Elfriede Jelinek, Nobel Prize in Literature 2004

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Elfriede Jelinek

Birthplace: Mürzzuschlag, Steiermark, Österreich
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Friedrich Jelinek and Olga Ilona Jelinek
Wife of Private

Occupation: Austrian playwright and novelist.
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Immediate Family

About Elfriede Jelinek, Nobel Prize in Literature 2004

Elfriede Jelinek (born October 20, 1946) is an Austrian playwright and novelist. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004 for her "musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power."


Jelinek was born on October 20, 1946, in Mürzzuschlag, Styria, Austria. She was raised in Vienna by her Romanian-German mother and Czech Jewish father (whose surname "Jelinek" means "little deer" in Czech). Her father was a chemist, who managed to avoid persecution during the Second World War by working in strategically important industrial production. However, several dozen family members became victims of the Holocaust. Her mother, with whom she shared the household even as an adult, and with whom she had a difficult relationship, was from a formerly prosperous Vienna family. As a child, Elfriede suffered from what she considered an over-restrictive education in a Roman Catholic convent school in Vienna. Her mother planned a career for her as a musical wunderkind. Elfriede was instructed in piano, organ, guitar, violin, viola and recorder from an early age. Later, she went on to study at the Vienna Conservatory, where she graduated with an organist diploma. Jelinek also studied art history and drama at the University of Vienna. However, she had to discontinue her studies due to an anxiety disorder that prevented her from following courses. Jelinek started writing poetry at a young age. She made her literary debut with the collection Lisas Schatten in 1967. She married Gottfried Hüngsberg on June 12, 1974; she has no children. “ I was 27; he was 29. I knew enough men. Sexuality was, strangely, the only area where I emancipated myself early on. Our marriage takes place in two cities. It's a kind of Tale of Two Cities in the Dickensian sense. I've always commuted between Vienna and Munich. Vienna is where I've always lived because my friends are here and because I've never wanted to leave Vienna. In the end I've been caught up here. Munich is my husband's city and so I've always travelled to and from, and that's been good for our marriage. ”

Work and politics

Her work was largely unknown outside the German-speaking world before she won the Nobel Prize, and it was said to resemble that of acclaimed Austrian playwright Thomas Bernhard. In fact, despite the author's own differentiation from Austria (due to her criticism of Austria's Nazi-past) Jelinek's writing is deeply rooted in the tradition of Austrian literature, showing the influence of Austrian writers such as Ingeborg Bachmann and Robert Musil. Jelinek's political positions, in particular her feminist stance and her Communist Party affiliations, are of vital importance to any assessment of her work. They are also a part of the reason for the controversy directed at Jelinek and her work.

Brief history of Jelinek's political engagements Jelinek was a member of Austria's Communist Party from 1974 to 1991. She became a household name during the 1990s due to her vociferous clash with Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party. Following the 1999 National Council elections and the subsequent formation of a coalition cabinet consisting of the Freedom Party and the Austrian People's Party, Jelinek became one of the new cabinet's most vocal critics. Many foreign governments moved swiftly to ostracize Austria's administration, citing the Freedom Party's alleged nationalism and authoritarianism. The cabinet construed the sanctions against it as directed against Austria as such, and attempted to prod the nation into a national rallying (Nationaler Schulterschluss) behind the coalition parties. This provoked a temporary heating of the political climate severe enough for dissidents such as Jelinek to be accused of treason by coalition supporters. Jelinek also petitioned for the release of Jack Unterweger, who was imprisoned for the murder of a prostitute, and who was regarded by intellectuals and politicians as an example of successful rehabilitation. Unterweger murdered ten more women within two years of his release, and committed suicide after his arrest.

Jelinek's work Jelinek's work is multi-faceted and highly controversial. It has been by turns praised and condemned by leading literary critics. In the wake of the Fritzl case, for example, she was accused of "executing 'hysterical' portraits of Austrian perversity". Likewise, her political activism encounters divergent and often heated reactions. Despite the controversy surrounding her work, Jelinek has won many distinguished prizes; among them are the Georg Büchner Prize in 1998; the Mülheim Dramatists Prize in 2002 and 2004; the Franz Kafka Prize in 2004; and the Nobel Prize in Literature, also in 2004. Female sexuality, its abuse, and the battle of the sexes in general are prominent topics in her work. Texts such as Wir sind Lockvögel, Baby! (We are Decoys, Baby!), Die Liebhaberinnen (Women as Lovers) and Die Klavierspielerin (The Piano Teacher) showcase the brutality and power play inherent in human relations in a style that is at times ironically formal and tightly controlled. According to Jelinek, power and aggression are often the principal driving forces of relationships. Her provocative novel Lust contains graphically-delineated descriptions of sexuality, aggression and abuse. It received poor reviews by many critics, some of whom considered it little more than pornography, but was considered misunderstood and undervalued by others, who noted the power of the cold descriptions of moral failures. In her later work, Jelinek has somewhat abandoned female issues to focus her energy on social criticism in general, and Austria's difficulties in admitting to its Nazi past in particular; an example is Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead). Her plays often emphasise choreography. In Sportstück, for example, the issue of violence and fascism in sports is explored. Some consider her plays taciturn, others lavish, and others still a new form of theatre altogether. Jelinek's novel, Die Klavierspielerin was filmed as The Piano Teacher by Austrian director Michael Haneke, with French actress Isabelle Huppert as the protagonist. In late April 2006, Jelinek spoke out to support Peter Handke, whose play Die Kunst des Fragens (The Art of Asking) was removed from the repertoire of the Comédie-Française for his alleged support of Slobodan Milošević.

The Nobel Prize

Jelinek said she felt very happy to receive the Nobel Prize, but she also felt "despair for becoming a known, a person of the public". Known for her modesty and subtle self-irony, she – a reputed feminist writer – wondered if she had been awarded the prize mainly for "being a woman", and suggested that among authors writing in German, Peter Handke, whom she praises as a "living classic", would have been a more worthy recipient. Jelinek was criticized for not accepting the prize in person; instead, a video message was presented at the ceremony. Others appreciated how Jelinek revealed that she suffers from agoraphobia and social phobia, paranoid conditions that developed when she first decided to write seriously. Both conditions are anxiety disorders which can be highly disruptive to everyday functioning yet are often concealed by those affected, out of shame, or feelings of inadequacy. Jelinek has said that her anxiety disorders make it impossible for her to go to the cinema or board an airplane (in an interview she wished to be able to fly to New York to see the skyscrapers one day before dying), and she felt incapable of taking part in any ceremony. However, she stated in another tape message: "I would also very much like to be in Stockholm, but I cannot move as fast and far as my language." In 2005, Knut Ahnlund left the Swedish Academy in protest, describing Jelinek's work as "whining, unenjoyable public pornography", as well as "a mass of text shovelled together without artistic structure". He said later that her selection for the prize "has not only done irreparable damage to all progressive forces, it has also confused the general view of literature as an art".

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Elfriede Jelinek, Nobel Prize in Literature 2004's Timeline

October 20, 1946
Mürzzuschlag, Steiermark, Österreich