The Anatomy of a Review
A Novel

Elfriede Jelinek
Martin Chalmers, Translator

(Seven Stories)
[This one baffled me. Greed is a real flounder. I mostly didn't want to finish it, but I powered on. It's much like doing the dishes after everyone has gone home, dumping the cocktail glasses in the sink, cleaning up the cigarette butts mashed out in the mashed potatoes on the supper plates, and all you want to do is go to bed. What I am putting down here are the notes I made along the way until I was able to, finally, finish the mother.]

Day I.
Kurt Janish is a country policeman. He is deeply in debt to the agricultural credit bank. His woman "belongs to God and the Virgin and every Sunday morning and every evening bloodlessly sacrifices herself in church in front of the tabernacle."

It's a fearsomely bitter novel about greed. Too bitter for this reviewer. Typical quote: "Basically everything can be done with women, it's as if they had done something wrong and wanted to be punished."

    And whatever has never been done with them, that's what they want to do more than anything else.

I know, I know: it's supposed to be irony. But the knife cuts all ways. The reader, the characters, the author...

We do like Jelinek's pretense. It's the Henry Fielding gambit: that sometimes he just didn't know what was going to happen next in the novel, even though he is writing it. It's the novelist as trickster.

There were two lines in this part I especially enjoyed. "People steal from one another, first out of conviction, then out of love."

    Stealing isn't so easy, often it's hard work, otherwise we'd all be doing it.

Jelinek got a Nobel Prize, they say. We didn't ask what for. Maybe the Nobel Prize for Enlarged Spleen.

Day II.

Now I've gotten through the next couple of chapters. God are they long ... and drab ... and wordy. Thin on dialogue, too. At times, I think of Jelinek as nothing more than a sullen pornographer. Some of the things that this Kurt Janisch does to his poor mistress Gerti ... I don't even want to write about it. I was reading Lady Chatterley's Lover when I was knee-high to a grasshopper; Henry Miller was my dream. I'm no prude, but some of the goings-on in Greed get too hairy even for me.

We get to know every possible position they use in doing the Beast with Two Backs. Which orifices, which digits, in which combination ... meanwhile, what they do with their eyes, fingers, tongues, toes and other various stick-ins and stick-outs (and stick-ups). And when he isn't sucking her tongue (ug), he's sucking Gabi's tongue. Gabi is Kurt's other main source of cold comfort. In contrast to Gerti, she's almost sixteen years old. He does the dirty with her too. And she threatens to tell.

We think ... Jelinek's good at authorial hints ... we think that poor Gabi is going to end up with her four-inch high-heel black boots in the depths of a rock quarry pool just outside of town if she doesn't hush. That pool does bring some comic relief, by the way, even though most of Greed is bereft of humor, as far as I can tell ... which means no boffs as Kurt is mounting Gerti or Gabi backwards or upside down. The narrator --- who may or may not be Kurt or Elfriede (or you or me) --- tells us that nothing "is allowed to live" in the lake, "What on earth is to be discovered in something like that? Perhaps there are, after all, three thousand different varieties of aquatic plants in there,"

    but I don't know them, verticillate, indestructible life, therefore, I wouldn't want to have to count them, the species, then I would have to bend over this water or spontaneously, thoughtlessly completely give myself up to it, and I've never done something like that before.

If you want to know about the author's style, and for laughs: this is it. So far, I've slugged through 125 pages.

Day III.

Well, I've made it up to p. 217. You can skip these hundred pages if, for some reason, you choose to dive into Greed. They go nowhere fast.

Anything to look for? Well, there seems to be some obsession about water, running here and there, falling, filling rock quarries. "Without pumping the water drops through brick conduits and galleries to the city, where it is forced into the bunker, I mean the reservoir. We've given our promise, but the reservoir has to keep it without reservation."

Jelinek is a very discursive writer. Henry Makepeace Thackeray ain't got nothing on her. Oh, wait --- Thackeray does have two things. One is: he has some pains to occasionally show affection for his characters. The other: he wasn't so obsessed with the variety of things that could be done in lust, in bed, on the floor, on the stairs, in the cellar, on the kitchen table, in the car, and in one of Jelinek's particularly disgusting scenes, on a pathway, at nightfall, in a neighboring mountain park.

Poor Gerti, her bra flopping ridiculously,

    he hardly has time to raise his hand, pulls her blouse out of the yoke of the stylized dirndl skirt and pushes the loose bra up. Now it's only hanging by the straps, which have nothing to do anymore, under her chin, like a somewhat oddly cut collar, and then, didn't you see, then her heavy breasts, both of them, have fallen out underneath, past the open traditional dress, towards the ground.

Just to make sure that we get the humiliation full-on, Kurt slaps her around some, then he smashes her into the gravel and pine-needles so he can engage her à la cula. She thus becomes, in the author's hands, such a picture of ridicule and shame that you just want to toss the whole bag in the trash, I mean into the garbage... with the pork rinds and the egg shells and the dog-doo and the squeezings of the bathroom mop. It goes beyond irony, beyond cynicism.

Gabi, the almost-sixteen-year-old? Kurt gets her in the neck, thumbs on her carotid artery ... while she was doing fellatio on him. Have they now got a Nobel Prize for Grossery?

Day IV.

Well, I finished it. Praise be to god. Kurt's wife and child turn up near the end there. We hadn't seen them since Chapter I. Gerti gets done in: I'm not going to tell you how. She seems somewhat ashamed that she's been throwing herself at this "village policeman."

Meanwhile, Kurt stuffs Gabi in the tarp and dumps her in the lake. This implies that he is not only a village policeman, but that he is a dumb village policeman. Everyone, even you and I, know when you drop a body in water, certain entropic principles come into play so that whatever you have dumped in will be floating around shortly after. It's all a matter of gas, of which Greed seems to have a fair amount.

Jelinek gives us some psychology to gnaw on around here too. Kurt likes getting up close to his fellow officers when they are showering, takes "every opportunity to press up against younger colleagues, to pass his hands over their hips and to let them properly feel his little fellow, from behind, as if they didn't have any eyes there."

Now we get it. This village policeman is such a creep to the women because he's a closet case. Shudda known, no?

Day V.

To my surprise, I was unwilling to lay Greed down as we were coming into the stretch. It's like they laid a ratty dog on me, but after awhile I got so used to her howling and mange I couldn't haul her away to the pound. Jelinek writes in long droopy paragraphs, but she does know where she is going. I may be repeating myself when I say there is something to be said for repetition; at least the reader doesn't miss out on the plotline. And this plotline, if you are fascinated with murder and rapine and closet cases, is a doozer.

And when Jelinek wants, she can be quite funny, in an offhanded way. Any of the audience who have labored through a concert of Anton Bruckner symphonies (or his dreaded "Mass)" will appreciate this throwaway line on her second favorite subject, water: "As already mentioned, excessive use of poison causes the whole orchestra of nature to strike up all at once, and even Bruckner wouldn't have wanted that. There is too much too much too much of everything."

    We have enough too. More than enough. We've had enough.


Then there is this on discovering sweet dead young Gabi, Jelinek again in her Fieldingesque mode: "It's finally going to be found, the relic, the victim, that's quite different from just talking about it. On the other hand, one imagines it to be worse than it is, finding a corpse; and I have hesitated so long to describe it, until I almost didn't feel like it, here, on the low shore of my resolves."

    Please throw the first stone now, but in such a way that it can hop around on the surface of the water a couple of times, as happy as a new federal chancellor.
--- Magdalena Schwartz
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