Up from the Cellar

Nicholas Spice

On 1 May, only five days after news broke that a 73-year-old man, Josef Fritzl, had immured one of his seven children, his 18-year-old daughter Elisabeth, in a specially fortified cellar under his house in the small town of Amstetten in Lower Austria, and kept her there for 24 years, abusing her persistently and fathering seven more children on her, Elfriede Jelinek, Austria’s Nobel Prize winning novelist, posted a short essay on her website under the title ‘Im Verlassenen’. It begins: ‘Austria is a small world in which the big world holds its rehearsal. The performance takes place in the very much smaller cellar dungeon in Amstetten – daily, nightly. No performance is ever missed … Performances are all there can ever be.’

Jelinek’s work over the past forty years has been intensely preoccupied with male sexual violence against women. Her most recent novel, Gier (published in English as Greed), concerns a man not dissimilar in class and background to Josef Fritzl. Kurt Janisch is a country policeman who kills a 15-year-old girl by pressing on her carotid artery while she is giving him a blowjob in the back of his patrol car, and then dumps her body in the local lake. The considerable imaginative achievement of Gier lies in capturing and holding for a moment the darkness at the core of Janisch’s psyche, the same darkness that billows up from the cellar in Amstetten.

The style of Jelinek’s essay ‘Im Verlassenen’ is very similar to that of Gier; indeed, for some years now, Jelinek has written everything in this style: novels, plays and the pieces she posts on her website. It’s a demanding idiom characterised by long slabs of unparagraphed text, free-form and improvisatory, in which the movement of thought is impelled by association and wordplay, and changes in voice and register happen without warning. Part of the mission of this way of writing is to go down into the cellars of the language and unlock long buried relationships between words. For example, the phrase ‘Im Verlassenen’ is an invention, a gerundive formed from the verb verlassen, ‘to leave’, ‘desert’ or ‘abandon’. ‘Im Verlassenen’ means something like ‘in a place of essential abandonment’ or ‘in abandon-ness’, and it draws to the surface the derivation of Verlies – the word for ‘dungeon’ used to describe the Amstetten cellar – from verlassen. A Verlies is a place where you are abandoned.

The completeness with which Elisabeth Fritzl was abandoned and the thoroughness of her interment are hard to comprehend. For 24 years, she was buried alive. There were no bars to her cell, as Jelinek reminds us, no bars through which to glimpse another life (with typical brilliance she alludes to Rilke’s poem ‘The Panther’ and the lines ‘To him it is as though there were a thousand bars/and between these thousand bars no world’). The extreme cruelty of Elisabeth’s situation involved an almost unimaginable enclosure, not just of space but of time. Physical confinement – airless and without daylight – was compounded by temporal uncertainty, by not knowing when, if ever, she was to be released. Time becomes oppressive when we are unable to see where it is leading. Even the trivial experience of waiting for someone who is late can make us anxious that we’ve been left to rot in unstructured time. At such moments we get a sense of the limitless fear of the baby who cannot imagine the return of its absent mother. Elisabeth Fritzl was abandoned by her mother to a father who had become an ogre, and found herself waiting for ever; falling – like the ‘suffering mortals’ of Hölderlin’s ‘Hyperions Schicksalslied’ – ‘jahrlang ins Ungewisse hinab’ (‘for years into the vague abyss’).

The story of Amstetten has the unreality of the ‘bad’ fairy tale. The numbers in it are fairy-tale numbers: seven children above ground, seven children below. The 24 years of Elisabeth’s captivity are as inexact as the hundred years that Sleeping Beauty slept – they stand for eternity. We might be able to imagine being locked away in a windowless cellar for 24 days, for 24 weeks even, but not 24 years. How did Elisabeth Fritzl survive this? In what sense did she survive it?

There’s a strange, haunting novel called Die Wand (The Wall) by Marlen Haushofer, an Austrian writer from the generation before Jelinek’s, in which a woman finds herself trapped in a mountain valley which has been sealed off by a mysterious and invisible wall. She is alone except for a dog, a cat and a cow. As the months pass, her fear grows that she will lose her humanity: not that she will become an animal – animals are not monstrous – but that she will overstep the animal altogether, since ‘a human being can never become just an animal; he plunges beyond, into the abyss.’ In an attempt to prevent this she keeps strictly to her daily routine – brushing her teeth, cleaning the house, keeping her clothes in good order, hanging up the washing, feeding the animals. Josef Fritzl doubtless imposed certain standards on his daughter’s housekeeping. She needed to be kept moderately human. So he built her a kitchen and a bathroom (did he let her choose the tiles? Jelinek asks). So that, like any good housewife, she could wash and cook. So that, like any good housewife, she would remain wholesome to fuck.

If we have trouble grasping how Elisabeth Fritzl could have stayed sane, the capacity of her father not to understand what he was doing to his daughter, not, above all, to understand what it meant to keep her there for a quarter of a century, is perplexing in a different way (in his first account of himself, Fritzl said he was ‘probably a monster’ – probably). Freud characterised the unconscious as without temporal extension. Fantasies expressive of unconscious desires do not exist in time. Above ground, Josef Fritzl obeyed the rules of ordinary time and causality, the rules that say actions have consequences and are subject to the constraints of conscience (das Gewissen); but when he went down into his cellar, he left all this behind to enter the timeless underworld (das Ungewisse) of his desires. As long as no one found out, it was as if what he did down there had never happened (if he’d killed his children and grandchildren, he said, no one would have made a fuss). Jelinek calls what Fritzl did to his daughter a ‘performance’, the addictive acting out of a pathological need. In building his cellar, Fritzl was building a compartment of his own mind, a theatre for the nightly performance of his fantasies. Elisabeth Fritzl’s grotesque misfortune was to be imprisoned in this compartment, to be trapped inside her father’s head.

‘Performances are all there can ever be.’ Ritual acting out – the staging of fantasies in the real – is the essence of pornography. In Greed, Jelinek characterises Kurt Janisch – as, in ‘Im Verlassenen’, she characterises Josef Fritzl – as a porn star. As a sexual actor Janisch is robotic, mind-blown, affectless. He fucks without enthusiasm, his mind on other things, usually his property speculations. What motivates him is not sexual desire in any straightforward sense, but a kind of greed. Janisch, the country policeman, is a good-looking man, not young but intensely attractive to women, and he exploits this to seduce them, usually by pulling them over on mountain roads for minor traffic offences, then propositioning them. His preferred prey are single women of a certain age, and his ostensible goal in seducing them is to get his hands on their property. Has he killed to achieve his aims? Perhaps, but he has no need to kill Gerti, the woman who features in Greed, because she obliges him by killing herself. Gerti is a widow, a former piano teacher, who has moved from Vienna to lead an idyllic retirement in a mountain village. She becomes infatuated with Janisch, who systematically humiliates and abuses her. She wants love, but he meets her pleas for tenderness with demeaning sex sessions. What finally breaks Gerti is Janisch’s sexual relationship with the 15-year-old schoolgirl, Gabi, which he forces her to witness (in one scene, he throws Gerti out into the stairwell in her underwear while he fucks Gabi in her flat). When Gabi disappears, Gerti knows why, but she is by now so bound to Janisch that, rather than tell the police, she returns to Vienna and kills herself by swallowing pet sedatives.

There’s a brutal surplus, a disturbing excess, in Janisch’s sexual behaviour with Gerti, which tells us that he is driven by more than the wish to get his hands on her chalet: getting his hands on her body is an end in itself. Fifteen-year-old Gabi, meanwhile, owns nothing. Janisch needs to dominate these women as much as he needs to acquire houses, and both addictions are brought together under the German word Besitz – ‘possession’, ‘property’, ‘ownership’. His way to ‘have’ Gerti is to humiliate and hurt her. His way to ‘have’ Gabi is to kill her. (Josef Fritzl said he had to lock up his daughter, since she kept going off on her own – she was, after all, his property, and he had to secure it.)

Two earlier woman-killers stand behind the figure of Kurt Janisch: Moosbrugger, the prostitute murderer in Musil’s Man without Qualities and Büchner’s Woyzeck. ‘Every human being is an abyss,’ Woyzeck says, ‘One grows dizzy looking down.’ The father of the woman-killers in the modern German literary tradition, Woyzeck is also the most pitiable. Sexual jealousy drives him to murder his wife, Marie, but the deeper causes of this act are grinding poverty and oppression. Moosbrugger is a transitional figure. He, too, is poor, and he may be insane. Musil’s novel offers some grounds for sympathy with him. He kills the prostitute because a voice in his head tells him she is filthy and must be expunged. She pursues him for business, and he turns on her with horrific violence.

Janisch is a much darker figure than Woyzeck, even than Moosbrugger, and Jelinek a far more pessimistic thinker than either Büchner or Musil. Woyzeck’s tragedy (and to an extent Moosbrugger’s) is that his humanity has been corrupted by economic circumstance, but Janisch is himself part of the oppressor class. Sexual violence against women is his way of asserting his power. Like Josef Fritzl, he is just one of the great mass of lower-middle-class Austrian property owners – a given of the situation.

On the ordinary, above ground, scale of things, Jelinek’s own life has been a kind of immurement: an immurement that she long ago accepted and turned to her own powerful uses. She was born in 1946, the only child of ‘old’ parents. Her father was a Jew, surviving the war by virtue of his marriage to Jelinek’s non-Jewish mother and his work as a chemist in a Nazi factory (other family members were not so fortunate). Friedrich Jelinek was a quiet man who suffered from nerves, and he never properly recovered from the distress and anxiety of the war. Over subsequent decades he became increasingly silent and withdrawn and eventually lost his mind. He died in a psychiatric hospital in Vienna in 1969. Twenty-six years later, his daughter would publish Die Kinder der Toten, a fictional exploration of the willed amnesia of postwar Austrian society.

Friedrich Jelinek’s retreat into illness was experienced by his daughter as a desertion that left her exposed to the full force of an overbearing mother. When Elfriede showed signs of musical talent, it was obvious to Ilona Jelinek that her daughter would be a star. All the girl’s spare time was soaked up with music lessons and practising. She studied the organ, piano, violin and composition. At 14, she entered the Vienna Conservatoire as an organ student.

As an apprenticeship in dissidence, a childhood sacrificed to classical music is hard to beat. Classical music is always acceptable to authority because it cannot overtly challenge power with subversive ideas or disturbing representations. Parents and states know they are on safe ground when their children or subjects are playing Mozart or Schubert – and enjoying it. Elfriede Jelinek learned this the hard way and it sensitised her, as a citizen, to the co-option of classical music by the Austrian state as the peculiarly Austrian art and the guarantee of the country’s essential civilisation.

She forced an escape from a life of compliance with her mother’s wishes through the unhappy but effective stratagem of a complete nervous collapse. At the age of 21 she interrupted her studies at the Conservatoire and spent a year at home, scarcely ever leaving the house. When she finally re-entered the world, it was not as a musician but as a writer – the most successful and least conformist Austrian writer of her generation, as it turned out. The interesting thing about Jelinek’s ‘coming out’ as a writer was that, while it marked her intellectual and artistic liberation from her mother, it didn’t entail her actually moving away: not then, not later, not ever. Even after she got married, Jelinek continued to live with her mother (visiting her husband in Munich at weekends). And when the old lady died, in 2000, Jelinek stayed put. It’s hard to know what was stranger in this set-up: the fact that she could write without inhibition under the daily supervision of her monstrous mother, or that her mother continued to do her daughter’s washing and make her meals in the face of the ‘monstrous’ literary output that her daily care facilitated. The answer to this riddle lies perhaps in the mother’s ambitions and the daughter’s success.

Jelinek made her debut as a writer at the Innsbruck Jugendkulturwoche in 1969, winning first prize for both poetry and prose in a competition where all the submissions were anonymous. The sexually explicit content of her work provoked establishment outrage: the head of the local cultural bureaucracy spoke of it as an affront to Austrian decency. What her strict Catholic mother thought is not recorded – she had come to Innsbruck as her daughter’s chaperone. Jelinek was already 22.

This was the high-water mark in Austria’s radical postwar renaissance. Thomas Bernhard was the acknowledged leader of the dissident pack, with Peter Handke and the Forum Stadtpark group from Graz representing the next wave of an obligatory avant-garde. Jelinek was at the young end of this group, but gained instant recognition within it. It was her natural mode to épater les bourgeois, starting with her mother. An early project, conceived with the writer Wilhelm Zobl and the artist Aramis and entitled Rotwäsche (Terrorstück mit Publikum), is described by Verena Mayer and Roland Koberg in their concise and informative Elfriede Jelinek: Ein Porträt:[*]

The plan was to paint objects on stage red and to squirt red paint at each other and at the audience; loudspeakers would project the sounds of orgasm … [Jelinek] wanted to appear in the production as a ‘mute singer’ who would sit on the laps of men in the audience. There would be copulation on the top of a piano which would end up being smashed to pieces. Finally, Aramis would tip butyric acid into the ventilation shafts, while the public, unable to leave the auditorium, would be taught about the bondage of capitalism through being subjected to ‘insanely loud soundtracks’.

If this seems very much of its time and place (the young artists fell out with each other and the project never got off the ground), it would nonetheless be a mistake to see Jelinek’s early work as motivated simply by a desire to shock or just as a stage she was going through. The fit of her work to the prevailing literary culture was fortuitous. While her writing colleagues made the time-honoured progression from attacking the establishment to representing it, Jelinek stayed put on the outside. The starkness of her subject matter, and her harshness in treating it, were not to mellow with time.

When she was starting out, Jelinek shared her generation’s intense preoccupation with what was felt to be the false consciousness of the political, cultural and social establishment. Widespread complicity with the Nazis during the war had, it was claimed, been airbrushed out of official accounts of the occupation, and history rewritten to portray Austria as a plucky little fighter overwhelmed by impossible odds. On the ground of Year Zero a new Austria had been built, a dehistoricised, timeless idyll, ‘the land of smiles’, as Jelinek called it, tourist Austria: a country of cuckoo clocks and Mozartkugeln, Alpine meadows echoing to the clunk of cow bells, balconies overflowing with red geraniums, dirndls plump with the bodies of blonde girls, cosy winter evenings sitting round the stove in the snowbound Stübel singing folk songs soothingly empty of harmonic dialectic. And in the city, the whirl and gaiety of Strauss waltzes, the gemütlichkeit of the coffee house, the optimism of the New Year’s Day concert and the splendour of the Opera Ball. Jelinek’s project was to smash up all of this.

In 1976, she made a TV documentary about life in a village in the Austrian Alps. Ramsau am Dachstein had been commissioned as a ‘soft’ account of Austrian rural life, a feel-good travel programme that would do nothing to disturb the image of the countryside put out by the Austrian tourist board. As a child, visiting her grandparents in a small village in the mountains near Mürzzuschlag, south of Vienna, Jelinek had experienced rural life at first hand, and she was having none of the official line. She shot the film from a distance so as to show up the social conditions that determined rural lives: the women trapped in a life without variety or hope of change, the men broken by the harshness of physical labour in the forests.

In Jelinek’s novel Die Liebhaberinnen of 1975 (published in English under the title Women as Lovers) the narrowness and privation of rural Austrian life is explored through a satirical account of the parallel lives of two young women: Paula and Brigitte. Paula lives in a country village, Brigitte in a small town. Paula is 15, Brigitte 18. Paula is destined for a life as a checkout girl at the local supermarket. Brigitte already works on the production line of an underwear factory, sewing bras and pantyhose. Paula dreams of dressmaking, Brigitte dreams of Heinz. Both girls get pregnant: Brigitte on purpose to trap Heinz, Paula by accident. When Erich bangs up Paula, Paula’s dad beats her black and blue. Once they are married, Erich will also beat her black and blue. Erich’s only interest in life apart from his moped is beer. The dismal confinement of these rural destinies is understood as economic, but for Jelinek both the symbol and the instrument of economic oppression is the sexual exploitation of women by men.

A few years later, in Die Klavierspielerin (1983), translated as The Piano Teacher, she makes an apparently startling dialectical swerve in her analysis of sexual politics, rotating the subject through 180 degrees. For here the ostensible exploiter is a woman. Like all neurotics, Erika Kohut takes centre stage, and all the colour and variety of the novel lie in the florid expression she gives to her deeply inhibited and perverse sexual nature: gruesome episodes of self-harming, ritual exploits in seedy voyeurism, infantile excursions into low-grade pornography. At home she dances a grim pas de deux of mutual exploitation with her old mother. At work, as a piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatoire, she assumes the role of the cold disciplinarian.

In her ‘love affair’ with her talented older student, Walter Klemmer, Erika takes the part of a female Angelo, getting her kicks from a punitive and highly sexualised moralism. But Klemmer is not an innocent. A hockey-jock with an improbable aptitude for playing Chopin and Schubert, he is vain, preoccupied with his own body and out to claim his tight-arsed, cock-tease of a piano teacher as a fuck trophy. He presses, she withholds. At first the balance of power tips towards Erika, but it’s only a matter of time before the underlying structure asserts itself. Nothing in Erika’s psychological armoury is a match for Klemmer’s brute force.

The plot of The Piano Teacher reaches its crisis in the scene where Erika barricades herself in her bedroom with Klemmer. To keep Erika’s mother out, they drag a heavy chest of drawers across the door. Erika then presents Klemmer with a letter in which she instructs him in lovingly imagined detail how he is to torture and abuse her. Disgusted, disbelieving, contemptuous (‘a woman who plays Chopin so marvellously can’t possibly mean that’), Klemmer calls her names, throws the letter back at her and leaves. A few days later, he returns to Erika’s mother’s apartment to give Erika what she has ‘asked for’. He beats her up and rapes her.

The Piano Teacher’s merciless portrayal of female sexual perversion is the overlay on a savage critique of normal male sexuality. In Michael Haneke’s film of the novel a cool symmetry prevails: no sides are taken. But the book leaves us in no doubt that what Klemmer does to Erika is of a different order of harm from what she does to him. Erika’s weapon is ‘not doing’, keeping the sex locked up in her head. But where, as one might say, she is too literary, Walter is utterly literal and his weapon is as blunt as a hockey stick. When Erika invites Klemmer into her bedroom, she is inviting him into the most intimate chamber of her head – the seventh room of Bluebeard’s castle. In doing so, she is playing Judit to her own Bluebeard, opening the darkest corners of her psyche to the light, in the belief that despite everything she can still be loved. Her letter to Klemmer is a deeply muddled plea for gentleness (she hopes that by telling exotic stories she can postpone the moment when he hits her). But all this is too subtle for him.

Jelinek is an intensely learned and literary writer; all her texts live in and through the texts of others, and The Piano Teacher can be read as a wildly creative rereading of Goethe’s cynical little pseudo ballad ‘Heidenröslein’, set to music by Schubert in what is perhaps his most famous song. In Goethe’s poem – a pirouette on the subject of 18th-century date rape – a little heath rose attempts to fend off a rough boy who declares his intention to pick her. She says she’ll prick him if he picks her, but he picks her anyway. Tough shit, little rose! Erika is the Latin name for ‘heather’ and used in colloquial German as an alternative to Heide. Meanwhile, it’s over the playing of Schubert that Erika and Klemmer have some of their most erotically charged exchanges. If prickly Erika has morphed into something rather less innocent than a wild rose, Klemmer is the rough boy of Goethe’s poem.

In the year The Piano Teacher appeared, Jelinek published a short piece on the theatre with the title ‘Ich möchte seicht sein’, ‘I want to be shallow’ – the nearest thing in her output to an aesthetic manifesto. The hyperbole of the piece throws up an ironic halo around it (it was later staged as a dramatic monologue), but it explains a lot about Jelinek’s aims in her early work. ‘I want to be shallow’ is an attack on conventional realist theatre. ‘I don’t want to bring strange people to life in front of an audience,’ Jelinek, or ‘Jelinek’, says. Characters on stage should be flat, like clothes in a fashion show: what you get should be no more than what you see. Psychological realism is repulsive, because it allows us to escape unpalatable reality by taking shelter in the ‘luxuriousness’ of personality, losing ourselves in the depth of individuated character. The writer’s task is to block this manoeuvre, to chase us off to a point from which we can view the horror with a dispassionate eye. If Brigitte and Paula don’t have the luxury of a future, we must be made to experience this impoverishment too.

Keeping it shallow, in Jelinek’s terms, means keeping us awake, but it also means keeping it ugly. The experience of Jelinek’s early novels is every bit as stark as the worlds they describe. But formal inventiveness doesn’t save the books from seeming relentless, short-winded and static. Acting under the imperative to bring everything dark up to the surface, Jelinek gives the novels airport lighting. Perspective of any kind is banished – everything takes place in the present tense – with the result that the reader feels consistently equidistant from any and every point in the text. Though The Piano Teacher represented something of a reprieve from this uncompromising rigour, Jelinek returned to it, with a vengeance, in her next novel, Lust (1989), a book in which the unpleasantness of the reading experience and the ugliness of the subject matter are in complete harmony with each other. There was evidently nothing further to be done in this direction.

There’s an odd sense in which Jelinek’s novels of the 1970s and 1980s are not quite radical enough for her purposes. They tug uneasily against the realist conventions they spurn, never quite able entirely to give up on them. By the time of Greed (published in German in 2000), Jelinek had abandoned all reference to realist form. Instead she writes a kind of prose poetry or extended dramatic monologue in which the voice of the narrator is as much the subject of the book as the events it describes. Beyond Gabi’s murder and the disposal of her body in the mountain lake, and the various scenes of sexual abjection between Janisch and Gerti, nothing happens in Greed. But the novel extends to 462 pages in the German edition and consists of several hundred undifferentiated blocks of prose, without indents or dialogue.

The exact length of the novel is in fact immaterial since the way it works has nothing to do with linear form. One way to think of it is by analogy with a certain sort of art installation, where a large number of panels painted in the same style treat similar subject matter, but in an ever shifting kaleidoscope. The artist’s technique, the brush strokes – the way the paint has been laid on the canvasses – at first seems chaotic, a doodling or scribbling, sometimes frantic, sometimes childish; but as the eye gets used to the disordered surface, it begins to discern uncanny shapes and shadowy forms in the tangle of lines: the looming, sinister figure of a man, the body of a girl.

To dismiss Greed for its disorder is to misunderstand it. What Jelinek has fashioned here is an immensely expressive medium that goes to the very edge of coherence, but never beyond it. The narrative voice is half-cracked and pitiable and speaks the language of a mind driven back inside itself by the horror of what it has to tell: like the language of Ophelia after she goes mad, or the language of a traumatised child talking to her doll, or an old lady drifting into dementia. The voice speaks to itself, now angry, now facetious, one moment off on some silly pun, the next beside itself with weeping: ‘You know, something terrible has happened! And already the memory of a dead woman is bound up with never-ending weeping, with fear of darkness, and again, right next to us, a woman has died, not quite willingly, not of love, but nevertheless.’

In Greed, Jelinek finds a way to deal with depth (with the abyss inside the human) without either reverting to the analgesic of realism or exhausting the reader with flood-lit ugliness. For all its derangement, Greed is not ugly. Indeed, once one has got used to it, it yields strange and memorable pleasures. But only if read in German. With its constant shifts of tone and register, the slippery sideways movement of thought through wordplay and punning, the frequent allusions to other German texts, the idiom of Greed poses almost insuperable obstacles to good translation. Jelinek herself took years to translate Gravity’s Rainbow and it would take a comparable labour of love to translate Gier adequately. As it is, doubtless under tight economic constraints, the publishers have paid for a hit-and-miss, standard, ‘by the page’ translation and the result is a disaster. It’s hard to imagine that Jelinek’s reputation in the English-speaking world will ever recover. It would have been better to have left the novel untranslated.

Reviewers of Greed have met it at best with polite puzzlement, at worst with disdain. Philip Hensher said it was ‘atrocious’. And he was right – Greed is unreadable. But it is not the same book as Gier. What has also been atrocious has been the failure of anyone reviewing it to go back and read the German. One of the favourite ways hostile reviewers have of belittling Jelinek is to call her parochial. But the real parochialism is ours.

The voice of Greed speaks for a mind that has long given up trying to keep a grip on itself. The vanity of ‘good writing’ doesn’t interest it. Jelinek has adopted this voice as her own, the literary persona through which she speaks to the world, the persona of a writer who has said that it is not open to women to speak with the authority and entitlement that comes so easily to men – at least not if they wish to keep the privilege of their position as outsiders. Remaining an outsider has been the vital project of Jelinek’s career. The more she has been beckoned inside the fold with prizes and awards, or ridiculed for remaining outside it, the further she has tacked towards the margin and the odder she has become. This contrary movement was at its most pronounced when Jelinek won the Nobel Prize. She greeted news of the prize with circumspection: she said she was delighted with it, but she thought Peter Handke would have been a worthier winner, and she expressed the fear (justified, as it turned out) that such prominence would draw down yet fiercer attacks from her detractors. Too nervous to go to Stockholm to deliver her acceptance speech, she recorded it in her front room in a suburb of Vienna. Though her social phobia was quite genuine, her absence on the night was something of a rhetorical master stroke. Her theme was ‘apartness’, the necessity for a writer to be ‘im Abseits’, to stand outside the game of reality (im Abseits also means ‘offside’ in football); and her absence spoke of this more eloquently than anything she could say, while – with her image projected onto a giant screen at the back of the auditorium like that of a leader at a political rally – it lent her an oracular authority which she could never have hoped to command had she spoken in person at the podium.

‘Im Abseits’ opens with a question: ‘Is writing the gift of adaptability and suppleness, of cuddling up to reality?’ The answer takes the form of a figurative cadenza about hair. To write is to have one long metaphysical bad hair day. A writer cannot properly smooch with reality, because it’s so disordered – like unmanageable hair, tousled (‘zerzaust’) and refusing to be smoothed down. The writer is someone who uses a gap-toothed comb, a hairdresser whose Sisyphean creations quickly become dishevelled again, flopping forward over the face or standing on end in horror at what happens out in the world.

‘Im Abseits’ is a dense thicket of a text, an involuted tangle of image and idea like hair which has got into knots that need combing and teasing out. It is also intensely introspective, not over concerned with intelligibility, and reading it is like overhearing someone talking to themselves trying to figure something out. There’s something virtuosic about such a refusal to rise to the occasion, and in the solemnly self-important context of the Nobel award ceremony the strangeness of Jelinek’s delphic utterances must have riveted the attention of her listeners.

‘Im Abseits’ is the performance of a modern sibyl, an agoraphobic Cassandra whose preferred channel of prophecy and admonition, she recently announced, is the internet: www.elfriedejelinek.com is her pillar, her cave, the place apart from which she harangues the multitude. But Jelinek the ‘cyberite’ is only the latest instar of an ever evolving public persona that delights in riddles (‘Who is everywhere present yet always hidden?’; ‘Who has lived all her life alone with her mother while being happily married?’; ‘Who has unparalleled success yet remains unknown?’). Journalists have lapped all this up without always seeing the joke, writing about Jelinek as a literary bag lady and crank. Jelinek seems happy to encourage this caricature. Around the time of the Nobel award, she gave interviews claiming that her only knowledge of life came from watching TV. In the picture of herself she has posted on her website she wears an ugly checked overcoat, her face white and pasty, her hair unkempt and bedraggled (‘zerzaust’). But there was a time when she modelled clothes for a fashion magazine.

Our response to stories of extreme sexual violence tends to a mixture of horrified fascination and what in psychoanalysis is called ‘projective identification’, where we cast out the nasty bits of ourselves and lodge them in some other person or thing – a kind of scapegoating. The media turns stories like Amstetten into freak shows, but, unlike a dog with two heads or a parrot that recites the Nicene Creed, Josef Fritzl or Fred West may set the psyche humming in unpleasant ways, especially if we are men. The question ‘Is there any part of this in me?’ must then be shouted down before it is even enunciated. Hence the tabloids scream ‘Sex Beast’ and bay for blood, while the ‘enlightened’ press ruminates decorously on the nature of evil.

If in doubt, invoke the Holocaust. Not just a sex fiend, but an Austrian sex fiend, Josef Fritzl offers a double satisfaction to our need for moral and mental cleansing. Accordingly, ‘How Austrian is it?’ has been a game played right across the English-speaking media in recent weeks, from the Sun’s ‘HITLER MADE ME DO IT’ to Roger Boyes in the Times, who thinks that it’s all to do with geography – ‘communities that grow up in the shadow of the mountains’ (not that Amstetten is anywhere near any mountains) – or perhaps the Habsburgs, ‘an echo, too, of Sigmund Freud’s Vienna’. Howard Jacobson, writing in the Independent, speaks darkly of ‘other questions the respectable, peace-loving burghers of Austria never asked … There was a concentration camp in Amstetten … a camp for women.’

What Jelinek sees as distinctively Austrian about Amstetten is not what Josef Fritzl did but what everyone else didn’t do. In ‘Im Verlassenen’ she makes effective play with the German word Ruf, meaning both ‘cry’ and ‘reputation’, noting that while Elisabeth’s cries, her screams, went unheard (‘the screaming doesn’t even make it through to the neighbours or up from the cellar into our own house’), the first reaction of the Austrian president was to worry about the country’s reputation. For Jelinek, the Fritzl story is a metaphor for the larger historical suppressions of Austria in the postwar period. One thinks again of the woman in Marlen Haushofer’s novel sealed up in that mountain valley, or of the scenes in another of her novels, Die Mansarde (translated by Amanda Prantera as My Loft Life), in which a deaf woman acts as a ‘therapist’ for a highly disturbed man who shouts out the story of some terrible crime in a confession she cannot hear.

‘Austria is a small world in which the big world holds its rehearsal.’ With the first sentence of her essay, Jelinek directs us back to the central question posed by Amstetten, which is not how Austrian is this story but how universal. Put another way, how many of the men who read the Guardian or the Sun are currently abusing their children, beating up their wives and girlfriends, paying for sex with prostitutes or downloading hardcore porn at home in the middle of the night or in the office in the middle of the afternoon? And are we to see these and related forms of behaviour as discrete points on a scale that has Maxim magazine at one end and Josef Fritzl at the other, or do they make up a continuum along which, under the right conditions, we might find ourselves sliding?

An answer of sorts stares out at us from the pages of the Sun, in that movement from page one to page three which millions of British men make without a second thought every day of the week, the movement from ‘dungeon incest monster fritzl, 73’ to Keeley from Bromley, 21 going on 15 (could be your daughter, wish she was): pink and pouting Keeley, doe-eyed, golden-haired and full-breasted, only two loosely tied bikini strings away from full fantasy possession – complete with instructions on how to download her to your mobile phone (‘available on all networks except Virgin’). There is a difference of degree of course, but Keeley from Bromley, like Elisabeth Fritzl, is caught in a room in the male psyche, a place which, like the world below ground in Amstetten, exists outside time.

In the same week that the Fritzl story broke, Deutsche Bank, like other banks keen to signal belt-tightening in the wake of the global credit crunch, circulated a memo saying that from now on executives were not to charge adult film downloads to their expense accounts. At the time of the Nobel Prize, Jelinek was asked whether she thought feminism had made any significant gains over the years. Nothing, she said, would lead one to suppose that it had.

While Jelinek has won just about every prize that is open to a writer writing in German, her reception by the defenders of the rights of the ordinary reader has often been venomously negative. When she won the Nobel Prize, the attacks became almost hysterical. Jelinek said that she had expected this but that even she was taken aback by the sheer nastiness of what was written about her – by Matthias Matussek in Der Spiegel, for example, or Iris Radisch in Die Zeit or Ruth Franklin in the New Republic. The destructive personal animus in these attacks needs explaining. The explanation lies more, I think, with Walter Klemmer than with Kurt Janisch. Walter’s rage and brutality, never far below the surface, is summoned by Erika’s literary imaginings. Her crime is to undermine his view of himself as a healthy, normal, loving young man. In Klemmer, Jelinek portrays the normal as monstrous and this is the crime for which, it seems, she cannot be forgiven.

[*] Rowohlt, 320 pp., €9.90, September 2007, 978 3 499 62099 7.