Austrian wins Nobel Prize for Literature

The winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature was announced on Thursday and, naturally, the Swedish cultural pages are talking about little else. Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek will take this year’s prize, to be awarded in Stockholm in December.

Much of the press has focused on her status in Austria. One detects a hint of pride, actually, in the Swedish coverage – “we’re nothing like those right-wingers,” imply the stories in every paper about Jelinek’s homeland. Jelinek was awarded the Stig Dagerman prize earlier this year, and now the Nobel – probably the biggest prize in the literary world – is hers as well.

A number of stories quoted the 1995 slogan of Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party: “Do you love art and culture or do you love Elfriede Jelinek?” For years after the installation of the Freedom Party Jelinek would not allow her plays to be performed in Austria, but now that a coalition government is in place she has relented.

Sydsvenskan’s Henriette Zorn put things most clearly: “Controversial is an all too mild word. In Austria Elfriede Jelinek is hated.”

Jelinek is perhaps best known as the writer of The Piano Teacher, a book adapted for film in 2002 by Michael Haneke. Isabelle Huppert, looking eerily like Jelinek, played the lead in a story that is at least partly autobiographical. The film, about a piano teacher’s descent into a hopeless and disturbing sexual relationship, won prizes all over the place and caused controversy the world over.

The Swedish press noted the obvious similarities between the protagonist of The Piano Teacher and Jelinek: both were raised by overly ambitious mothers to be great piano players. Jelinek’s career as a pianist ended in a nervous breakdown. The final scene of The Piano Teacher fits the creation of this particular legend well. The film version of The Piano Teacher will be returning to the big screens in Stockholm and Malmö soon.

Only one Swedish paper has criticized the Swedish Academy’s choice with any vigor – and they left the criticism to the literature chief of a foreign magazine. Thomas Steinfeld argued in Expressen that the prize committee is “out of step with the times”.

“Maybe they think that the avant-garde’s time is not yet past,” he wrote. “Maybe they’re still convinced that, like thirty or eighty years ago, there’s nothing wrong with a scandal… Maybe they don’t know that times have changed, and that nothing feels as old and traditional today as a real scandal.”

Most of the Swedish press, however, backed the Swedish Academy’s decision – if admitting, that Jelinek’s texts are at times a bit dense. In an interview with Dagens Nyheter, a spokesman for the Academy said, “There’s a possibility that she’s a bit too exclusive a writer, a writer that ordinary people have a hard time getting into.”

Almost everyone, though, has been repeating the Academy’s statement on their choice and supporting it: Jelinek won the prize “for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.”

Unfortunately, Jelinek won’t be travelling to Stockholm to receive her prize. She told Dagens Nyheter: “I can’t come to Stockholm. I can’t expose myself to all those people. I have a severe social phobia and can’t go through such a big ceremony. But I’ll write a text. Someone else will have to read it. Anything else is impossible. There are a lot of reasons. I’m mentally ill.”

Asked about Austria, Jelinek told Sydsvenskan’s reporters, “I hate this country. It’s incomprehensible that I still live here. But I’m kept here because of my old mother.” Readers who have seen The Piano Teacher may, at reading this, get the same sense of unease as Sydsvenskan’s reporter did.

Jelinek writes plays and texts on art and culture as well as novels. For those looking for a two-and-a-half hour introduction to Jelinek, her play, The Princess Dramas, is currently on at Teater Galeasen in Stockholm; before the announcement of the prize, Galeasen wasn’t quite filling all 99 seats, but they should have no trouble now.

Finally, not even the business pages could avoid a little discussion on the Literature Prize. It seems Jelinek’s publisher wasn’t for her to take the award, and there aren’t a lot of her books in Sweden. The Swedish publisher, Forum, has ordered a new printing of 10,000 copies of The Piano Teacher, and the books should be on the market soon.

They are looking forward to a good year: a Nobel Prize is a big deal for a small publishing company – even major publisher Brombergs, who print last year’s winner JM Coetzee for the Swedish public, saw a 50% rise in total receipts after Coetzee’s prize was announced. About 200,000 of Coetzee’s books were sold last year. Get those presses warmed up.

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Expressen, Aftonbladet, Sydsvenskan