Monday, 26 November 2012

This is how values disintegrate: Elfriede Jelinek’s Wonderful, Wonderful Times

One night at the end of the fifties an assault is committed in the Vienna municipal park. The following persons all grab hold of one solitary man out walking: Rainer Maria Witkowski and his twin sister Anna Witkowski, Sophie Pachhofen (formerly von Pachhofen), and Hans Sepp. Rainer Maria Witkowski was named after Rainer Maria Rilke. All of them are about eighteen, Hans Sepp is a year or so older than the others, though he too is without a trace of maturity. Of the two girls, Anna is the more ferocious, which can be seen in the fact that she pays most attention to the face of the subject. Particular courage is required if you are to scratch a man’s face while he is looking full in your own (though he cannot see much since it is dark) or indeed try to scratch his eyes out. for the eyes are the mirror of the soul and ought to remain unscathed if at all possible. Otherwise people will suppose the soul is done for.
(Translated by Michael Hulse)

And so begins Elfriede Jelinek’s Wonderful, Wonderful Times, first published in 1980. This is the first time I read a novel by this Austrian author. I have Caroline and Lizzy to thank for, whose German Literature Month created the circumstances to finally give her a chance. The results were very rewarding, this writer already has a new fan. Haunted by my pleasureless recollections of Michael Haneke’s ponderous and humourless film adaptation of The Piano Teacher, I maintained reservations about Jelinek’s for many years. I now discover Jelinek is neither ponderous nor humourless; her writing is lucid, , vibrant, witty and grimly hilarious, even if she’s writing a nightmarish version of a post-war Austria unable (unwilling) to come to terms with the horrors and guilt of war crimes or impart its soulless youth with lessons extracted from the putrefying corpse of history.

The Holy Foursome, Rainer, Anna, Sophie, Hans, live in the abysm of human consciousness, husks that have filled their morbid and anti-social existences with the refuse of a world that has everything except morality: Rainer with lofty philosophy and poetry; Anna with hatred; Sophie with money; and Hans with greed. These protagonists are young but old enough to be living amongst the ‘innocent perpetrators’ of World War II with their ‘wartime memoirs, their souvenirs,’ to be living in an Austria recovering from the economic collapse of the war, and to be living in the shadow of the crimes of their ancestors, crimes which were never tried or expiated, but bottled up, sometimes fondly evoked, like in the case of Rainer and Anna’s father, an ex-SS officer.

The novel renders the quartet’s inner lives very well. Passages aren’t wasted on setting, the writer’s eye moves back and forth between their minds and a sardonic distance to comment on the absurdity produced within them:

Anna does not know that you cannot buy inner worth. The unfortunate drawback with inner worth is that it is hidden away where no one can see it. Anna wants things that are visible on the outside too, but she won’t admit as much. People should not be beaten up for reasons of hatred but for no reason at all, it should be an end in itself, admonishes her brother Rainer. All that counts is beating them up, whether I hate them or not (Anna). You haven’t understood a single thing, Rainer tells her in a superior tone.

Nor does Jelinek refrain from showing these young sociopaths’ moral deficit:

Sophie has to be properly motivated if she’s to commit a crime, or several crimes, because she herself does not believe she needs to make the effort. Nor is it nice to stay up at night perpetrating deeds that shun the light. It takes willpower, since you could just as well be in bed reading a suspenseful thriller.

Hans’ mother is a socialist and member of a union, and she wants her son to follow her steps. Her husband was murdered in the war, a political victim. His son doesn’t give a damn about his memory or her cause, he hates his social class and thinks only of climbing up, to be as rich as Sophie. He doesn’t have any patience for his mother’s sermons and lectures. He suffers from a war fatigue, a Holocaust fatigue, the values of the old generation mean nothing to him, the war horrors mean nothing, because “times have changed and people too. People have other things to worry about now. Particularly young people, to whom the future belongs, which after all they are helping to fashion.” If the future belongs to them, the future is doomed. This is one of the many ironies of the novel, contrary to what Hans thinks, people don’t change, they’re making the same mistakes, showing the same apathy and indifference, and the greater tragedy is that it’s probably an inevitable and unsolvable flaw in humans.

At school the twins lie about their lives, they pretend to be rich. Anna thinks her musical talent (which is debatable) and knowledge of classical music makes her deeper than her fatuous classmates who like pop music. Rainer seems himself as an intellectual and philosopher. “From time to time a genius will flourish in their midst. The soil that nourishes this genius will frequently be filth, and madness will mark the bounds. The genius will want to escape the filth at all costs, but will not always succeed in eluding the madness.” Rainer is such a genius, and even if his geniality can be put into question – he lives most of the time in the realm of Art, writing morbid poetry or love poems for Sophie, his muse - there’s no doubt that he hasn’t escaped the fate of madness: the novel concludes with a brutal, unexpected mass murder that consolidates Rainer’s goal to become a great man (perhaps; my only evidence is a reference to Crime and Punishment, inevitably reminding me of Raskolnikov’s theory that great men were beyond the law).

Their father, the old SS officer, still misses the war and is unrepentant about his atrocities:

It’s always terrific to smash down resistance, I smashed resistance quite often myself in the War and liquidated numerous persons all on my own. Nowadays I have this wretched leg to contend with, but back then the women couldn’t get enough of me, it was the magical attraction of the uniform that did it. That smart uniform. I remember how we were often up to the ankles of our riding-boots in blood in Polish villages.

Although he lost a leg, he was never tried or convicted. He works as a night porter (a nod to Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, an excellent movie about a retired Nazi criminal hiding as a night porter?), and his pastime is photography: he considers himself an artist, but he really just takes nude pictures of his embarrassed wife. His photographs of her are just a way of dominating her. He’s a tyrant and a bully who beats up his wife and kids from time to time. Rainer and Anna’s mother, Gretl, comes from a family of teachers and wants her children to have a sensitive and artistic education. The twins hate her. Herr Witkowski considers their education useless. “Nonetheless he keeps them at grammar school, so that he can go about saying they go to grammar school. This is how values disintegrate. You can clearly see it happening: the value of authority, the value of paternal rule.” If I hadn’t finished reading Broch’s The Sleepwalkers last week I wouldn’t have known that this is a reference to the in-novel essay “Disintegration of Values.”

The twins despise traditional authority because they’re out to create their own, and they don’t have role models to follow. Rainer craves authority too, the respect of his classmates – “he is a führer by nature as anyone can tell right away, but no one takes the trouble to look at him that closely” –, he wants to be a leader the quartet’s mentor. But he competes with Hans for the affections of Sophie. If Rainer is about the life of the mind, dreaming about a peaceful life as a state teacher that grants him the time to write (and how very Nietzschean that is), then Hans, the son of a union leader, represents ambition and greed. He hates his class and wants to achieve success by whatever means possible.

Although Jelinek aims her venomous pen at many targets, she always returns to Rainer and his devotion to literature and philosophy. Rainer is well read. He reads Musil, Sartre, Nietzsche, Camus. He wants to be like them, he considers himself an enlightened, superior to everyone else thanks to his powerful Will. He’s always returning to The Outsider for inspiration. With more reservations, Anna accompanies him in his readings. She even reads Georges Bataille, in French. Together they read books about how existence is valueless. In a cruel and ironic twist, it is their mother’s efforts to give them a classical education that leaves them so ill-prepared for life. Her philosophers are not their philosophers, her humanism is the civilizational debris on which their nihilism is built. That books can drive people crazy is a topic as old as Don Quixote, but I’ve never read such an incisive portrayal of the young pseudo-intellectual nihilist as Rainer Maria Witkowski. More, I’ve seldom seen a character built up to be so thoroughly demolished by the author’s sarcasm:

Apart from literature (which anyone who can speak is a master of, none more nor less than another, but which certain people have monopolised, people who can’t afford a superior method to elevate them out of their surroundings), Rainer has unfortunately not managed to conquer anything else yet. But literature is well able to meet Rainer’s demands.

Notice that it’s not Rainer who rises to literature’s demands, it’s literature that meets his. Jelinek never misses a chance to show Rainer’s egocentrism. I don’t think I’d have liked this novel so much without Rainer. Perhaps because, and this is a frightening thought, I see myself a lot in Rainer’s arrogance and pretentiousness; I think I was that person once, perhaps I still am a bit of that person, but I think I have enough self-scrutiny to realize it and laugh about it.

Wonderful, Wonderful Times is an excellent and thrilling novel about a group of people amputated from history, from life. Most of the characters are despicable human beings. There are no explanations for their vices. The Holy Foursome have good parents, or at least good mothers, they’re provided for, they’re loved, their education has been taken into consideration, they’re all intelligent, so nothing explains the barren desert of their inner lives. Nothing explains it save the fact that human nature is crooked by conception. Of course these four are extreme examples, but it remains a fact that people it takes little to make people into monsters, goodness and culture will always fight against man’s fascination with entropy and barbarism. And literature will always be here to record that timeless battle. At least something useful will come out of it.

Next Wednesday, José Saramago's science fantasy epic poem.


  1. So, what you're saying is that we need to stop reading difficult books in case we turn into sociopaths ;)

    I haven't read anything by Jelinek, but I've heard a lot of mixed opinions. Maybe she's one for next German Literature Month...

  2. How wonderful that you managed to participate in the middle of Saramago month.
    This sounds like an outstanding book. I've only read the Piano Teacher and while I think it's an amazing book, it's very dry and bleak. Better and more cruel than the movie but humourless to the core.
    A very difficult topic that she has tackled here. A lot of what I would call "post-war suspicion and hatred" is still aimed at Germany solely while Austria's role and post-war society are very problematic too. There government is often very right wing.
    Jelinek is an author who looks under every carpet, into every closet and shows it all, unadorned. I need to put this on a wish list. Thanks for this excellent review.

  3. The characters sound horrifying but riveting in this book. Especially Rainer.

    Your description of him reminds me just a little bit of Alex from Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange.

  4. Those Serpent's Tail covers give me a strong "fiber and vitamins" feeling. No dessert until you have taken your pill!

    Even aside from the covers, Jelinek's novels sound quite unpleasant. I typically enjoy unpleasant novels, so I must try one as I rummage around in Austrian literature.

    Bernhard, Handke, Jelinek - what a trio.

  5. Tom, sadly I couldn't find a cover with better resolution. Still it's not as awful as Portuguese covers.

    The novel is unpleasant, if you're incapable of laughing at horrible and perverse things. Since I'm very good at it, well, I loved the novel.

    Brian, the characters are quite despicable, from the Holy Foursome to the SS officer father. Still they're strangely engrossing and funny.

    Caroline, I'm disappointed you call The Piano Teacher humourless. Then I shall try another of her novels first, perhaps Greed.

    "Post-war suspicion and hatred" is quite nice. It seems to me Jelinek just doesn't want wounds to close since they're still putrid inside. I love this type of writer, she sounds like Saraamgo at times, full of indignation and unwilling to let history be forgotten.

    Tony, no, I don't think I said that. But perhaps becoming a sociopath is just one of the (small) prices to pay for reading great literature ;)

    I think Jelinek was especially mocking the young, Sartre-and-Camus-loving, morbid pseudo-intellectuals from the 1950s, the kids who went about dressed in black spouting nihilist jargon to look cool. Rainer is such a hilarious satire of that type of person.

    I had some preconceptions about Jelinek, and they were mostly wrong. She's very good, very witty, very funny. Read her.

  6. Excellent review. I note that the translator is the poet Michael Hulse, who did wonderful job on Sebald's novels.

  7. Rise, thanks.

    Funny, lots of poets do side-jobs as translators. You got me thinking of George Szirtes' translations of Krasznahorkai.

    Have you read Michael Hulse's poetry?

  8. Chris Andrews ang Michael Hoffman also came to mind. Unfortunately I haven't sampled Hulse's poems yet.