Fate would have it that during the past weeks unusually many books of recipients and nominees of the Nobel Prize in Literature have come into my hands and I already presented some of them on this blog. I decided that today it’s time at last to also review a book written by the only Austrian Nobel laureate in literature so far although I must admit that I’m no particular fan of my compatriot’s work because the little that I heard or read about it made me avoid the author rather than give her a chance. In the end, I picked Women as Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek which is an early novel of this highly controversial poet, novelist and above all playwright.
Elfriede Jelinek was born in Mürzzuschlag, Austria, in October 1946. She grew up in Vienna where she studied several musical instruments from an early age on (pushed by her ambitious mother) and later art history and dramatics at university. Anxiety disorder prevented her from earning a degree in the latter studies, but as a therapy Elfriede Jelinek turned to writing. Her first published book was a volume of poetry titled Lisas Schatten (Lisa's Shadow) that came out in 1967. Several novels, some translations and many often highly successful plays followed, and yet only few of her works have been translated into English like the novels Women as Lovers (Die Liebhaberinnen: 1975), Wonderful, Wonderful Times (Die Ausgesperrten: 1980), The Piano Teacher (Die Klavierspielerin: 1983), Lust (1989), and Greed (2000). In 2004 the writer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her latest works are the stage essay rein GOLD and the drama Aber sicher! dating from 2013. Elfriede Jelinek lives in Vienna with her husband.
The short novel Women as Lovers combines two parallel plot lines set in Austria during the early 1970s. On the one hand, there is the city-bred Brigitte, a young woman working as an unskilled seamstress in a brassiere factory in Vienna to make her living. On the other hand, there is Paula, a fifteen-year-old girl from a village who persuades her parents to allow her, against the local custom, to be apprenticed to dressmaking in the neighbouring small town. Coming from different lower-class backgrounds, both share a dream, the same that already their mothers and grandmothers had: social and economic upgrading through marriage. They want to exchange their unloved and unprestigious jobs as soon as possible for the kind of married life that cinema and magazines make desirable in the most beautiful colours. They dream of eternal love, nice children and a prosperous life including hard work for the family (instead of for strangers) and a comfortable house with an idyllic garden. The strategies of the girls to achieve their goal differ, though. Brigitte takes it into her head to conquer Heinz, an apprentice electrician with a promising future since he is destined to take over his master’s workshop as well as electronic supply shop. Heinz isn’t particularly handsome, nor very sympathetic, but he is Brigitte’s ticket into a better life and she employs all female art of seduction, including sex and getting pregnant, to bind him to her. Paula’s choice is based on attraction rather than reason. She falls up to the eyes in love with the ordinary wood worker Erich from the village. He isn’t bright, but a good-looking young fellow with Italian features and Paula is convinced that she can see to it that he makes her dreams come true. She, too, seduces him with all artifice in her power including sex and pregnancy. Brigitte’s schemes work out as planned and Paula’s don’t, but in the end neither of them is really happy. Their dreams couldn’t stand the test of reality.
In her third-person narrative Women as Lovers (like in her other works) Elfriede Jelinek plays with clichés, in this case lower-class girls just out of school who are prepared to do almost anything to catch a husband and achieve through them the socioeconomic status that they feel out of their own reach. In the 1970s this may still have been a rather common practice (and it hasn’t been completely abandoned since) because self-confident and self-determined female role models only began to appear at the time. The author depicts Brigitte and Paula as calculating young women who see men mainly as commodities, as futures in which they invest their bodies hoping for good returns. They believe that getting the man will make them happy, but they are mistaken because they disregard the importance of self-respect and independence. The concise narration of the plot and the short sentences make the novel simple in style and sterile with the exception of occasional poetic side steps. The English translator may have had some trouble reproducing certain stylistic peculiarities of the German text. In fact, Elfriede Jelinek broke with the rules of German orthography about the use of capital initial letters writing the entire text in small letters (which seems to have been a bit of a rebellious fashion among writers) and she uses some abbreviations which generally is a taboo in literary writing.
All those things considered, Women as Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek has been an interesting read which I even enjoyed in a way although it paints a rather too negative and one-sided picture of women. Probably, it was meant to provoke, but it just makes me sad because I know how much truth is in stories of Brigitte and Paula. This one may not have been the best novel that I ever read and it definitely hasn’t made me a fan of the writer, and yet it was at least worth the experience and the time to write its review.
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This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.
For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my sign-up post!