When I read that the Nobel Prize for literature this year had gone to Elfriede Jelinek, my first response was: Who? After all, I was a literature major in college, and I like to keep up with writers.

But then, after I googled Jelinek, a 57-year-old Austrian who’s known for her “works that denounce sexual violence as well as oppression and right-wing extremism in Austria” (says the New York Times), I realized why: 1) I’d never heard of her, and 2) even if I had, I wouldn’t be reading her books, plays, and poems. Jelinek, to whom the phrase “militant feminist” doesn’t quite do justice, sounds like one scary writer (she looks scary too: check her NYT photo here). According to the NYT, “she’s well known in the German-speaking world,” which is to say she’s unknown outside the German-speaking world, and for good reason. Who’d want to read her?

Jelinek’s best-known novel, “The Piano Teacher” (1983), is about (says the NYT) “a music teacher who seeks escape from her oppressive mother through sexual kinkiness.” Even at the tolerant Times, however, prima book reviewer Michiko Kakutani didn’t exactly give the novel a rave review. Wrote Kakutani:

“Too often, however, [Jelinek’s] descriptions of Erika’s [that’s Erika Kohut, the piano-playing protagonist] violent fantasies seem willfully perverse ‘ as though they’d been concocted for the sole purpose of shocking the reader ‘ and her relentless focus on the dark underside of Viennese life can seem equally artificial and contrived. In the end, it makes for a novel that depresses rather than genuinely disturbs.”

To find out more about the plot of “The Piano Teacher,” I read this synopsis on the U.K. website Sight and Sound of a 2001 movie made from the novel by Austrian director Michael Haneke that is said to be slavishly faithful to Jelinek’s story. Here goes:

“Pushing 40 and unmarried, Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) teaches piano at the Vienna Conservatoire and is often hard on her pupils. She lives in a relationship of mutual dependence with her domineering mother (Annie Girardot), who wanted her to be a concert pianist; her father is dying in a mental hospital. After hours, while her mother waits for her to come home, Erika visits porno shops and cruises a drive-in cinema to spy on couples having sex in their cars; alone in her bathroom, she mutilates her genitals with a razor blade.

“Pushing 30, pianist and ice-hockey enthusiast Walter Klemmer (Beno’t Magimel) sets his heart on Erika after seeing her play at a private salon. Despite her hostility, he is accepted as a student in the Conservatoire. When Erika runs to the toilet after maiming the hands of hated pupil Anna Schober (Anna Sigalevitch) by concealing broken glass in her coat pocket, Walter follows her and comes close to raping her. Asserting control, Erika says that they can have a relationship if he obeys the instructions she will give him in a letter.

“Soon after, Walter follows Erika home and barges into her bedroom. Erika forces him to read her letter, which contains a list of extreme masochistic demands, and Walter leaves in disgust. Erika tries to apologise by throwing herself at him after an ice-hockey game; he insults and abuses her. He turns up at her flat, locks her mother in the bedroom and batters and rapes Erika. Next day Erika takes a kitchen knife to a concert by Conservatoire students (where she is to stand in for Anna). After seeing Walter with friends, she stabs herself in one shoulder and, unnoticed, leaves.”

Gee–is this a foreign art-flick or is it a “Saturday Night Live” parody of a foreign art-flick? But wouldn’t you know, the critics have found Deep Meaning in Erika’s adventures with her razor blade. Here’s an excerpt from the heavy-duty Sight and Sound review:

“Many of the specifics of protagonist Erika Kohut’s plight (the specialisation in Schubert and Schumann, the cruel treatment of pupils, the invasion of the men-only porno subculture, the inculcated lack of self-esteem, the underlying need to be wounded) suggest the book should be read as feminist: it’s an extremist vision of what it means to lack social, sexual and cultural power. But by making the character a Conservatoire teacher and relating her agony to her feelings for great composers, Jelinek broadens her attack to Austria itself. Using the structures of the ‘high culture’ industry as a cipher for the state, the novel sees Kohut’s masochism as the product of a clearly fascistic system.”

I suspect  that Jelinek, who’s also known for her 1987 feminista play “Illness, or Modern Women,” got the Nobel Prize for her Euro-fashionable far-left political views rather than for the literary quality of her output. Indeed, according to Breaking News, even the Austrians can’t stand her plays, whose stagings are often accompanied by boos and shouting matches.

Jelinek belonged to the Communist Party from 1974 until the last Soviet dog died in 1991. Lately, she’s been an outspoken opponent of the anti-immigration Austrian rightist Georg Haider (natch) and also a leading America-basher. Her latest play, “Bambiland” (2003), is a denunciation of the invasion of Iraq by the land that invented Bambi and its evil allies. I suppose that, a la Michael Moore, Jelinek portrays Saddam Hussein as a deer caught in the headlights. And naturally, the Austrian Communists (or what’s left of them) are just thrilled at Jelinek’s latest honor. I quote here from Breaking News:

“Communist Party chairman Walter Baier hailed Jelinek as ‘a feminist and one of the most important voices of the “other Austria.”‘” 

Although the 18-member Swedish Academy (which awards the Nobel) praised Jelinek’s “musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clich’s and their subjugating power,” Jelinek herself, ever alert to the dark underside, is said to be in “despair” over her award. Maybe the $1.35 million that goes along with the Nobel Prize will cheer her up.