"It's accurate to say she is not cheerful," Peter Ayrton, the English publisher for Elfriede Jelinek, said yesterday. "But reading her is a totally exhilarating experience." He was rejoicing at the Frankfurt book fair as word spread that the severe, feminist and dissident Austrian writer had unexpectedly won the $1.3 million Nobel prize for literature.
It was a coup not only for the writer but also for small, independent London publishing firm Serpent's Tail. Jelinek's own reaction in Vienna was characteristically on the uncheerful side of exhilaration. She said she felt "more despair than peace" at becoming only the 10th woman to win the 103-year-old prize, still the most respected in any art form.
"It doesn't suit me as a person to be put on public display," she said. "I feel threatened by it ... I hope it doesn't cost me too much. I hope I can enjoy the prize money, because one can live carefree with it. It is the biggest honor. I'm not going to Stockholm because I'm not in a mental shape to withstand such ceremonies. I unfortunately suffer from a social phobia." With journalists and well-wishers calling her constantly, Jelinek said her plans for the coming days were "to disappear."
Announcing the award, the Swedish academy cited her "musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power."
Jelinek, 57, writes plays, novels, oratorios and libretti. Although she is the ninth European to win in a decade, the academy chose her instead of non-European nominees, including the strongly tipped 74-year-old Syrian poet Ali Ahmed Said, sometimes known as Adonis.
Jelinek is considered by many to be Austria's most distinguished author, though some of her plays have recently had icy receptions, with boos, walkouts and shouting matches. Her latest play, "Bambiland," written in 2003 and translated into English this year, is a full-throated attack on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
But Horace Engdahl, the secretary-general of the academy, said the prize should not be interpreted as a political comment. "When that play came out, this decision was, if not already made then well underway," he said. "I don't think that play adds much to her authorship."
Jelinek's best-known work is "The Piano Teacher" (1983), adapted as a film in 2001, directed by Michael Haneke and starring Isabel Huppert. Jelinek specializes in often unemotional description of brutality and power play in human relations. Her work tends to see power and aggression as the driving forces of relationships, in which men and parents subjugate women. But, as an admirer of Bertolt Brecht, she sometimes brings to her dramas a touch of vaudeville.
Ayrton said: "It's wonderful news that a dissident figure like her should get the Nobel prize ... We are proud to be publishing her. She has a unique feminist voice, challenging both at the level of content and at the formal level. Her characterization of women in postwar Europe is unique. "I think it's accurate to say she is not cheerful, but she is writing about the legacy of the Nazi period in Austria and the position of women in Austria.
"Reading her is totally exhilarating. She comes from a classical European position. "The Piano Teacher" has sold well in Britain. Her other books have not."