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The dog of language snapping at my heels
The poems of Elfriede Jelinek published in the November issue of Poetry (translated by Michael Hofmann) are her first to appear in English. But, as Hofmann notes, her literary career began with poetry; her first publication was a collection of poems, Lisas Schatten, in 1967, at age twenty-one. She is better known for her fifteen stage plays and eleven novels (five of which are now available in English translation), including the widely regarded (and heavily autobiographical) Der Klavierspielerin, or The Piano Teacher, adapted into a 2001 film by fellow Austrian Michael Haneke, starring Isabelle Huppert.
And she is the co-librettist, with composer Olga Neuwirth, of an operatic adaptation of David Lynch’s film Lost Highway. While there is no audio or video recording of the production readily available online, Playbill Arts offers a photo journal
of the New York premiere, which originated at Ohio’s Oberlin College and Conservatory. Chicago arts critic Andrew Patner discussed the production on 98.7WFMT this past February.
It was the 2004 Nobel Prize for literature, though, (she was the ninth woman, and the first Austrian, to receive the honor) that truly made Jelinek a worldwide name, though little mention was made of her poetic work even by the Swedish Academy, which cited in their announcement of the prize 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.”
Academy member Knut Ahnlund took a wholly different stance on Jelinek’s suitability as a Nobel laureate; he resigned the following year, citing her work as “whingeing, unenjoyable, violent pornography” that had, in his mind, done “irreparable damage” to the prize’s reputation.
Further criticism arose when she declined to accept the award in person, due to her severe agoraphobia and anxiety disorders, and instead opted to send a video message to be played at the ceremony.
Jelinek’s work, while universal in its exploration of human relations, feminism, and sexual politics, is also intensely reflective and critical of social and political issues specific to Austria and Germany, so the challenges of translating her writing into English have occasioned much discussion, here recently in response to Greed (Seven Stories Press, tr. by Martin Chalmers).
About her poems, Hofmann says they, “as Ruskin might have said about the Sex Pistols, are studiedly disobliging—little three minute yowls of disobligingness…. They are attack in its purest form, the attack of a creature yet to grow claws, the attack of something that only knows it wants to attack.”
Jelinek, in her own words: “This dog, language, which is supposed to protect me, that’s why I have him, after all, is now snapping at my heels. My protector wants to bite me. My only protector against being described, language, which, conversely, exists to describe something else, that I am not—that is why I cover so much paper—my only protector is turning against me.”