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Literature Nobelist Jelinek Writes Of Sexual Violence and Oppression

By Alan Riding

The New York Times -- PARIS

Elfriede Jelinek, a reclusive Austrian novelist and playwright who is well known in the German-speaking world for works that denounce both sexual violence and oppression, and right-wing extremism, was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm.

There had been speculation that this year’s prize might go to a woman, but Jelinek had not been mentioned among possible contenders. She is the first woman to win the award since Toni Morrison in 1993 and only the 10th since the prize was created in 1901.

In other ways, Jelinek fits a more familiar pattern. She is the seventh European literature laureate in the last decade. The academy has also again shown a preference for literature with a political echo. As with several recent winners, including last year’s, J.M. Coetzee, a critic of South Africa’s apartheid regime, Jelinek has used her literary work as a form of political engagement.

In its citation, the 18-member Swedish Academy said Jelinek, 57, had been chosen “for her musical flow of voices and countervoices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s cliches and their subjugating power.” This year’s literature prize is worth about $1.35 million.

In an interview with Swedish Radio from her home in Vienna, Jelinek said the prize was “surprising and a great honor,” but she said she was unable to travel to Stockholm for the awards ceremony in December. Later, she told Reuters: “I am not mentally able to withstand that. I have a social phobia and cannot stand these large crowds of people. But I will certainly write a speech.”

Still, for all her avoidance of the limelight, Jelinek is very much a public figure in Austria and Germany. Her writing, which includes poetry, an opera libretto and screenplays, with its deep pessimism about the human condition, has turned her into something of a cult figure. At the same time, she is a fierce opponent of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, and withdrew performances of her plays after the party entered the government in 2000.

Outside the German-speaking world, she is not as well known, although some of her works have been translated into English, French and Swedish. Four of her best known novels -- “The Piano Teacher,” “Wonderful, Wonderful Times,” “Lust” and “Women as Lovers” -- have been published in English by the London-based publisher Serpent’s Tail.

“She’s very controversial and has a very feminist voice,” Peter Ayrton, publisher of Serpent’s Tail, said in a telephone interview. “She’s also very innovative both at the level of content but also formally. She’s very adventurous. She’s a playwright and poet too and is always doing crazy and wonderful things with the form of the novel.”

“The Piano Teacher,” one of her darker novels, was turned into a French movie by the Austrian director Michael Haneke, with Isabelle Huppert in the role of Erika Kohut, a music teacher who seeks escape from her oppressive mother through sexual kinkiness. The movie, no less than the novel, shocked some people with its sexual violence.

Reviewing the novel in The New York Times in 1988, Michiko Kakutani wrote of Jelinek’s “uncompromising vision,” but noted: “Too often, however, her descriptions of Erika’s violent fantasies seem willfully perverse -- as though they’d been concocted for the sole purpose of shocking the reader -- and her relentless focus on the dark underside of Viennese life can seem equally artificial and contrived.”