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'Piano Teacher' Author Wins Literature Nobel

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2004; Page C01

Elfriede Jelinek, an avant-garde Austrian author and dramatist known for politicized prose that stabs at social convention and sexual oppression, won the Nobel Prize in Literature yesterday.

She is perhaps best known in the United States as author of the 1988 novel "The Piano Teacher," which was the basis for the acclaimed but controversial film of the same name.


Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, best known for her novel "The Piano Teacher," is an iconoclastic figure whose works have focused on abuse, domination and subjugation. (Rudi Blaha -- AP)

The Swedish Academy hailed Jelinek "for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's cliches and their subjugating power."

The academy cited her prolific body of work -- in German, English and French, including novels, plays and poetry.

While elated at the award, Jelinek, 58, told the Associated Press from her home in Vienna yesterday that she planned "to disappear" rather than take the public stage offered by the award.

"I'm not going to Stockholm because I'm not in a mental shape to withstand such ceremonies," she said of the Dec. 10 ceremony where $1.3 million will fall into her hands. "I unfortunately suffer from a social phobia."

Jelinek is an iconoclastic figure whose works have focused on abuse, domination and subjugation. Those dynamics in the human relationships in her narratives, however, have been representations of the "authoritarian structures" and "social hierarchy" of Austrian society, says Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger, chairwoman of the foreign languages and literatures department at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. Lamb-Faffelberger, herself Austrian, has written extensively on Jelinek and interviewed the author in 1990 for her doctoral dissertation.

Lamb-Faffelberger calls Jelinek's writing "creative resistance."

"She digs down to the bottom and looks at those who are suffering greatly under the anti-Semitism that is still smoldering under the rug, the xenophobia that is still smoldering under the rug, the Catholicism with all its negatives," said Lamb-Faffelberger.

Jelinek, for instance, dedicated her 1997 play "Stecken, Stab und Stangl" to a group of Gypsies killed in a hate crime.

There is also much sex in Jelinek's work. Her fiction titles include "Lust," translated into English in 1992, and "Women as Lovers," translated in 1994.

The sex she portrays is raw, depraved, sadomasochistic. Her work has at times attracted the label "pornographic."

The abuse and mutilation described in "The Piano Teacher" were especially jolting when portrayed on-screen. The French actress Isabelle Huppert portrayed the character of Erika Kohut, a repressed and oppressed classical music teacher. The domination -- and the battles it spawned -- included a caustic mother-daughter relationship, complete with scalp-tearing brawls.

The Nobel committee described "The Piano Teacher," translated into English in 1988, as "autobiographically based."

But Jelinek has refused to discuss the extent to which the novel was based on her life. During an interview timed for the movie's release and posted on the Web site of Kino International, the distribution company for the film, Jelinek demurred.

"I'd prefer not to answer that, and I'd prefer my novel not to be seen as autobiographical, although naturally it contains many autobiographical elements," she said.

Like Erika, Jelinek grew up as a classically trained pianist and organist driven by a dominant mother. And as with Erika, Jelinek's life changed radically. As a young woman, Jelinek dropped music as her career and took up writing. The break came, says Lamb-Faffelberger, during a year of serious illness about which Jelinek has never written.

Still, Lamb-Faffelberger cautions against finding too many parallels between the fictive character and the author.

"Erika's a very mediocre woman, and Elfriede never was; never was," she says.

In the Kino interview, Jelinek described Erika's as the story of "the unraveling of one of the women who carry on their backs, who carry to term, the high culture that Austria so idolizes. The unlived sexuality expressed in voyeurism: a woman who cannot partake in life or in desire. Even the right to watch is a masculine right: The woman is always the one who is watched, never the one who watches. In that respect, to express it psychoanalytically, we are dealing here with a phallic woman who appropriates the male right to watch and who therefore pays for it with her life."


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