Elfriede Jelinek

Elfriede Jelinek was born in 1946 and grew up in Vienna. Her father, of Czech-Jewish origin, was a chemist and worked in strategically important industrial production during the Second World War, thereby escaping persecution. Her mother was from a prosperous Vienna family, and Elfriede grew up and went to school in that city. At an early age, she was instructed in piano, organ and recorder and went on to study composition at the Vienna Conservatory. After graduating from the Albertsgymnasium in 1964, she studied theatre and art history at the University of Vienna while continuing her music studies. In 1971, she passed the organist diploma examination at the Conservatory.

Elfriede Jelinek began writing poetry while still young. She made her literary debut with the collection “Lisas Schatten” in 1967. Through contact with the student movement, her writing took a socially critical direction. In 1970 came her satirical novel “wir sind lockvögel baby!”. In common with her next novel “Michael. Ein Jugendbuch für die Infantilgesellschaft” (1972), it had a character of linguistic rebellion, aimed at popular culture and its mendacious presentation of the good life.

After a few years spent in Berlin and Rome in the early 1970s, Jelinek married Gottfried Hüngsberg, and divided her time between Vienna and Munich. She conquered the German literary public with her novels “Die Liebhaberinnen” (1975; “Women as Lovers”, 1994), “Die Ausgesperrten” (1980; “Wonderful, Wonderful Times”, 1990) and the autobiographically based “Die Klavierspielerin” (1983; “The Piano Teacher”, 1988), in 2001 made into an acclaimed film by Michael Haneke. These novels, each within the framework of its own problem complex, present a pitiless world where the reader is confronted with a locked-down regime of violence and submission, hunter and prey. Jelinek demonstrates how the entertainment industry’s clichés seep into people’s consciousness and paralyse opposition to class injustices and gender oppression. In “Lust” (1989; “Lust”, 1992), Jelinek lets her social analysis swell to fundamental criticism of civilisation by describing sexual violence against women as the actual template for our culture. This line is maintained, seemingly in a lighter tone, in “Gier. Ein Unterhaltungsroman” (2000), a study in the cold-blooded practice of male power. With special fervour, Jelinek has castigated Austria, depicting it as a realm of death in her phantasmagorical novel, “Die Kinder der Toten” (1995). Jelinek is a highly controversial figure in her homeland. Her writing builds on a lengthy Austrian tradition of linguistically sophisticated social criticism, with precursors such as Johann Nepomuk Nestroy, Karl Kraus, Ödön von Horváth, Elias Canetti, Thomas Bernhard and the Wiener Group.

The nature of Jelinek’s texts is often hard to define. They shift between prose and poetry, incantation and hymn, they contain theatrical scenes and filmic sequences. The primacy in her writing has however moved from novel-writing to drama. Her first radio play, “wenn die sonne sinkt ist für manche schon büroschluss”, was very favourably received in 1974. She has since written a large number of pieces for radio and the theatre, in which she successively abandoned traditional dialogues for a kind of polyphonic monologues that do not serve to delineate roles but to permit voices from various levels of the psyche and history to be heard simultaneously. What she puts on stage in plays like “Wolken.Heim.”, “Ein Sportstück”, “Das Werk”, “Ulrike Maria Stuart”, “Rechnitz (Der Würgeengel)”, “Winterreise” and others are less characters than “language interfaces” confronting each other. One of Jelinek’s most recent play, “The Merchant’s Contracts, a Comedy of Economics” written in 2008 before the fall of the Lehman Brothers, deals with the mechanisms which lead to the global financial crisis.

Jelinek has translated others’ works (Thomas Pynchon, Georges Feydeau, Eugène Labiche, Christopher Marlowe, Oscar Wilde) and has also written film scripts and an opera libretto. Alongside her literary writing she has made a reputation as a dauntless polemicist with a website always poised to comment on burning issues.

Literary Prizes and Awards: The Young Austrian Culture Week Poetry and Prose Prize (1969), the Austrian University Students’ Poetry Prize (1969), the Austrian State Literature Stipendium (1972), the City of Stadt Bad Gandersheim’s Roswitha Memorial Medal (1978), The West German Interior Ministry Prize for Film Writing (1979), the West German Ministry of Education and Art Appreciation Prize (1983), the City of Cologne Heinrich Böll Prize (1986), the Province of Styria Literature Prize (1987), the City of Vienna Literature Appreciation Prize (1989), the City of Aachen Walter Hasenclever Prize (1994), the City of Bochum Peter Weiss Prize (1994), the Bremer Literature Prize (1996), the Georg Büchner Prize (1998), the Berlin Theatre Prize (2002), the City of Düsseldorf Heinrich Heine Prize (2002), the Mülheimer Theatre Prize (2002, 2004, 2009, 2011), the Else Lasker Schüler Prize (for her entire dramatic work), Mainz (2003), the Lessing Critics’ Prize, Wolfenbüttel (2004), the Stig Dagerman Prize, Älvkarleby (2004), The Blind War Veterans’ Radio Theatre Prize, Berlin (2004), The Franz-Kafka Literature Prize, Prag (2004), The Nobelprize for Literature, Stockholm (2004).

As of January 2016

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