A Grave Misunderstanding of Elfriede Jelinek and of Germanoculture

Nobel Prize-winning Austrian novelist Elfriede Jelinek's novel "Greed" has been translated into English and was promptly ripped to shreds by the New York Times.

The reviewer, Joel Agee, found no redeeming value in the book, no sense of humanity or story, no humor, certainly no warmth, no artistry, only a dour, depressing hatred of self and of the world in general.

I say: That's all true, but what's wrong with it? To call all that stuff bad is to basically misunderstand Jelinek. That is her art. She's not a novelist or an artist in the Anglo-American sense, she's a very specifically Germanic kind of artist, which is to say, she's a complainer. In the German-speaking world, complaint is an art. She is the natural successor to that all-time great (and, once you wrap your mind around the idea of complaining as art) opinion very funny Austrian complainer-novelist-playwright Thomas Bernhard (who actually deserved the Nobel). Her Nobel Prize was not really a Novel Prize for Literature, it was the world's first Nobel Prize for Complaining. Jelinek once said in an interview that her books are, in her view, funny. It's a humor you can only understand if you understand German culture: It's funny because she is spouting utter nonsense. Once you figure out that it's utter nonsense and that you are taking it as seriously as she's taking herself, you're in on the joke.

With all her radical rejection of the social world she lives in, right down to human sexuality in general (hell, he rejects everything, she rejects life itself, that's impressive in itself), Jelinek isn't really trying to say something, nor is she creating art, she's just shooting her mouth off, which in the German world is an accepted intellectual activity. No one expects her rants to change anything or even to communicate anything – they are just rants, and you read them to get that shiver of agreement: "Yes, that's right, if you look at it long enough, everything's shit." Then you can go on with your life.

To us Americans – in fact, to most of the outside world except, clearly, for a few Swedes – this I simply self-defeating behavior and is not comprehensible to us in any way, but it's how Germans (and Austrians) have been hanging on to their self-respect for the last 60 years.


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