I discovered the writings of Elfriede Jelinek in 1998, while teaching in Vienna. She challenged me deeply with her bitter and uncompromising pessimism. Her anger, even rage at the world stunned and repelled me, but the power in her writing made me sit up and take notice.
My first read was her novel Wonderful Wonderful Times, the title itself harsh irony. I later used it in courses I taught on philosophical fiction.
Five young people in post-war Vienna are in the throes of meaninglessness and decide that random unprovoked violence against others is a way out of this dark hole. Their leader, Rainer Maria Witkowski, outraged me as he pretended to have a defence of this violence from the writings of Albert Camus, an important influence on my own life.
I seethed, but I read on and on. Jelinek took me by storm, since I had to recognise these were very real people. True, they didn't live in my neighborhood, but I knew they were legion. I pride myself on being a realist and was taken aback by my repulsion. I had to deal with that. I had to come to terms with Jelinek.
For me, that's what a great artist does. She sees the world, some corner of the world, and reveals it to the rest of us in her medium. I want to know my world, but I need the stimulation and challenge provided by artists, and Jelinek has become very important to me in my later years.
Her realism rang true, but her pessimism in the face of that realism was less compelling. Why not just accept these people and their ugly worlds and go on? I found it marvellously ironic that I began to regard her very rage, anger and disgust at the world as not at all pessimistic, but a quiet optimism.
She may not believe the world can be a better place, but she is furious that this is so. She is morally outraged. I nearly envy her.
At the English book shop in Vienna back in 1998 the clerk was very pleased I was shopping for Jelinek's books. She claimed Jelinek was almost unknown outside Austria. In discussion with Austrian friends I discovered she was little known inside Austria as well, and not much liked.
I was delighted at the wisdom of the Nobel prize establishment for recognising her talent and important place in literature.
Her other three works currently available are her best known work, The Piano Teacher, and two fairly short novels: Lust, and Woman as Lovers.
Perhaps now more than these four slim novels will become available in English. I will be looking hopefully for new translations.
Bob Corbett is professor emeritus of philosophy at Webster University, St Louis, Missouri. His comments may be found on his web page: www.webster.edu/~corbetre/personal/reading.htm
© 2004 The Guardian Ltd.