From Elfriede Jelinek: A Portrait

When Elfriede Jelinek practiced the piano as a student, the apartment windows stood wide open. It was noisy outside. Every few minutes in the 8th District a streetcar rumbled down the slope of Laudongasse. The building across the street housed a dubious cafe, where men came and went for the purpose of making the acquaintance of ladies via table telephones. An exhaust fan blew smoke and kitchen fumes out into the street, and the odors drifted up to the piano student on the second floor. In the evening, clusters of people moved past her building, laughing and making noise as they headed for the revue theatre at the next intersection. But the windows were not closed—the neighbors in the apartment building and the people on the street were supposed to hear the child making music. Elfriede’s mother wanted it that way, referring to it as “giving a concert.” And so the girl sat inside at the grand piano, hour after hour, playing against the sounds from outside.

Art numbers among the first things that Elfriede Jelinek learned about in life. As a small child she was sent to a private dance school for ballet lessons. Then came the instruments. At age six, Elfriede began with piano. She learned quickly. It was followed by recorder and violin, when she turned nine. Even as an elementary student she had a schedule like a professional musician. In the morning she rose at six o’clock, practiced for an hour, then went off to school. In the afternoons she attended music school or ballet, or she practiced, and in the evenings she still had her homework to do. Even during vacation she did not pause. The family usually spent their summers at the home of Elfriede’s grandmother, in a house perched high above a small village in Styria. In the winter it was snowed in, and even in the summertime it was difficult to reach. Other than a few cottages scattered around it there was nothing but woods and meadows. At almost 1,000 meters above sea level, the farmstead lacked almost every comfort. But it had a piano. At the behest of Elfriede’s mother, the villagers had hauled a grand piano up the steep path.

While summer vacationers hiked past and the village youth splashed down by the river, Elfriede sat with her instruments. She didn’t enjoy it, but played her pieces until the clock showed that practice time was up. Her mother kept a strict eye on her because she wanted the child to become a famous musician. It was the mother who set the tone in the family. Even at the foot of the Alps, the windows had to be open when Elfriede practiced.

* * *

Elfriede Jelinek, born on October 20, 1946, was the only child of a quiet, solitary man and a capable, ambitious mother. If she had grown up somewhere else, a mother like Ilona Jelinek would probably have put her on a tennis court or an ice skating rink. But the Jelineks were from Vienna, and Vienna is the city of music.

In Vienna, music has always served as a path to achieve distinction. The city erected an opulent monument to waltz composer Johann Strauss: a gilded statue of the musician with a violin under his chin. Any Viennese family with a good opinion of itself has a piano at home—a pianino for those of lesser means, or a grand by the Vienna-based Bösendorfer company for the upper bourgeoisie. To this day, piano lessons are a status symbol for a certain class, and subscriptions to the Vienna State Opera or the Philharmonic of great significance. Frequently passed from generation to generation, these season tickets represent something like the insignia of social status. Some wait in line all night and still only get tickets for the “Juchhe,” as the highest tier is called in Vienna; others have always been booked into their traditional seats.

Vienna, with its century-old courtly and Catholic traditions, tends to gauge its fellow citizens by where they stand, rather than by their abilities or possessions. For the self-image of the Viennese bourgeoisie, origins matter. As a consequence, labeling someone “nouveau riche” is one of the most disrespectful things you can call someone who attends the annual Opera Ball. But in another respect, this implies that one is always perceived as a member of the social class of one’s birth—unless one becomes an artist, preferably a musician.

Elfriede Jelinek’s parents lived the life of the petty bourgeoisie. Born in 1900, Friedrich Jelinek came from a typical, blue-collar Viennese family. His father hailed from Bohemia and held a job as a warehouse keeper. Ilona Jelinek’s father was a butcher by training who traveled the countries of the Danube Monarchy as a meat buyer, and later worked for the postal service. But Ilona Jelinek had an idea of what a good home should be like. Her grandfather, Wenzel Buchner, was a silk manufacturer. In the heyday of the Viennese silk industry he had become extremely wealthy, and he owned a fortune in securities in addition to several houses.

Our father was a building owner and a silk producer, runs a line in a traditional Viennese song. The combination of textile manufacturing and real estate ownership appears to fit the Viennese archetype of wealth and prestige. He lived with his family in a villa in Kalksburg on the outskirts of Vienna. Servants took care of everything. His sons had tutors from France, and grew up with the idea that money didn’t matter. Ilona, who was born in 1904, spent a lot of time as a child with her grandparents at the villa in Kalksburg. The family fortune was lost in war bonds and the inflation following the First World War, but Ilona Jelinek had nevertheless developed a feeling for an upper class lifestyle. Although she herself could no longer go back, she intended for her daughter to make the leap.

Elfriede Jelinek was trained to become a musician and be something better. The girl had hardly mastered the “Flea Waltz” when she was given a Steinway concert grand. Ilona Jelinek had gone into a music store in nearby Alser Strasse one day and wheedled the instrument out of a temporary employee, far below its value. Later, the store’s owner tried in vain to buy it back. This grand piano—it stands in Elfriede Jelinek’s reception room today—was probably the most expensive object in the antiquated apartment building. Most of the tenants didn’t even have a toilet to themselves. Curiously, Ilona Jelinek didn’t know a great deal about music, although she did have a “beautiful natural voice,” as the family recalls from attending church. For her the most fascinating thing about music was actually the musicians themselves—the sight of people accomplishing something on an instrument. The tragedy for Elfriede Jelinek during these years lay in her musicality; she had the ability to meet the demands her mother imposed, generally without rhyme or reason.

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