I recently finished reading Wonderful, Wonderful Times by Elfriede Jelinek (translated by Michael Hulse), the Austrian Nobel Prize winner (2004). I had read her Wikipedia biography before starting it, and knew that she was a controversial figure, but I hadn't researched her extensively. I also seem to have a wide gaping hole in my head where most people have a net that catches facts, at least when it comes to reading fiction. I'm not a stickler for books being worlds unto themselves and NOTHING else à la Nabokov, in fact I think it's pretty cool when people can learn things through non-traditional means, because history texts are boring. But I definitely have a thing for the world of the book coming FIRST and being my primary reason for reading it. Therefore, when I read Wonderful, Wonderful Times I wasn't thinking about Jelinek's political activity, feminism, or Austrian history (except insofar as it was being presented to me on the page).
The novel follows the lives of four teenagers between whom exist two clumsily-supported love triangles. They form a sort of club, the point of which is committing crimes (along the lines of beating people up and taking their wallets) for philosophical reasons (or so they say). This in itself isn't very interesting to me. What did interest me, however, was the language. It struck me as a kind of streamlined version of some of the better stream-of-consciousness styles (Joyce, Woolf, David Foster Wallace) I've read. Because it seemed both florid and spare, though, I had a hard time accepting it at first. That, and I put up some resistance to the poetics and wordplay of the text because I knew it was a translation. But if translation is to be seen as work worth doing (which I'd at least like to think it is because it's something I'm really interested in doing myself), translations must be read. So about halfway through the book I began to let myself just be swept along, and it was a much more enjoyable ride. Which isn't expressing the full extent of it. It was an incredibly enjoyable ride.
Once I had finished the book, I looked up some more information about it. The reviews were as polarized as I'd expected, and I wasn't particularly bothered by the bad reviews, but I was somewhat surprised that I didn't seem to come across much about how gorgeous and evocative the writing was. It seemed in fact like both sides were inclined to focus on the ideas of the story, as well as the perversity of some of the subject matter. I've also at this point read some criticism of her characters being largely one-dimensional, which I can understand, but in the case of Wonderful, Wonderful Times didn't particularly find to be a problem, because it's a story about adolescents, primarily. The way in which these kids are more or less empty sacks ready to be filled up by philosophical ideas or dreams and visions of faraway futures seems about right. To me, at least. I'd like to think I was a more interesting teenager than most myself, but what primarily made me interesting to myself was the same kind of directionless longing for which these kids are the perfect container. Is it shallower because it's not strong character fiction? Perhaps. Is it frivolous in its treatment of history and real social problems? Maybe. It might on the other hand be more heavyhanded, or it might not be primarily focused on these things at all, whatever the author's intentions may have been.
I would like to take more time to think about this book. I would also like to take time to read more of Jelinek's books. But I enjoyed this one quite a lot. It made me feel more excited about writing fiction than I've felt in a long time.
Sometimes, I think we're inclined to be more restrictive with the novel as an art form than we are with others. Film or music, for example, can get much more experimental before they are labeled as such. In film, painting or sculpture, we're concerned with the visual aspects because they are visual mediums. In fiction, though, we're not as concerned with language, because that's a matter left to poetry. And in a translation we're even less concerned. The problem with this is that it ignores the functionality of language as an artistic virtue. In fiction, the characters must have depth. In literary fiction, this is seen as being the primary thing. Literature must speak for humanity rather than using it. But what if you want to use it?