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Austrian Novelist Wins Nobel Literature Prize

Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek won the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, becoming only the tenth woman to receive the honor. In bestowing the award, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences praised "her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that… reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power."

Born in 1946 in the Austrian province of Styria, Jelinek made her literary debut in 1967 with Lisas Schatten, a collection of poems. Of Jelinek's long list of works in her native German, only four novels have been published in English: Wonderful, Wonderful Times, Lust, Women as Lovers, and the well-known The Piano Teacher, an autobiographical novel that was made into a film in 2001.

A fiery and often controversial author, Jelinek is best known for works that include graphic depictions of sexuality and violence, explorations of feminism and attacks on the far-right politics of Europe. The 57-year-old is currently working on a sequel to her 2003 play Bambiland, a direct attack on the U.S. invasion of Iraq. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

'The Piano Teacher' Book Excerpt:

The piano teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother. Mama likes calling Erika her little whirlwind, for the child can be an absolute speed demon. She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties. Her mother is old enough to be her grandmother. The baby was born after long and difficult years of marriage. Her father promptly left, passing the torch to his daughter. Erika entered, her father exited. Eventually, Erika learned how to move swiftly. She had to. Now she bursts into the apartment like a swarm of autumn leaves, hoping to get to her room without being seen. But her mother looms before her, confronts her. She puts Erika against the wall, under interrogation -- inquisitor and executioner in one, unanimously recognised as Mother by the State and by the Family. She investigates: Why has Erika come home so late? Erika dismissed her last student three hours ago, after heaping him with scorn. You must think I won't find out where you've been, Erika. A child should own up to her mother without being asked. But Mother never believes her because Erika tends to lie. Mother is waiting. She starts counting to three.

By the count of two, Erika offers an answer that deviates sharply from the truth. Her briefcase, filled with musical scores, is wrenched form her hands -- and Mother instantly finds the bitter answer to all questions. Four volumes of Beethoven sonatas indignantly share cramped quarters with an obviously brand-new dress. Mother rails against the purchase. The dress, pierced by a hook, was so seductive at the shop, so soft and colorful. Now it lies there, a droopy rag, pierced by Mother's glare. The money was earmarked for their savings account. Now it's been spent prematurely. The dress could have been visible at any time as an entry in the bank book -- if you didn't mind going to the linen closet, where the bank book peeks out from behind a pile of sheets. But today, the bank book went on an outing, a sum was withdrawn, and the result can now be seen. Erika should put this dress on whenever they wonder where the nice money went. Mother screams: You've squandered your future! We could have had a new apartment someday, but you couldn't wait. All you've got now is a rag, and it'll soon be out of fashion. Mother wants everything "someday." She wants nothing right now -- except the child. And she always wants to know where she can reach the child in an emergency, in case Mama is about to have a heart attack. Mother wants to save now in order to enjoy someday. And then Erika goes and buys a dress, of all things! Something more fleeting than a dab of mayonnaise on a sardine sandwich. This dress will soon be totally out of fashion – not even next year, but next month. Money never goes out of fashion.

They are saving to buy a large condominium. The cramped apartment they now rent is so ancient, you might as well just abandon it. When they decide on the condominium, they will be allowed to specify where to put the closets and partitions. You see, an entirely new construction system is being used. Every aspect is custom-designed, according to your precise wishes. You pay your money and you get your choice. Mother, who has only a tiny pension, gets her choice and Erika pays. In the brand-new, state-of-the-art condominium, mother and daughter will each have her own realm, Erika here, Mother there, both realms neatly divided. However, they will have a common living room to meet in. If they wish. But of course they do, because they belong together. Even here, in this dump, which is slowly falling to pieces, Erika already has her own realm, her own roost, which she rules and is ruled in. It is only a provisional realm; Mother can walk in at any time. There is no lock on Ericka's door. A child has no secrets from her mother.

Excerpted from The Piano Teacher, by Elfriede Jelinek, 1988. Used by permission of Grove Press. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.