I started reading Elfriede Jelinek’s novel, Greed, and almost immediately was confused. The indirect narration by shifting narrators is hard to follow and in this novel there is very little direct exposition: everything is cloaked by the opinions of the narrator and even (fiction wise) by occasional authorial interjection. Two things helped me out: first I related the novel to novels by Robert Pinget whom I had already struggled with and conquered to some extent (also authors such as Joseph McElroy and Samuel Beckett); second, I read the publisher’s blurb on the novel and it gave me just enough of an insight into the narrative so as to keep me reading in the right spirit.
Here is that little summary:
One of Austria’s most prominent and controversial writers, Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004; film aficionados will recognize her as the author of The Piano Teacher (1983; Eng. trans., 1988), which inspired Michael Haneke’s darkly intense film of the same name. Here, Jelinek tells the story of a debt-ridden, small-town policeman who cynically seduces lonely women to separate them from their real estate, violating them emotionally and sexually in the process; when a teenage girl turns up dead, the policeman’s scheme unravels, and the true depth of his all-encompassing, life-denying greed emerges. Sandblasting her characters with a relentless stream of linguistically sophisticated contempt, Jelinek again explores some of her perennial themes, including pervasive loneliness, the ubiquitous ugliness of sexual relationships, and the tragedy of environmental destruction. But she also steps outside of her narrative, implying that textual relationships may also be complicit in the web of exploitation. An original and provocative condemnation of much that other novelists deem sacred, it may also attract Pynchon and Barthelme fans looking for a new challenge.
Jelinek’s works tend to present or reference some sort of perverted form of love and especially sex. In Greed the parallel is between sexual predation and the greed for money and real-estate. This is all the more emphasized by having the perpetrator be the local gendarme: the country policeman.
One fascinating aspect of this novel is the selection of descriptive or demonstrative vocabulary when representing the sex act. If you’re not careful, you might even miss the back-seat entertainment going on, thinking Jelinek was describing a semi-professional billiards match or maybe just a little dodgeball for fun and exercise. Try this passage:
… so he’ll need to feign kisses, which would actually have turned into angry bites, if the tongue had only joined in, But it has taken cover in time, sticking to the side of his mouth, so that nothing happens to it; he’s already dreading, even before he opens his mouth to let her aquatic bird of passage, one of many, and in addition all the flaps and nozzles of flesh, all of it, all the flesh won from impenetrable swamps! As if it’s disappeared. He must force it, the tongue, well now, somewhat belatedly, it is joining n our aerobics exercise after all, after it had briefly withdrawn behind the barrier of the teeth for a rest. The tongue would fit very easily at the edge of the lake, but it is the slow-flowing rivers of a woman which are squeezed out through the sweet fingers of love. Juice shop. Have your glass ready nevertheless, you won’t get anything else. If you place this glass on a tea light, the light will never flicker and go out. Because it cannot get away.
One thing you learn about the friendly country policeman is that he likes to bite.
I recommend reading Greed and just about any other novels by this Nobel Prize winning author. Read with an open mind and read carefully; watch the shifting narration; realize that the argot will also shift with the narrator.
I leave off with three questions: the first is whether the mountain actually became the narrator at one point; the second is to identify the type of narration used in this passage:
People are allowed to see everything and grasp at everything and they grasp nothing, but just there: really please don’t. What, did the man first bang the girl’s head against the door handle? No, I didn’t see the man bang the girl’s head against the door handle. But I’m always the last person to find out about anything.
and the third is to consider this passage:
So Gerti, do you want nothing at all, or do you at least want the finger, which really should be more than enough? You can say it out loud. Tell me loud and clear if that’s what you want! Quiet. Now I’m talking. And I’m talking as a woman. I would like to say something, too, for once, given that I’ve got to write the wholesome, because saying the unsayable is part of it, part of all the opening eyes wide and licking lips and throwing back hair, with which we women want to tell men something, always the same thing, and they already know it. Because they’re too tired to guess what we want and it would be too expensive for them to pay someone else to find out. We women always want the same thing. And then we want it once again.
How many narrators are there?