Greed is good, but a little moderation never goes amiss either


Elfriede Jelinek

Serpent's Tail, 15


IN 2004 Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature but didn't attend the ceremony, citing a social phobia and "despair for becoming known". She wasn't the only one unhappy, as author Knut Ahnlund, a member of the Swedish Academy which awards the prize, resigned in protest, calling her work "whining, unenjoyable public pornography".

Greed, her first novel in 12 years, follows this controversy and the attention drawn by Michael Haneke's film version of The Piano Teacher. Jelinek has meanwhile been an active critic of Jorg Haider's neo-Nazi Freedom Party. All these elements, on some level, are present in Greed, jumbled into a narcissistic, closed world.

The publishers' hopeful blurb tries to present it as a mystery and it is, of a sort, but as little like a conventional crime novel as Ulysses is a comedy of manners. Buried within the arcane narrative is, indeed, a killer, a missing girl, an accomplice who may or may not be guilty and a suicide. But at the end it's hard to say what really happened and why.

I tried to find a passage to quote which would show its flavour, but it's impossible: one would have to extract a whole page to show the intensive rambling, the ragged thought process which jumps around, part incapable of and part deliberately not sticking to the point. Seemingly unedited, the words spill out in long sentences, epic paragraphs, which range from musings on vegetation, to shopping, sex, God, sausages, Austria, to sex again.

Our unnamed narrator seems ashamed when she can't avoid actually describing something that might in any way be described as plot - at one point, she laments, "even the most stupid reader" must now know that something has happened, "because unfortunately I couldn't keep it to myself anymore". Given that this first emergence of the plot occurs around page 116, even the most patient reader must surely be relieved.

Though sometimes described as a feminist writer, Jelinek's narrative is suffused with harsh judgments on her own sex: "Silly cows, women. All of them." The country policeman, an amoral figure who casually seduces yearning women and claims their property - who (at the risk of baldly revealing what the book has to have dragged out of it) murders when he feels like it - is the most sympathetic character.

With the self-hatred of a woman obsessed, the narrator portrays him as beset upon by greedy, needy, voracious females, draining him of his potency, thrilled by his natural fascism. It's hard reading, not just in the brutal sexual scenes, but in its depiction of female desperation, naked and ugly, to be filled, satisfied, completed. Does it matter that this howl of misogyny comes from a female author, through a female narrator? I think so, yes: there is undoubted truth in it, but it's wrapped in so much self-disgust that it almost becomes parody.

Greed is thought-provoking, certainly, though the thought it most often provoked in me was that I really, really wanted to put it down. Nevertheless, the power with which Jelinek creates such a claustrophobic, disturbing narrative is impressive.

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