Posted on June 30, 2012


An educated woman finds few suitors. – Austrian proverb

The most dangerous food is wedding cake. – Austrian proverb

I’m torn between these two Austrian proverbs mainly because to understand both is perhaps to understand where Elfriede Jelinek’s Women as Lovers is coming from, and we need all the help we can get.

Jelinek’s novel, written in 1975, is set in a remote Austrian valley and follows the love life of two seamstresses. This is not romantic fiction territory though, more a grim Alpine ‘Kind of Loving’.

We meet the girls, Brigitte and Paula, both teenagers, at the point when there are deciding about their futures.  Brigitte is a practical, eye-on-the-main-chance kind of girl.  Paula is a dreamer with an eye on an escape route.  Ultimately, and unfortunately, they both decide that the key to future happiness is to capture a mate by getting pregnant, their bodies being all they have to bargain with – a story as old as the hills in which the book is set and standard fare for Marxist feminists’ scorn. Brigitte makes this choice because she can’t imagine a future without white goods, Paula because she can’t imagine a future without love.  The men they have in their sights are respectively, Heinz, a going somewhere electrician, and Erich, a going nowhere alcoholic woodsman (backwoods/backwards man). Brigitte, a very determined girl indeed – she even cleans Erich’s mother’s loo to prove how indispensible she is – manages to snatch Erich away from Susi, a grammar school girl who one doubts has ever done anything so human as need a loo let alone clean one, and who’s much more Erich’s parents’ idea of a good match. While Brigitte’s life goes according to plan, Paula’s gets progressively worse. It’s as if Paula needs to be punished, not only for daring to imagine escape but also for failing to do it. She does pass her driving test, an act so daringly liberated that she must be punished even for that – maybe it is only a small step from trapping a husband through sex, to having sex with strangers in the back of your Renault for money.

Needless to say, neither of the women is happy. In fact none of the women in the novel are happy. That’s not to say that the men are any more chipper than their womenfolk. They are violent, trapped, unloved and unlovable.   There is a birthright of misery. Like 5th formers who hated being bullied as 1st years but are bloody well going to mete out the same brutality now it’s their turn, no-one has any interest in allowing anyone else to break away.

This is a book driven by ideas or, worse, ideology, rarely something that makes for good or easy reading.  Jelinek manages, just, not to overload the novel with polemic.  But what feels like a heavy-handed use of an uncaring omniscient narrator, who knowingly and irritatingly interjects, speaking more directly than the characters themselves, makes it impossible to identify with the characters or to sympathise with their predicament. And for some reason, the book is written without the aid of capital letters (all nouns in German start with a capital letter so this is clearly some kind of statement), direct speech or paragraph breaks. Why? Perhaps punctuation was seen as patriarchal in the 1970s. Maybe Jelinek’s thumbs weren’t strong enough to press the caps lock or space bar on her typewriter. Who knows?

Maybe the real problem with reading this novel now, is that it hasn’t aged well. What was undoubtedly ground-breaking in 1975, bold in its approach to sexual politics and its exploration of the commodification of women, in 2012 feels like a dry tract which takes an act of will to finish. It’s like eating soup off a knife, you get there in the end, but your soup is rendered tasteless and cold and there are better ways to achieve the same result.

Hephzibah (what a fantastic name) Anderson has criticised the Nobel Prize for its “perverse preference for authors obscure, politically correct or downright unreadable (all three in the case of Elfriede Jelinek)”.   Enough said.