Modernist literature has a special fascination with Wagner. The voices of “Das Rheingold” and “Tristan und Isolde” drift across T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Virginia Woolf’s The Waves bears the imprint of the composer’s motivic method, along with the symbolism of the “Ring” Cycle and “Parsifal.” A lusty Wagnerian atavism is stamped all over the novels and essays of D. H. Lawrence. In Marcel Proust’s Time Regained, air-raid sirens ring out “like the heart-rending scream of a Valkyrie—the only German music to have been heard since the war.”

Nobel Prize-winning Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek embodies a unique continuation of the furiously inventive and iconoclastic energies of modernist challenge: Like her peers Thomas Bernhardt and Peter Handke, her work represents an incisive post-1968 critique of Austria’s fascist apologism, its historical amnesia, cultural arrogance, and regressive sexual politics. But her writing shares with modernism an especially interrogative and evocative musical imagination, most famously with her 1983 novel, The Piano Teacher, and most recently with Gitta Honegger’s new English translation of her 2013 “bühnenessay” (stage essay), rein GOLD.

Originally conceived for the Berlin State Opera, rein GOLD is a forbidding, virtuosic reimagining of Wagner’s quartet of music dramas, realized through a massively proliferating dialogue between Brünnhilde and Wotan/the Wanderer. rein GOLD is polyphonic. Its voices come from the writings of Marx and Freud, the rhetoric of neo-Nazis, Wagner’s text for the “Ring,” a post-2008 sense of capitalism as increasingly chaotic and abstract—and much else besides. Like many of Jelinek’s writings, it is a kind of concatenation, building complex chains of association across topics, symbols, and histories.

Jelinek gave her Nobel acceptance lecture from behind a music stand, as if performing from the score placed on it. Her interest in music has an autobiographical gloss—she trained in violin, flute, and piano at the Vienna Conservatory as a teenager. But such facts belie the expansive function of classical music in her work, where it is far more than autobiographical cipher.

The Nobel documentary about her work begins with her playing Schubert’s A-flat major Impromptu, D. 899, before throwing up her hands after fluffing a passage of cascading notes. It is tempting to see a significance in this moment. Contra the title, D. 899 begins in the desolate key of A-flat minor, before turning a corner into the residual warmth of C-flat major, which is where Jelinek stops—as if to keep us in the cold, and steal away the aura of aesthetic satisfaction. In a 1998 essay on Schubert’s piano music, “Unruly Paths Trodden Too Late,” Jelinek finds in Schubert “a thorn which makes the seat unusable where it would be so comfortable.” It summons the vexed quality of her own writing, whose long paragraphs never let the reader sit down.

From early on, Jelinek took to music in her work. Clara S. musikalische Tragödie (“Clara S., Musical Tragedy,” 1982) takes its starting point from Clara Schumann’s diaries and letters; Winterreise (2011) makes a stage work from Schubert’s most famous song cycle. For this, she pulls recent Austrian history into Müller’s text—notably the kidnapping of teenager Natascha Kampusch—exploding and enlarging it.

Such gestures remake canonical works like Winterreise because they upset conventional images of the work—the alienated Romantic man of Mitteleuropean angst—and overlay it in our imagination with something alien but not without resonance. The Kampusch context elongates and intensifies the work’s obsessive protagonist, burning through to his more disturbing aspects. Schubert’s “Winterreise,” by way of Jelinek’s, is asked to contain our responses to contemporary events and remake itself accordingly; in another peculiar sense its expressive language seems to haunt or presage its own future, for which Jelinek acts as medium.  

Vienna’s bourgeois musical tradition is like a fungus on the surface of her works; it nourishes them with material and suffocates her characters. In Wonderful, Wonderful Times (1980), four furious teenage nihilists commit acts of violence and cruelty in an attempt to expurgate the repressive fascist fug that hangs over post-war Vienna. One of the quartet is Anna, a student of piano at the Conservatory. She plays “in quest of oblivion through sound, and she finds it too because music requires concentration.” Artistic dedication is Freudian Trieb, a remorseless, relentless drive toward inorganic oblivion.

In one nocturnal episode of Wonderful, Wonderful Times, Anna is told to drown a cat as part of her “initiation” into this friend group. As the group walk into the woods Anna mentions Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht.” “Wrong place. Wrong time,” the narrative interjects. Jelinek’s ambiguous deployment of indirect speech means this line can be both the chiding of Anna’s friends and an authorial supervention. Jelinek resolutely refuses to let anyone in her novels be improved by music, and is scathing about its function in an unremittingly nasty world. Bitter irony abounds. The woods at night where tragic love waits, the heart of Schoenberg’s luscious late-romantic vision, finds a bathetic counterpart in four cruel and desperate teenagers out to do harm.

Anna talks of practicing Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata Op. 1, and chides the well-heeled bourgeois audience of the Vienna Philharmonic for only liking “reactionary stuff like Schubert, Mozart, and Beethoven… When they heard Webern last Sunday they applauded like idiots, but the fact is they despise music like that.” She goes on: “The audience is…too well-bred to boo a Webern, they know how highly-rated a composer he is. But of course they don’t like him. Webern’s music is a joke from start to finish.”

This is a moment of striking self-consciousness. Anna—and Jelinek, too—know about the barbarism and sterility implicit in the classical tradition proper. Webern’s music, to Boulez and the other patriarchal titans of the postwar avant-garde, was supposed to be the antidote (Webern produced, Boulez wrote, “a radical solution of grammatical and stylistic problems that desperately needed solving”); to Anna he is just a “joke.” Jelinek aims a derisive kick in the direction of Darmstadt. But all is not lost. Anna is reluctant and unable to drown the cat, which escapes into the woods; perhaps she finds a flicker of empathy or care in that music.

The music of Vienna is put under further strain in The Piano Teacher, an astonishingly candid exploration of sexual sadism and repression (epitomized in Michael Haneke’s 2001 film adaptation, starring an icebox-frigid Isabelle Huppert as Erika). Karl Kraus and Sigmund Freud made Vienna a case study for civilizational dysfunction; in Jelinek’s work its music is an especially morbid symptom. “Vienna, the city of music!” her narrator sarcastically proclaims. “Its buttons are bursting from the fat white paunch of culture, which, like any corpse which is not fished from the water, bloats up more and more.” If Viennese music is DOA, then Erika Kohut is where the cadaver is kept: “Her body is one big refrigerator, where Art is stored well.” Viennese musical tradition has the chill of the mortuary.   

Erika Kohut’s first name might be read as a perversion or distortion of “Eroica,” the moniker given to Beethoven’s Third Symphony. As if the joyful, triumphant energies of that work have been diverted and transformed into her sadism and cruelty, partly by an overbearing mother but equally the metamorphosing pressure of conservatory culture. That she shares her last name with a famous Viennese psychoanalyst is like a sign at the fringes of a medieval map: Here be neuroses, the biggest and baddest Vienna has to offer.

Nicholas Spice in the London Review of Books sees The Piano Teacher as “a wildly creative rereading of Goethe’s ‘Heidenröslein,’” which in turn he calls “a pirouette on the subject of 18th-century date rape.” Jelinek’s destructive dyad of Kohut and her student, Walter Klemmer, intensifies the implied sexual roughness of Schubert’s famous song by drawing out its naked brutality. Schubert’s music in The Piano Teacher is the occasion for Klemmer and Kohut’s most charged and distressed sexual power plays. Jelinek’s use of it affirms Walter Benjamin’s dictum: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

Benjamin goes on, “Barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.” Erika represents this pedagogy of barbarism too; music is a weapon she wields against her students. Her lessons are pretexts for stances of submission and petty humiliations: “Erika’s student is demanded and thereby chastised. Loosely crossing her legs, Erika sneers at his half-baked Beethoven interpretation. She need say no more; he’s about to cry.”

This kind of cruelty is one writ large across the institution of the conservatoire. Her students “generally listen to their colleagues play and then they sharply criticize them together with Professor Kohut. They are unabashed about correcting other people’s mistakes, of which they themselves are guilty. They listen frequently, but can neither feel nor emulate.” It’s a world of emotional coldness, hypocrisy, and cruelty. As the passage goes on, Kohut and her student Klemmer turn their ire against “unfeeling” South Korean students. It is a synecdoche for Austrian cultural arrogance and racism.

Rein GOLD, produced first as a libretto for the Berlin State Opera in 2013, offers an ironic diminution of the mythological thematics and spectacle of the “Ring.” Jelinek makes Wagner’s characters and scenario appear small, looked at through the wrong end of a telescope. The fire that surrounds Brünnhilde at the end of “Die Walküre” is “nothing but the ad for the gods… our own advertisement supplement to the rules we have set up.” No transcendence here, just the society of the spectacle.

Jelinek’s Valkyries still have saddles, but they belong to bicycles, not horses: “bicycle messengerettes, with, like, heroes on them, not bad either.” It is an image remarkably redolent of Anselm Kiefer’s sculpture “Walkürenritt. In works of remarkable accretion and density, Kiefer, too, turns to Wagner to explore amnesia about fascism. Jelinek dwells in the ruins of Wagner, indeed the ruins of Wagner: “What remains?” Wotan asks. “Objects, rubble, rubbish.”

Wotan, king of the gods, is merely a mortgaged patriarch, no different to home-owning petty tyrants like Kurt Janisch from Jelienk’s 2008 novel Greed. In rein GOLD, the conflagration of the gods is woven into the history of neo-Nazism, where it is overlaid with the story of the German terrorist cell Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund, founded by Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Mundolos, and Uwe Boenhardt, who murdered migrants and robbed banks. Mundlos and Boehnhardt’s story ended in a murder-suicide and a burned out trailer; Zschäpe also burned down her apartment a few days later (though as in Wonderful, Wonderful Times, the cats escaped.)

This is anti-redemptive schema, wary of claims for the “Ring” Cycle’s humanist promise; Jelinek forces a confrontation between Wagner and Austro-German fascism, superimposing them instead of deferring to allegory or tasteful symbolism. The harshness of this vision is reflected in Wotan’s capitalist realism, a cynicism in the text heavily influenced, translator Gitta Honegger says, by Patrice Chereau’s famous Marxist production from 1976 in Bayreuth.

Jelinek, Honegger also tells me over Zoom, is intensely supportive in the realization of stage works like rein GOLD. The text is enormous, running to nearly 200 pages, but she gives this to directors to cut and fashion as they please. It is further shaped by the input of musicians, actors, and designers whom she sees, Honegger says, as “co-authors.” When it comes to translating such idiomatic texts, Honegger tells me how playful Jelinek is in exploring various possibilities, enjoying elaborate word-games or chains of association. Her writing is contrapuntal in its many registers, voices, and allusions. “Her words are not her own,” Honegger tells me, referring to the raft of references and ideas that make up the collage of her work. Yet her work has an unmistakable voice and idiosyncratic shape.

There is sharp contrast here with Wagner, whose person infiltrated every aspect of the staging of his works, taking control of lighting, design, direction, and even the setting in which they would be performed in the invention of his own theater—turning off the lights and subordinating the audience to a spectacle of his devising. The Gesamtkunstwerk is a revolutionary idea but no less a kind of artistic megalomania. This is to say nothing of the characters, who relentlessly reflect various aspects of his character and self-image. No wonder some people find his operas unbearably claustrophobic.

rein GOLD is a crafty response to Wagner’s literary and dramatic technique. Jelinek (and Honegger) cleave carefully to the alliteration that characterizes Wagner’s verse. In the “Ring,” it gives clusters of thought an internal cohesion and a brooding, ruminative character. In Jelinek’s rein GOLD, energetic bursts of alliterative play create concentrations of images and ideas inside monumental and unyielding paragraphing. In this respect it is truly Wagnerian: motivic micro-invention and transformation carried inside a vast textural and dramatic sweep. Words and sounds modulate—what Honegger calls Jelinek’s “associative method”—and make a dynamic surface:

So, while you, child, are sleeping, that funny Panther frisks around the fire. To the end. That he doesn’t get bored of it!, No he can stop it now. This is already the end. One ends oneself, or it’s not really an end. Only such an end, one’s own end, is one.

Like Wagner, Jelinek is also almost impossible to excerpt discreetly. To say a literary style is “musical” can lapse into cliché, but in Jelinek’s case there is more cause than usual. Writing in German gives Jelinek access to puns or instances of multiple meanings that have special importance for the musical aspects of rein GOLD. The title itself is an ironic, untranslatable pun on rein and Rhein, the former meaning “pure.” This gold is anything but. Conversely, the only purity we might see is in the unfettered, single-minded character of the greed the book attacks.

In a work about a bad mortgage and the sins of various fathers, it is striking that the German word for “debt” and “guilt”—Schuld—is the same. This finds, in the ingenious elaboration of Wagner’s leitmotifs, a musical equivalence. We might note the way that the famous falling “Ring” motif, introduced in the first scene of “Das Rheingold,” is the basis for the superficially noble “Valhalla” music of scene two; this play of musical resemblances tells us that the same will-to-power poisons both Alberich and Wotan.

Alberich and Wotan embody both “debt” and “guilt” simultaneously, indivisibly. Wotan’s earth-shattering act in ripping away a branch of the world ash is a crime for whose corrupting effects for he and the world must ultimately pay; he is a debtor and a thief. Alberich, more prosaically, steals the gold. Wagner’s motivic machinations open the door to moral and philosophical reflection; so too does Jelinek’s wordplay. What kind of crime, as Brecht had it, is robbing a bank compared to founding one?

“She has great respect for these works,” Gitta Honegger tells me when we discuss Jelinek’s relationship to the classical canon. But it is an ambivalent attachment. Wagner, Honegger goes on, “is the counterpart to Heidegger in terms of the scale of his contradictions.” At the end of “Das Rheingold,” Loge, the trickster, looks at the preening gods with distaste. “Perhaps I’ll turn myself back into a flame and burn them all up,” he ponders. “I’ll think it over—who knows what I’ll do?” Perhaps Loge, an outsider whom the gods do not wholly accept, is the best cipher for Jelinek’s complex relationship with music. She is of the house, but not at home in it. ¶

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