Friday, April 07, 2006

Women as Lovers

by Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Martin Chalmers (London: Serpent's Tail, 1994; original German language edition Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag GmbH, 1975)

Not a new book, but newly promoted in paperback because Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004. Suzette checked it out of the library and read it before I did. She said it reminded her of Gertrude Stein, and I think that very apt -- especially reminds me of Stein's early fiction, written when she was a medical student practicing on the poor. The resemblance is partly in the short sentences, partly in the way the author maintains detachment and yet depicts the ideation of her subjects in terms of a series of simple calculations. It is perhaps unfair to make too much of Jelinek's style, because it's been my experience that translators put a lot of their own spin on a book's style. I'd like to read more of her after recovering a bit from this one, and sampling one by a different translator might be useful. One of Jelinek's books, The Piano Teacher, seems to be the most famous.

Throughout the reading of this book, I was also much reminded of an anthropological or sociological case study. There is just enough of poetry and humour here and there to keep it from being clinical. But this is essentially a comparative study of two women who make different choices in terms of sexual partnering and then live with the economic effects on their lives. At one point, Jelinek pointedly says that one of these women is a country woman and one is a town woman -- they have different sets of options to work with. One has a job in a brassiere factory. One is plain and very young and sets her sights on becoming a seamstress but soon abandons the training. This woman, who gets the worst of it, is also depicted as rather unfortunately drawn off her economic course early in life by exposure to magazines -- the romanticized ideas of such writing are shown as worse than useless to women. The community and their views figure heavily in the story of the young woman from the country village, and she ultimately suffers a lot from getting caught using that form of capital that women have between their legs. The depiction of the men/husbands in the story is very stark, commodifying them as economic objects whose lovers struggle to wrest them from their parents' possession. A third woman who is middle class and has middle class choices is shown as having more freedom because of her family wealth and her education, but ultimately making a similar choice to have a husband of an appropriate class and have children. Her story is not pursued in depth for long, but she is clearly there to further illuminate class differences. Jelinek characterizes those who have nothing as being primarily concerned to get something -- compared to those who have something being primarily concerned with not losing what they have. When I read that it seemed to explain a lot.

Suzette's summation was that if this book had been longer, the style would have been annoying. Jelinek overtly states that she is not going to waste any time on talking about the scenery, and there is a repetitive feel to the language. But it wasn't longer -- it was only 192 small pages with nice big type and wide margins. Overall, I think Jelinek managed to make something new and fairly gripping out of a story -- two stories, that are nothing new at all, but are very bedrock stories of women in the modern (i.e., industrialized) world.


  1. Jelinek's pithy analysis of class distinctions is reflected in this article in the New York Review of Books, "Obama & Sweet Potato Pie," by Mark Danner:


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