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Interest soars for books by new laureate

Readers eager to explore works of Elfriede Jelinek
/ Source: The Associated Press

Readers are eager to learn more about Austria’s Elfriede Jelinek, who was virtually unknown in the United States before the announcement that she had received the Nobel Prize for literature.

Within 24 hours of Thursday’s citation by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, four of her books had jumped into the top 70 on Amazon.com’s list of best sellers. The ranking of “The Piano Teacher,” a novel adapted into a 2001 film starring Isabelle Huppert, soared from 1,163,804 early Thursday to No. 9 early Friday. Other books selling strongly include “Lust,” “Women as Lovers” and “Wonderful, Wonderful, Times.”

The marketing manager for Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, which releases Jelinek’s work in the United States, said that available copies were already sold out and that new books might not arrive for three to four weeks.

“You don’t keep a large quantity of books around when they’re not moving,” said Susan Doerr, marketing director for Consortium, based in St. Paul, Minn. “This is really going to revitalize an author who hasn’t found as wide a readership as she deserves.”

Although a celebrated and controversial author in Austria and Germany, the 57-year-old Jelinek doesn’t even have a publisher in the United States, an increasingly tough market for books in translation. English versions of a handful of works have been released by the London-based Serpent’s Tail, which specializes in experimental and political works.

But her fate will likely change, and quickly. Recent laureates such as Hungary’s Imre Kertesz and China’s Gao Xingjian also had little following in the United States before winning the Nobel.

“Liquidation,” a short novel by Kertesz, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf later this month. Gao’s work is now released by HarperCollins.

Work has been ignored in pastSerpent’s Tail’s Peter Ayrnot said that he had tried for a long time to interest U.S. publishers in Jelinek, but was told her work was too difficult. But Ayrnot, currently attending the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany, said Friday he has been approached by four houses since the Nobel announcement.

“We’ll go back to London and look at the options and make a decision then,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s probably wise to sleep on it and not make any decisions in the midst of the hoopla.”

Jelinek’s books may well have to speak for themselves. The intensity of her work, forceful attacks against social and political oppression, is mirrored by the intensity of her desire to be left alone. She has already said that she won’t attend the Dec. 10 Nobel ceremony, citing a “social phobia,” and that her plans for the coming days were simply “to disappear.”

In announcing the award 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 cliches and their subjugating power.”

In recent years, Jelinek’s 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.

Although 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 said in an interview Thursday with the AP.