Elfriede on the leash

‘Elfriede Jelinek – Language Unleashed’ is the title of a new documentary about the Austrian Nobel literature laureate.

By Wolfgang Sorgo

A late summer evening in the 8th district, ca. 1960. Tramway no. 5 slowly creaks around the bend on Laudongasse, past the variety theatre on the corner and the seedy Theatercafé with its table telephones to arrange discreet encounters. Piano music drifts from the windows of a first-floor apartment. Young Elfi is always practicing. Her mother insists on it. Outside, life is passing by …

Elfriede Jelinek spent most of her childhood and youth in Josefstadt, kept on a tight leash by her mother. “My childhood is an inexhaustible battery of hate,” she tells the film’s director, Claudia Müller, at one point. And the charger for this battery was her petty bourgeois family in Josefstadt. While the author has never written a classic autobiography, she has described her childhood and youth with brutal honesty in works like ‘Wonderful, Wonderful Times’ (1980) and ‘The Piano Player’ (1983) as well as various interviews. Her “crazy and ambitious” mother was determined that her only child (born in 1946) should become a world-class musician, and so little Elfriede had to take piano, recorder, violin, guitar and viola lessons before being enrolled at the City of Vienna Conservatory in 1960. She was forever rushing from one rehearsal to another, packed with instruments, banging into people on crowded trams. Any concerns that it might be a bit much for the young girl were brushed off by her mother with a simple: “Elfi can handle it!”

Not surprisingly, Jelinek developed an anxiety disorder that became chronic. She grew increasingly reluctant to leave the house and began to self-harm. Years of therapy followed. “It would be good if people finally started to take mental limitations as seriously as physical ones,” says filmmaker Claudia Müller. “To this day, many still criticise her for not accepting the Nobel Prize in person back in 2004.”

With all these restrictions placed on her at the time, one might wonder whether Josefstadt even had any tangible impact on the author’s life. The answer can be found in her works: Young Elfi didn’t only play her instruments but also observed her environment closely, almost like a sociologist: watching the tramway stops outside her window, walking to school in Albertgasse or to Maria Treu Church via Kochgasse and Piaristengasse, or riding the tram to the conservatory. When her parents began to build a house in the 14th district on the edge of the Vienna Woods and were frequently absent from the apartment, the leash was loosened and Elfriede gained some freedom. The joys of being home alone, or going to see a play at Burgtheater! After a mental breakdown in 1964 she moved to the 14th district; today, she divides her time between that house and her residence in Munich. So it has been a while since she lived in Josefstadt. But then again she also told the filmmaker: “I feel as if I haven’t really experienced anything since I was a child, nothing of any substance.”

Issue 03/2022