In the late 1940s, the Swedish Academy finally got around to honoring the founders of the modernist literary movement. James Joyce was dead, so the Academy turned to the movement’s other founder: Ezra Pound. But there were difficulties. Pound had been a supporter of Mussolini. Worse, he was an anti-Semite. True, he had been the intellectual force behind the greatest literary movement in the 20th century, but he was also an unabashed and unrepentant supporter of fascism. In the end the Nobel Prize Committee gave the award to T.S. Eliot, and asked him to share it with Joyce’s ghost. But not with Pound, who was still locked up in a mental hospital under a sentence of death.
Pound’s case is the first chapter in the long history of the politicization of the Nobel Prize for Literature. From putting politics above literature in order to get around Pound, it was but a half-step to award the prize for primarily political reasons. In recent times the Nobel has frequently gone to politically active dissidents, though dissidents who have also produced undisputed masterworks: Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Milosz, and Xingjian, to name but a few. But recently the production of literary masterpieces has become less important while political correctness has become the over-riding criterion. And if the author’s politics condemn the world’s only remaining superpower, all the better. The last American to receive the prize, Toni Morrison, was a surprise to nearly every pundit, many of whom could easily think of two or three dozen American writers more deserving. But the fact that Ms. Morrison was female and a member of a victimized minority gave her an easy advantage.
It is less surprising then that this year’s literary prize went to Elfriede Jelinek, an Austrian paleo-feminist whose latest play Bambiland, is a heavy-handed attack on the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Ms. Jelinek, a former Communist Party comrade, remains the sweetheart of the Austrian Left for her rants against her government’s ruling coalition (which includes the far right Freedom Party) which she regards as a bunch of Austrofascists. Jelinek is equally ham-fisted in her novels, where her favorite themes are man’s violent subjugation of women, and Austria’s continuing crimes against humanity (such as calls for limits on immigration).
Jelinek’s novels repeatedly depict women as weak and ineffectual victims of a tyrannical patriarchy. In her most well-known work, The Piano Teacher, her protagonist is a repressed and unstable middle-aged woman who lives with a domineering mother. When not giving piano lessons she is patronizing the Vienna peep shows, mutilating herself with razor blades or engaging in S&M with a young student. One sympathetic critic called the film version “a mix of “Schubert, self-mutilation and porn.” The equation of love and violence is another of Jelinek’s common and hackneyed themes, honed to perfection in earlier novels like Wonderful, Wonderful Times and Lust in which her male characters are depicted as sexual predators, women abusers and polluters, where women are again helpless victims, where marriage is nothing but legalized prostitution, and society is despoiled by the greed and lust of capitalists (male capitalists).
Of her novel Women as Lovers, Publishers Weekly asked, “This brief, pitiless novel advances such a narrow, bleak vision of the human race that one wonders why its author, who apparently finds everything pointless, saw the point in writing it.” It is a vision reminiscent of a degraded and perverted Beckett without the latter’s humor and depth, and with a worn political agenda in place of a diverting existential philosophy. But perhaps Jelinek’s prose was the book’s saving grace? Sadly, no. PW calls it, “oddly punctuated, repetitive prose reminiscent of Gertrude Stein’s but lacking Stein’s energetic compassion.” Then there is Jelinek’s 1980 novel Wonderful, Wonderful Times starring a former SS officer who revels in memories of Jewish and Polish atrocities while forcing his wife to pose for pornographic photographs. The books heroes, four Austrian teens, meanwhile rampage through a Viennese park in a substandard impersonation of A Clockwork Orange.
In its announcement of the award, the Academy praised Jelinek’s depiction of “the cold-blooded practice of male power,” which makes a “fundamental criticism of civilization by describing sexual violence against women as the actual template for our culture.” Apparently modern Austria is populated by drunken, wife-beating Neo-Nazis. This long-suppressed information alone is worth a Nobel Prize.
The Academy also praised the writer’s most recent plays in which she creates figures who are “less characters than ‘language interfaces’ confronting each other,” an approach that thereby reveals “the inability of women to fully come to life in a world where they are painted over with stereotypical images.” The phrase “inability…to fully come to life” is key. Jelinek’s characters are wooden figures, like so much deadwood. Much like her neolithic ideas.
The Swedish Academy has historically made a hash out of the selection process. Not only did it overlook Joyce, but it took a pass on Tolstoy, Ibsen, Zola, and Valéry, while awarding the prize to dozens of mediocrities like Pearl Buck and Rudolf Christoph Eucken. The good news is with the Academy’s prestige in freefall, it will soon have no choice but to give the Nobel to a truly deserving artist. They should live so long.
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