Soccer metaphors often prove unwieldy to Americans. Unwavering devotees of sporting events guaranteeing either high scores or excessive brutality, we have little patience for a game in which love taps result in grotesque pratfalls, where relentless dribbling, passing, and shooting can culminate in a 0-0 draw.
Arguably, this does not bode well for the American reception of Elfriede Jelinek, herself fond of soccer analogies. The Austrian author has referenced the sport not only to excoriate the hyper-macho bellicosity of athletics, as she did in her drama Sport Play (1998), but also to delineate her own writing practices. In her 2004 Nobel Prize acceptance speech (entitled Sidelined), Jelinek compared the unavoidably inert status of the writer to a substitute player condemned to the sidelines, struggling to stay apace of the on-field activity. (Owing to her chronic anxiety, which keeps her from traveling, she pre-recorded the speech and sent the video to the Nobel Committee, ingeniously opting to deliver her poetic meditation on the modern author’s irremediable absence by telecast.)
What’s more, Jelinek’s style itself bears unmistakable formal affinities with this “foreign” pastime. Her prose features nomadic chains of associations and circuitous sentences that carry the reader along for pages on end before abruptly sweeping him back to where he started. Productions of her performance texts often go on for hours without so much as a hint of a concrete development, to say nothing of a cohesive narrative or series of events. American theater, by contrast, largely shares in the nation’s appetite for palpable conflict, though Jelinek’s dramatic work does find some precedence in the language plays of Mac Wellman and Eric Overmeyer.
Considering America’s general distrust of soccer and its long-winded, uneventful nature, one wonders, then, how the New York cast of Jelinek’s Jackie at the Women’s Project Theater, one of her only plays to be performed in the United States, must have responded to the author’s following address to the actors, delivered in her absence by the play’s translator Gitta Honegger:
I think that a text for the theater is only one half of the whole. . . . I am only there for the kick-off. I kick the ball and it flies off. You have to get it into the goal.
Receiving it after the playwright’s opening “kick-off,” would anyone blame the U.S. cast members if they were to mistake this ball for a football?
And yet it is precisely this kind of productive (mis)appropriation that Jelinek seeks to both address and effect through her own expansive body of work. Over the past forty-odd years of her artistic tenure, she has made a name for herself as one of the most linguistically challenging contemporary European writers. Her meandering and often-inscrutable prose takes up her country’s long-standing literary tradition of Sprachkritik, or language criticism. Like her Austrian forebears, including Karl Kraus, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Peter Handke, Jelinek investigates the uses and abuses of language by staging its semantic slipperiness, foregrounding the malapropisms and parapraxes that plague everyday utterances.
As a result of this roiling language play, thumbing through one of her novels or sitting through one of her plays proves no easy task. As the renowned Jelinek-director Nicolas Stemann has attested, her style does not make for an agreeable beach read: “I, at least, feel the need to jump out the window screaming after reading three pages of Jelinek.” Consequently, Stemann has made this frustration the centerpiece of his productions, opting to stage his and the actors’ own productive struggle with the performance texts. Indeed, combing through a Jelinek piece can sometimes feel like poring over the unedited minutes of an analysand’s schizoid rant.
But these prolonged ravings are not without their purpose, and the “goal” that Jelinek is gunning for is a concrete one. As the Nobel Committee put it, Jelinek’s novels and plays “reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power,” deconstructing and de-naturalizing the—in her words—“trivial myths” on which large stretches of Western culture are founded. She does so periphrastically, reproducing these pernicious stereotypes and slyly orchestrating them to incriminate themselves. In this regard, her main literary predecessor is the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, whose epic World War I docudrama The Last Days of Mankind artfully interweaves snippets from newspaper dispatches, feuilletons, political pamphlets, letters, and interviews that epitomize the nationalist fervor gnawing at the Hapsburg Empire before the war’s outbreak. A masterful monteur, Kraus folds compromising public remarks upon themselves, indicting his own native land with a venomous incisiveness that earned him the moniker of Nestbeschmutzer—a bird that dirties its own nest.
It is a moniker that Jelinek shares, at least in the pages of the Austrian conservative press. Following in the footsteps of her artistic antecedent, though departing from his political reactionism, Jelinek collages colloquial, technical, and literary speech in an attempt to dredge up the grim substratum underlying everything from the most banal to the most sophisticated of statements. A typical Jelinek sentence manages to yoke together numerous purportedly disparate discourses, drawing out troubling continuities between, for instance, the ostensibly philanthropic rhetoric of European integration and the predacious business speak of neoliberalism. Since the onset of her career in the late 1960s, her most common targets have been the violent treatment of women in Western society, the humanitarian injustices wrought by capitalism, and her country’s underappreciated involvement in Nazi crimes. And as with Last Days, so with Jelinek’s plays: “The unlikeliest conversations are reported here verbatim; the most glaring inventions are citations.”
Such citations, which Jelinek has referred to as “detritus,” litter the pages of Rechnitz: The Exterminating Angel and The Merchant’s Contracts, the two performance texts in her new volume published by Seagull Books. The plays, dexterously translated by Gitta Honegger, come with an introduction by the translator, which situates the pieces in their specific political and historical contexts, and a DVD featuring subtitled performances of both pieces. The introduction is indisputably necessary, as Jelinek culls her material from local news stories unknown to international audiences, which has led many critics to dismiss her work as transient and parochial. Though the playwright embraces the “parochial” nature of her texts, seeing it as a testament to the artist’s inevitable struggle to stay astride of the times, Honegger’s contextualization provides some much-needed support to readers unfamiliar with current German and Austrian news.
Rechnitz, for instance, grew out of an article published in 2007 in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The article’s author had incited a scandal, asserting that the Countess Batthyány of the illustrious Thyssen family had willingly participated in the massacre of over 180 Jewish forced laborers in the early hours of March 25, 1945. The workers had been transported from a Hungarian labor camp to the Batthyány Castle in Rechnitz, Austria to help construct the so-called “East Wall,” one of the Nazis’ last-ditch fortifications against the advancing Red Army. Upon arrival, however, the malnourished laborers were found unsuitable for work and were executed by senior Gestapo officers during a party for the Batthyánys’ Nazi entourage. The mass grave of the victims is still yet to be found; the perpetrators were never put on trial.
Nor do they take the stage in Rechnitz. Instead, Jelinek enlists a chorus of rambling couriers (presumably for the countess) who relate the tragedy in a single, collective monologue spanning over 105 pages of unparagraphed prose. Directly addressing and implicating the spectators à la Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience, these emissaries deliver nebulous reports on the massacre in between digressions on topics ranging from carbon emissions to Swiss banking privacy. The violence depicted in the messengers’ monologue is kept almost entirely off-stage, save for the occasional entrance of well-dressed figures who fire rounds out of side windows. Adopting the ancient Greek theatrical device of messenger reports, Jelinek makes the messengers’ unreliable mediation the centerpiece of her work. The core tragic event is continually elided through speech, by means of an ambulatory discursiveness that continually circles around its subject without ever truly addressing it:
I don’t commit, I’m just an ordinary kind of guy, I don’t commit, I don’t commit to the right, I don’t commit to commies, I don’t commit so I won’t be committed, I commit to memory what others have committed, I am too clumsy to commit what they committed, I’m just a messenger, just a minute ago I still was a messenger, that’s about all I could manage, I massage the message, others just want the massage; if they can’t get their message right, which would be the messenger’s real job, they go to a parlor, their job was to manage the mess, that was our message, which they missed and then they went to Mass, and that’s all they wrote;
In the hands of a lesser writer, one could easily imagine the Rechnitz massacre transformed into a straightforward Holocaust drama, adding to the myriad period pieces so effortlessly consumed by German-speaking and international audiences alike. But Rechnitz is not a historically faithful adaptation of an unspeakable event; rather, it is a theatrical performance of that event’s adaptation and reworking by the German and Austrian media. The text represents part of an ongoing attack that Jelinek has launched systematically throughout her career: a critique of Austria’s repression and mismanagement of its Nazi past. But unlike previous works such as Burgtheater (1985) and President Evening Breeze (1992), in which the playwright unearthed her homeland’s neglected fascist heritage, Rechnitz picks apart the superficial politics of memory that emerged subsequently, in part as a consequence of those very plays. As Jelinek’s messengers make clear, remembering is not always the same as redressing.
The unimpeded flow of speech that runs through Rechnitz also courses through The Merchant’s Contracts: A Comedy of Economics. This piece is based on the case of the Meinl Bank, an Austrian investment bank run by Julius Meinl V, scion of the immensely successful Austrian grocery dynasty. An Austrian Bernie Madoff, Meinl lined his pockets by creating high-risk limited liability subsidiaries under his family’s trustworthy name. The bank’s fund-management service convinced numerous small investors to buy certificates from its subsidiary Meinl European Land, a property fund that managed shopping centers in the former Soviet Bloc. After the American subprime mortgage crisis contaminated properties in Eastern and Central Europe, the fund staged a last-minute buyback without its investors’ knowledge. As a result, many of them lost nearly all of the money saved for their personal pension plans, which a recent Austrian law had forced them to invest in venture capital.
In short, the incident epitomizes the predatory market manipulations and complicit national legislation that characterize the new global economy. Like Rechnitz, The Merchant’s Contracts is played out in a single setting—an unspecified bank’s annual general meeting on an autonomously governed tax haven in the Channel Islands. But unlike the previous play, both sides appear onstage here, as bank representatives (“the chorus of old men”) meet with small investors to put their new resolutions up for review. Yet the meeting turns out to be less of a fair-minded assembly and more of a derisive exhibition, an opportunity for the bankers to brag of their financial exploits with impunity. Even the late appearance of the so-called “Angels of Justice,” a nod to Walter Benjamin’s angelus novus, provides little hope of reconciliation; the angels’ recapitulations of Marx’s theory of distributive justice slowly warp into cynical capitalist sophistries:
If useful labor is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labor belong to society—and the worker gets only as much as is needed to keep up the prerequisites for labor, which is society.
In another grisly conclusion that seems to undermine the work’s genre designation, the play closes with the true story of an Austrian man who, drained of his life’s savings by investment firms, brutally murdered his entire family.
As she does with most of her topical material, Jelinek anchors this local news story in the literary canon, packing it with allusions to Euripides’ Herakles, where the title character murders his family in a fit of rage. Like Rechnitz, The Merchant’s Contracts showcases her uncanny ability to seamlessly blend highbrow art, professional jargon, and pop culture. While Rechnitz splices machine-translated fragments of T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men with gossip-filled popular histories, The Merchant’s Contracts merges financial lingo with a Heideggerian existentialist jargon, ultimately exposing the vacuity of both:
Then they finally can have us for free, and that’s still better than not having us at all, because Being and Having are collateralized debt obligations, they are foundations, where debts get parked, not ours, but those made by others—after they got all our capital . . . The Nothing, the void is parked in a claim, and then even the Nothing will be nowhere to be found, then the less than Nothing will be nowhere to be found, so the bank will create a nifty foundation, which also considers itself too nifty for us, and what do we have? Nothing.
As this passage shows, Jelinek’s prolixity and relentless punning (which she calls “paronomania”) are not the only stumbling blocks in her texts. All alleged parochialness aside, the aggressively erudite character of her work may prove mentally exhausting to some readers and theatergoers, particularly in the United States, where such cerebral gymnastics are often easily dismissed as overly intellectual.
The accompanying DVD found in the back of the book contains recordings of German-language productions by Jossi Wieler and Nicolas Stemann, both seasoned directors of Jelinek’s work. Wieler, who mounted the first performance of Rechnitz at the Munich Kammerspiele in November 2008, has been known to utilize a rather conventional approach to Jelinek’s plays by mooring the author’s labyrinthine Textflächen (“planes of text”) in the psychologies of individual characters, though the texts themselves often lack concrete character designations. Stemann, on the other hand, willingly gives his productions over to the roaming nature of Jelinek’s work. In the included 135-minute extract from The Merchant’s Contracts, which he first produced at the Schauspiel Köln in April 2009, the performers collectively and breathlessly rattle off long swathes of text, reading aloud from thick, unbound manuscripts, the pages of which they promptly toss to the ground as they rifle through them at break-neck pace.
Different as they are, both of these productions demonstrate the malleability of Jelinek’s work, which lends itself well to adaptation and modification. Indeed, Jelinek invites the director’s collaborative (mal)treatment of her material, nonchalantly adding in the opening stage directions of Rechnitz: “Of course, it can also be done completely differently, as always with my plays.”
Jelinek also adopts this attitude toward her translators. Having herself spent over three years transposing the slangy American idiom of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow into her native German, a language known for its near-mathematical rigidity, she is well aware of the difficulties her own work poses for translation. In this new publication, the well-experienced Honegger is clearly up to the task, embracing Jelinek’s encouragement to imitate her linguistic ingenuity when word-for-word translations are out of the question—which is almost always. (Those following recent American news will particularly appreciate the Trump-puns that appear in The Merchant’s Contracts, which speak to the text’s topicality.)
Still, no amount of translation, either on stage or on the page, can fully remove the texts’ hermetic character. In fact, the successful adaptations of Jelinek’s work tend to acknowledge and even delight in its perplexity. DJ-worthy mixes and mash-ups of premade material, the originals are themselves born through an act of translation that continually calls into question the existence of a definitive Urtext. And as both Stemann’s staging and Honegger’s translation demonstrate, this arduousness by no means rules out entertainment. Toiling through three hundred pages of her impenetrable prose is arguably worthwhile if only to be dazzled by her rhetorical savvy, an unflagging verbal virtuosity that is in equal parts Baroque fugue and West coast hip-hop. It is an art at which Jelinek is virtually without peer.
Xan Holt is is a PhD candidate in Germanic Languages at Columbia University.