth time in the 103-year history of the Nobel Prize, the award for literature has gone to a woman. Elfriede Jelinek was commended for her frequent critiques of consumerism and the subjugation of women.


The Royal Swedish Academy announced Thursday that the 57-year-old novelist, poet, dramatist and essayist Elfriede Jelinek has won literature's top honor, saying the "musical flow of voices and counter-voices" in her work "reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power."

Jelinek, born in the Steiermark region of Austria in 1946, made her literary debut in 1967 with the publication of a poetry collection called "Lisas Schatten" ("Lisa's Shadow"). But she first gained wider attention with the 1970 release of a satirical novel, "We Are Decoys, Baby," which set the theme for much of her later work, in which she unemotionally -- some would say coldly -- illustrates the violence and power plays inherent in human relations, especially those between the sexes.

Filmszene Die Klavierspielerin von Elfriede Jelinek
A scene from the film "The Piano Teacher"Image: dpa Concorde

Other well-known works include "The Lover," the semi-autobiographical "The Piano Teacher," which was made into a 2002 movie starring actress Isabelle Huppert (photo), and "Lust," all of which paint the world as a brutal dance between hunter and prey, where sexual violence, particularly against women, is one of the defining characteristics of global culture.

It was the publication of her 1995 novel "Die Kinder der Toten" ("The Children of the Dead"), which set her on a par with other Austrian literary greats such as Karl Kraus, Ödön von Horvath and Thomas Bernhard. Jelinek has said she considers it her defining work, in which she presents a razor-sharp critique of Austrian society what she once called "a ghost story of Austrian identity."

While she has become one of Austria's most influential voices, but her subject matter and style, sometimes considered pornographic, has drawn good deal of criticism. She is controversial to say the least.

Diverse influences

Early in her adult life, Jelinek pursued a career in music, studying composition at the Vienna Conservatory. Later she added theater studies and art history to her resume and began turning her attention to poetry and prose. It was after she became involved in the student movement in the late 1960s that her tone changed and she began exploring social inequalities and sexual power politics.

Buchhandel Bücher von Elfriede Jelinek
Booksellers are now putting her books on prominent displayImage: AP

Her diverse background has led to a style that many find hard to categorize. The Swedish Academy described it as often floating "between prose and poetry, incantation and hymn." Her works contain theatrical scenes and film sequences and some of her later works for the stage have completely done away with the idea of living characters. Jelinek has opted instead for "talking surfaces" that interact with one another.

Since her 1974 marriage, Jelinek has divided her time between Vienna and Munich.

Praise from German literary community

Alexander Fest, head of the German publishing house Rowohlt, which released Jelinek's work for many years, said he was thrilled with the Nobel committee's selection, describing Jelinek as a writer "undreamt of indiosyncracy" who has consistently shown "great courage and great ruthlessness in the face of her subjects and herself."

Germany's perhaps best-known literary critic, Marcel Reich-Ranicki, said he was overjoyed that another female author writing in the German language had one the award. He called Jelinek an "extremely unusual, radical and extreme author, and as a result, a highly controversial one."

According to him, Jelinek will not go to Stockholm to accept the award personally, because she is -- perhaps unlike her subject matter -- "a very nervous, very sensitive and delicate woman."

Her Nobel Prize will be accompanied by a check for more than 10 million Swedish kroner (€1.1 million, $1.3 million).

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