Critical Mass

Dog Days of Summer Reading: Leora Skolkin-Smith

By Leora Skolkin-Smith

Reading Elfriede Jelinek is always a defensive passion for me. I loved her newest novel, “Greed,” as I have everything this brilliant woman has produced. Undoubtedly, she is a fierce writer. Unlovely, sadomasochistic appetites prevail in her work. Relentless perversions drive and expose her characters. She is,in a sense, a fundamentalist, but her faith rests on a kind of fearless plunge into the human psyche and unconscious–a post-Freudian, post-Marxist orientation toward life and its reflection in literature.

In awarding Jelinek the 2004 Nobel prize for literature, the committee highlighted “her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power.” 

“Greed” tells the story of a country policeman who begins an investigation of several murders in his neighborhood and district. But, as in every Jelinek novel, the plot is subverted by more startling, bizarre and unpredictable effects. The country policeman investigating the murder cases is a man whose “greed” becomes the real story of the novel. And the story is told in Jelinek’s singular narrative voice, giving us linguistically playful but charged sentences like this: “It's not good to hate, but only if you tell me who, can I really say, if it’s good or bad. It gives people the energy, like a Mars bar, which comes straight from the God of War and plunges into a human figure, as if the latter had melted away.” And this: “We like to sit in the colorful chairs in the appropriate branch, have fun and look cheerfully at the glacé cherries on the frothy abundance (achieved through folding in of quite ordinary air!) of our demands. And then we look out the window of the cafe and there they are, the real cakes. Afterwards, full of cholesterol, in our grave, we'll feel better.”

In her Nobel acceptance speech, Jelinek asked, “Is writing the gift of curling up, of curling up with reality? One would so love to curl up, of course, but what happens to me then? What happens to those who don’t really know reality at all? It’s so very disheveled. No comb that could smooth it down. How can the writer know reality, if it is that which gets into him and sweeps him away, forever onto the sidelines?”

I know I will spend the rest of summer (since unfortunately the news is exploding with such “reality”) admiring this de-constructionist writer who, I believe, offers us a bounty of poetic (and quite beautiful) language as well as a sense of humor too often missed by reviewers and critics.

I trust her, like I trust the narrator in “Greed,” who implores us, while we muster our courage to continue the story, “Whoever only learns about everything from reading should please do so now.”–NBCC member Leora Skolkin-Smith