THE INFAMOUS SNOBS of the Swedish Academy, brooding in the land of military cowardice, interminable winter, and one of the highest suicide rates in the world, have returned to their habit of awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to an unknown, undistinguished, leftist fanatic: The 2004 prize has gone to Elfriede Jelinek, of Austria. This time they got a two-fer shot at destroying literary standards, since Jelinek's writings mainly verge on gross pornography.
Ms. Jelinek's main recent work is a play, Bambiland, described as "a strident attack" on the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Published in Austria in 2003, it has been translated into English and will doubtless soon appear on the Anglo-American stage. Swedish Academy representative Horace Engdahl, laboring under the belief that the whole world can be fooled forever, disingenuously announced that the award should not be considered a political one. "When that play came out, this decision was--if not already made--then well under way," he said.
But Engdahl went on to describe Bambiland as showing "how patriotic enthusiasm turns into insanity," adding, "she's completely right about that." The Swedes are big experts on patriotism--they sold iron ore to the Nazis while claiming to be neutral in World War II. But you already knew that.
The New York Times--the Racing Form of the Nobel Prize competition--noted that Jelinek was a member of the Austrian Communist party from 1974 to 1991. One must know something of the history of European Communism to realize how despicable such a political option would appear to Austrians. The Austrian Communist party was the only one in the continent never to attract a noticeable following, and never to play a significant role in any historic event. After Soviet troops were withdrawn from the occupation zone of Austria in 1955, the Austrian Communist party was little more than a KGB network.
How interesting that Jelinek quit the party just when Moscow turned off the financial spigots to such efforts. The organization made her prize a banner headline on its website--finally, they're on the map.
But the Nobel Prize is bestowed for writing, and one must therefore address Jelinek's publications. In 2002, her novel The Piano Teacher was produced as an Austrian/French film starring Isabelle Huppert. Peter Rainer wrote of it, in New York magazine "Isabelle Huppert plays Erika, a stiff-backed piano instructor at a prestigious Viennese conservatory whose lust for her adoring student Walter (Benoit Magimel) exposes her deeply guarded sadomasochism. 'Do I disgust you?' she asks him after he reads a long letter from her outlining her most depraved fantasies." The novel also features voyeurism and self-mutilation with a razor. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, according to Reuters, "publisher Alexander Fest said [Jelinek's] writing showed 'great courage and huge savagery.' "
Sexual titillation makes a comparison between Elfriede Jelinek and, say, Britney Spears, fair--though any normal person would doubtless prefer the latter's company.
In bestowing the Nobel laurels on this Viennese virago, the Swedish Academy has confirmed that it must always compensate for its correct judgments with an atrocity. Last year the Nobel for Literature went to J.M. Coetzee, a serious and talented author; the year before to Imre Kertesz, a survivor of the Holocaust who, if little known outside his native Hungary, is nonetheless a writer of great eloquence and moral force; in 2001, it went to the controversial but respected V.S. Naipaul. In 2000, the prize was given to a Chinese, Gao Xingjian, although many of his compatriots, and experts in that country's literature, believed it should have gone to Ba Jin, a long-lived classic and dissident--however, Gao had the advantage of having been translated into Swedish.
But prior to then, Stockholm produced an outstanding run of scandalous Nobels in literature: scolding lefty turned Nazi-nostalgic Gunter Grass, in 1999; Jose Saramago, a vulgar enemy of religion and former Communist censor in revolutionary Portugal, in 1998; and the repellent Dario Fo, an Italian playwright specializing in denunciations of capitalism, in 1997. The prize for Jelinek is obviously a replay of the Fo foolishness; if America will hate it, then it rates with the Swedes.
Other Nobel stars have included Claude Simon (1985), a Stalinist who defamed George Orwell; Castro-lover Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1982); Pablo Neruda, Stalinist secret police agent (1971); and Soviet plagiarist and propagandist Mikhail Sholokhov (1965).
One would be tempted to say the Nobel recognition to an Austrian ogress proves that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the only decent thing to come out of that Alpine land in the last two decades. But one should also add that the Nobel Prize for Literature, which includes a check for $1.3 million, each year increasingly diminishes in moral, if not in financial worth.
Stephen Schwartz is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard