Sunday, 5 March 2006

Review: Lust, Elfriede Jelinek (1992)

In Jelinek’s world the industrialist is a ravenous beast whose every whim must be met by someone, by his employees or by his wife. He demands a surfeit of control over his destiny and, by extension, over theirs as well. It is a cold, brutal world of haves and have-nots. A world of capricious desires and jealousy.

The Direktor expects to be able to phone home at any time at all, including office hours, to check that he is being thought of. He is as inevitable as death. Always to be at the ready. To tear her heart out. To lay her heart on her tongue like the host, and to show that the rest of her body is in readiness for the Lord, as he expects of his wife. To this end he keeps the bridle on his bride. He keeps her under his watchful eye. He sees everything, he has a right to examine whatever he wishes. For his prick it bloomed in its prickly bed, and on his lips the kisses bud and blow. But first he has to take a good look at everything, to work up an appetite. For you eat with your eyes too. And nothing remains concealed, excepting heaven unto the eyes of the dead, who placed their hope in it at the last.

Jelinek’s narrator moves in and out of the plotline, casting asides that serve to illustrate the capricious nature of lived existence. The plot is quite thin: in this 207-page novel there are only two days covered, but the action occurs more in the weft and weave of the prose than in the gyrations of the characters, who are caught up in the straightjacket of their own desires. Freedom comes in the form of rhythmic and comedic tonalities of prose, interlacing the plot and fleshing it out. The monologue spasmodically turns into a dialog between the narrator and the world that surrounds Gerti and Hermann and their son, not to forget Michael the young lover. The world impinges on the plot like in a dream.

Eyes wide open, Jelinek dissects the entrails of society and shows what she’s uncovered: consume or be consumed:

The women examine the shopping bags which they used to get rid of the dole money. Consumers are well advised in the stores, where special offers are announced over the public address. Special offers are what they themselves were, once! And their men were chosen according to their means. But now they are treated as the meanest of creatures at the labour exchange. Sitting at the kitchen table, drinking beer and playing cards, a dog’s life. But not even a dog would be so patient, kept on its lead outside the wonderful stores filled with fine wares that mock us.

The struggle between the sexes is a reality for Jelinek. She practices the scales for a command performance: the concert of a lifetime. Her dry and bright delivery is equal to whatever theme requires elucidating.

So many requirements, all of them pressing, pressed into the service of hygiene and filth alike, simply to possess each other. As the phrase inaptly goes. The dusty junk shop’s where we end up. Two household objects. Of simple geometrical design. Wanting to fit together and be good as new again! Now! Suddenly there’s a woman in combinations in the corridor, a jug of water in her hand; has she been casting spells, calling forth a storm, or is she only going to make some tea? In no time at all a woman can make a home of the plainest, barest, most spartan of places. That is to say, even the plainest of women can make a man feel at home by baring all, in no time he places his spar.

There’s something circular about Jelinek’s prose — always returning, like music, to the same themes, but with infinite variations.

We are so orderly and so spendthrift, spending ourselves, casting our seed upon stony ground and then keeping it to ourselves so that the pleasure’s ours alone. His wife’s thighs are for him only, the Direktor, the terrible visitant. They roast in the hot oil of his lust. He deep-fries. Busily he unloads on her ramp, palpitating, and some time he’ll bring her a present of a brooch or a steel bracelet. And it’s over. We’re free again. Home. Where we belong. But richer than before, when we laughed at the neighbour. You have an open invitation to come and take a look! Don’t worry, nothing will happen when the gentleman with the fizz and bezazz comes knocking at your door to jazz you up and pop your cork! Quite the contrary: a woman’s expected to be delighted!

There’s also something ad-hoc and contingent about the prose, as if Jelinek doesn’t know how each sentence will end. Like in Henry Miller. Like Joyce. Like a stream-of-consciousness rap.

There’s a slight dispute over her mink coat, which a skier has trodden on, but it’s soon settled. This breed of people beneath the farmhouse-style lamp: how they do contrive to show off their shapes within the colourful plastic limits they’ve set themselves so that their forms and norms won’t run over and out (and certainly not the models from which they were constructed). They decorate themselves wall-to-wall like their flats and take themselves out.


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