My daughter recently introduced me to Elfriede Jelinek. It was not so much a recommendation as a complaint. Having run out of subjects that interested her she was forced to study postmodern literature to complete her major. Jelinek's Women as Lovers was on the reading list. I said it sounded interesting. She handed it to me and said "it's all yours".
It was interesting, too. Jelinek is a Viennese novelist and plawright, largely unknown outside the German-speaking world until the 2004 Nobel Literature Prize thrust her reluctantly into the global spotlight. The Nobel judges cited 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."
I suppose that's one way of putting it. Women as Lovers, written in 1974 but not translated into English until 20 years later, is a parody of the romance novel. It traces the courtships of two women. Brigitte, a poor factory seamstress, pursues Heinz, a young electrician destined for modest financial success in his own electrical business. Paula, an apprentice dressmaker, chases after Erich, a dashingly handsome forestry worker.
This is no Jane Austen romance though. The men try to avoid marriage if at all possible and are finally forced into it via pregnancy. Paula dreams of love, learnt from cheap magazines, but ends up married to a violent, stupid alcoholic and living in her parents' spare bedroom listening to them saying "we told you so". Brigitte has no expectation of love - indeed, she hates Heinz more and more bitterly as the courtship progresses - but wants to get her hands on the family crockery and earn the right to evict her parents-in-law from their own home. These two women are far from unique - their community is a collection of violent, exploitive and bitter relationships. Alcoholic men beat their wives and children, the children escape into marriages where they either beat or are beaten. The bleakness is only relieved by the iron discipline of Jelinek's prose, her spare, short sentences and caustic wit.
If it was not for this prose, and the date of composition, I would have gone no further. The world in which women have so few options is rapidly fading. Women as Lovers is little more than an historical curio for a young woman like my daughter, but I am old enough to remember that it was such feminist tracts that pushed the very changes which make her able to dismiss them so easily. So I read on.
The bleak family relations of Women as Lovers re-appear in The Piano Teacher (published in 1983), but they are a kind of background noise, emotional wallpaper for something altogether more disturbing. The Piano Teacher is a parody of another staple of romantic fiction, the affair between a young man and an older woman. The woman is supposed to gently teach the boy the art of love and then just as gently release him back into normal life, transformed from a boy into a man.
The older woman in Jelinek's recasting of this tale is Erika Kohut, who teaches piano at the Vienna Conservatory. Trapped in a suffocating relationship with her mother (they sleep in the same bed, despite Erika being in her 30's), Erika escapes through sordid and sometimes dangerous acts of voyeurism and agonising self-harm. This troubled woman is pursued by her student Walter Klemmer, who is fascinated by the idea of overcoming his stern teacher's reserve.
Eventually, Erika gives in, but the result is not what either of them expects. I'll spare you the brutal details. Suffice to say that Walter mainly learns the depths of cruelty to which he is capable of sinking, while Erika's fragile mental health is shattered.
The fact that Jelinek is such a gifted writer only makes the novels worse. If she wrote badly, I could have just stopped reading. Instead, the delights of her prose drew me on. I was sucked into the claustrophobic mental worlds of her characters, and even as I cringed at their callous selfishness I wondered, is this what life is really like? Is this what Jelinek thinks it's like? Is her own marriage like this? Were her parents this abusive? If she has children, are they safe?
So now I'm struggling up for air. I'm reminding myself that my parents really did love me, that I have a healthy marriage, that I have left my children free to work and marry as they choose. I am reminding myself that most of my friends and family are the same. I am reminding myself that the realities of domestic violence and child abuse are aberrations, not the norm. Because if the world depicted so skillfully and passionately in these pages is the real world, I want out.