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Austrian woman wins Nobel Prize in literature

Austrian novelist and poet Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize in literature, the Swedish Academy announced Thursday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek, a self-described advocate for “the weak” whose forceful defenses of social and political freedom have frequently clashed with conservatives in her native country, has won the Nobel Prize in literature.

In announcing the award in Stockholm on Thursday, the Swedish Academy 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.”

Jelinek, 57, said in an interview with The Associated Press in Vienna that she would not make the Dec. 10 ceremony in Stockholm because she suffers from “a social phobia.”

A handful of other literature recipients have not attended, although rarely by choice. Injuries from a pair of plane crashes kept Ernest Hemingway from going in 1954. Four years later, Boris Leonidovich Pasternak first accepted then was forced by the Soviet government to decline. Jean-Paul Sartre turned down the award, in 1964.

The predominantly male Nobel committee made Jelinek the first woman to receive the literature prize since it was given to Wislawa Szymborska of Poland in 1996. Only 10 women have won it in the Nobels’ 103-year history.

“They assured me that I received the prize because they value my work, not because I am a woman,” Jelinek said Thursday, calling the Nobel “the biggest honor.”

Although happy about the prize, she said she “can’t stand” the attention that comes with it. With her phone and doorbell constantly ringing, Jelinek said her plans for the coming days were simply “to disappear.”

Hoping to find new audience in U.S.The Nobel brings her a check worth more around $1.3 million and a singular chance to reach new readers in the U.S. market, which has become increasingly difficult for translated works. Imre Kertesz, a Hungarian novelist who won the Nobel in 2002, will soon have a book released by Alfred A. Knopf. Gao Xingjian, the 2000 winner, is now published in the United States by HarperCollins.

Jelinek’s most famous novel, “The Piano Teacher,” was adapted into a 2001 film that starred Isabelle Huppert, although other works such as “Lust” are well-known in German-speaking countries and she is widely translated in French. A few of her books have been released in English by Serpent’s Tail, a small, London-based publisher specializing in political and experimental works.

“I’ve tried to get U.S. publishers interested in her work and they would say she was too downbeat, or she was too grim and not necessarily the kind of writer they felt they could sell,” Serpent’s Tail publisher Peter Ayrnot said in an interview from the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany, where he says he has already been approached by “three or four” American publishers.

“She’s a very innovative writer, both on the level of form and content. This isn’t easy fiction and even though she’s a Nobel Prize winner, that doesn’t necessarily convert into being a best seller.”

In recent years, her plays in Austria have been marred by booing, shouting matches and patrons walking out. She was shunned by some Austrian political leaders, partly because of her vehement opposition to the rise of the rightist Freedom Party led by Joerg Haider, which became part of the ruling coalition in 2000 on a platform criticized as anti-Semitic and anti-foreigner.

In 2000, she instructed her publishers to withhold the performance rights of her plays from all Austrian theaters as long as Haider’s party was part of the government. In her phantasmagorical novel, “Die Kinder der Toten” (“Children of the Dead”), she depicted Austria as a realm of death.

Love-hate relationship with AustriaAlthough her plays again can be seen in Austria, Jelinek said she had mixed feelings toward her homeland. “It’s a love for Vienna and for a few other places. But I have no patriotism for this country,” she told the AP.

Communist Party chairman Walter Baier on Thursday praised Jelinek as “a feminist and one of the most important voices of the “other Austria,” and he cited her “unabashed and public attacks” on the Freedom Party. Andreas Kohl, president of Austria’s parliament, said he was “pleased for her and for Austria.”

Jelinek made her literary debut with the collection “Lisas Schatten” in 1967. Her writing took a critical turn after her involvement with the political movements in Europe in the 1970s, when she came out with her satirical novel, “We Are Decoys, Baby!” That was followed by other works, including “Wonderful, Wonderful Times” in 1990.

“The Piano Teacher” tells the story of Erika, a demanding piano teacher who embarks on an affair with a younger music student. It’s a common theme in her works, known for jolting readers with their frank descriptions of sexuality, pathos and the conflict between men and women.

“When I write, I have always tried to be on the side of the weak. The side of the powerful is not literature’s side,” she said.

Her latest play, “Bambiland,” written in 2003 and translated into English in 2004, is a relentless attack on the U.S. war in Iraq, although Horace Engdahl, secretary-general of the academy, emphasized that the prize should not be interpreted as a political comment.

“When that play came out, this decision was — if not already made — then well under way,” he said.

A sequel to “Bambiland” will appear in May as her first post-Nobel work. Titled “Babel,” it deals with “the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison but also with the mutilation of the bodies of the U.S. soldiers in Fallujah,” Jelinek said.

The 18 lifetime members of the 218-year-old Swedish Academy, of whom only four are women, made the annual selection in secrecy last week.

The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel will be announced Oct. 11.