Chris's Reviews > Women as Lovers

Women as Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek
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's review
Oct 21, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: feminism, marxian-theory
Read in January, 2008

I learned about Elfriede Jelinek because of the film adaptation of her novel The Piano Teacher and because Xiu Xiu used the title of this book ("Women As Lovers") as the title of their most recent album (and drew a fair number of quotes from it for lyrics as well.) The first thing that most people will tell you about Jelinek is that she's a controversial author, and for once, it's not because of bad behavior or personal quirks (not primarily, anyway, though she does suffer from agoraphobia and was a prominent member of the Austrian Communist Party until 1991) but because of her prose and the themes that she chooses to feature in her writing. Jelinek is well known as a feminist and a socialist and makes these commitments an integral part of her fiction.

Not only does she explore the way that class and patriarchy affect social relations and individual's psyches in her narratives, but she embraces a radical prose style that seems to be calibrated to incisively cut through platitudes and social mores to expose the raw domination that underlies social identity. I imagine this is where many readers run into problems (Jelinek received a Nobel Prize for literature, but not without major fallout in the literary establishment.) She frequently uses repetition and a starkly sardonic tone. Her MO all but rules out sustained instances of expressive or descriptive language; her style reads as very episodic. And of course there are the myriad episodes of violence, particularly of a sexual nature.

But if it sounds like I'm not very enthusiastic about Jelinek's writing, then I'm giving off the wrong impression. I wouldn't necessarily call it fun to read, but I have found her novels to be very rewarding, particularly Women As Lovers. The name of the novel calls to mind D.H. Lawrence, and a lot about this story reminds me of a turn-of-the-century British novel in its exploration of social and sexual themes. The opening sentences describe a factory in an Austrian village in terms that pare its existence down to the relation between it and the people that labor in it. Though this immediately strikes one as a very Marxist literary device, Jelinek doesn't use didactic Marxist jargon, so the book achieves a sort of naïve narrative voice, almost reminiscent of a dark fairy tale.

There are two main protagonists, both women. One, Brigitte, moves ruthlessly through life, with no concern for her own dignity and holding no illusions about love, interested only in financial security. She sees her own sexuality only as a means of achieving this and pursues a socially mobile, boorish middle-class lout. The other woman, Paula has no sense for securing her material well being, and falls in love with a man with few prospects and little regard for her. The story proceeds much as you can guess it will, without much suspense, but the narrator's commentary keeps you involved in the unfolding events.

In telling this kind of story, it seems like there is a fine line between, on the one hand, being reductive and confirming that reality conforms to the broad demands of theory, or on the other hand, telling one of those dramatic tales that seems to touch reality at no point, and ultimately seems to have little relevance to life as we live it. I think Women manages to evade this particular bind because despite the inevitability of its outcome, and equally, because of it, there is a sense of tragedy accompanied by sharp and insightful commentary that prevents the story from seeming to become merely socialist/feminist propaganda.

I would encourage interested readers to give this novel a try because Jelinek has a really unique style and a definite gift for unusual and provocative descriptions. In fact, pretty much everything about her writing is provocative, and ultimately rewarding. I was also impressed to learn that Jelinek has written a German translation of Gravity's Rainbow, which is no small feat, and the libretto for an opera based on Lynch's Lost Highway.
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