We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Elfriede Jelinek's _Women as Lovers_; Joan Korenman's WMST-l · 18 April 05

Dear Fanny,

I want to recommend Elfriede Jelinek’s Women as Lovers to others to read. It’s a female counterpart to J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. How heartening she won the Nobel Prize this year.

This short, easy-to read, and powerful novella releases you to see: Jelinek looks beneath patterns of behavior that are socially acceptable, even recommended. This to show you the pattern and the unconscious or unacknowleged motives and feelings and pragmatic motivations of women desperate to find a husband, any husband almost, just as long as he’s presentable somewhere to someone. No matter if he utterly dominates the way you live your life, whatever choices you can make, if he belittles, nay beats you and just takes what sex he wants whenever however. All this is glorified by pop journalism today.

Yes the book’s relentless and grim, and after all life’s just intermittently consciously outrageous, injust, terrifically brutal: "Most of life’s pretty simple and quiet … You talk like we all had knives out" (The Ox-Bow Incident, Walter van Tilburg Clark, Art Croft to Gerald Tetley). It’s ironic Jelinek should insist so strongly that she should not be looked at as an Austrian writer. She’s right to resist this attempt to own her by people who would not read her books as an sign of their self-glorification and the deluded ways nationalism is used: still the two women and their situation and the male’s & families’ exploitative and cruel attitude towards them was presented in terms of Austrian working class and rural town life.

Her paradigm is so accurate that it can explicate the neuroticism and madness, petty cruelty and desperations of a subplot in a Victorian novel by Anthony Trollope, He Knew He Was Right (a story whose meaning was erased from the mostly anondyne film adaptation). I recently read a BookerPrize novel, Brick Lane (for which the young woman got £40,000) whose thrust was as reactionary (how wonderful to obey a cruel man for then you are "safe" and "good") as any pop journalist psychology in a complicit insistent women’s magazine.

Jelinkek sums up and sets forth to us women’s novels and novels written for women, novels about women in the realistic mode: it’s the unacknowledged reality that is the basis for their life choices and the way women accept punitive experiences as the norm that makes the book refreshing. Jelinek won’t let you trivialize.

In today’s atmosphere of continuing sickening hypocrisies,
celebrations of imprisonment, and (in one of a woman student’s papers and some of the young men’s) simple repetitions of how admirable are sexually and physically aggressive male animals, unashamed descriptions of torturing animals, and in particular one startling tale of a young woman’s pregnancy and childbirth where she was led to suffer unnecessarily throughout (gaining huge amounts of weight, being yelled at during the birth, induced not to ask for painkillers), Jelinek is liberating.

I felt for this young woman student. All "justified" because she had this baby. It was not the baby’s fault. Lines just ring out at you from Women as Lovers: in the end brigitte (one of the two heroines) just loathes Heinz ("and heinz operates his pump handle diligently"). Laura has a close girlfriend just now immolating herself through a pregnancy she claims was unwanted. And where’s the escape? the young man she nailed down is not the nailed-down one. Now she can’t spend money. She must "save up." For what? Her young man is apparently not long for his job.

A job offered by whom to do what for for how much and for how many hours a day, days a week, weeks a year … ? is the great real question.

My mother told me last night of an older woman friend who can’t think of what better to do with her 55 year old ("retired") self but to go plump herself down to stand guard, live next to a daughter-in-law who is all set to give birth and return to an 18 hour a day schedule of work and school (to get a certificate for "higher" work). A couple of years ago this daughter-in-law was fighting intensely with the woman’s son. The older woman’s excuse to my mother is she wants to take care of this baby day and night. My mother takes this at surface value. Rien à faire.

And all the while on Joan Korenman’s WMST-L the women argue over how to rearrange the chairs on the Titanic (intense quarrels over whether to use the Mrs, Ms or your birth or husband’s name, how to regard "you guys" as an address) and she relentlessly pounces to clamp down on them repressing all such disturbing disruptive talk (by simply putting the poster on moderation and not permitting her postings to go through). This a major venue for feminist intelligent talk today.

Some might call this list’s and its listowners’ behavior funny in the way Jelinek might image a reader laughing her grim way through Women as Lovers.

I can’t laugh, Fanny. Only smile fondly when I remember Izzy and her friend’s voiced ambition: they intend to be two old maid ladies living down the hall from one another with two cats each.

Yay for the Nobel Prize people.


Posted by: Ellen

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