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the complete review - fiction
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- German title: Gier
- Translated by Martin Chalmers
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B : challenging and uncomfortable, for better and worse
See our review for fuller assessment.
|London Rev. of Books
|The NY Rev. of Books
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|The New Yorker
Not an easy, comfortable read; beyond that, no consensus, opinions all over the place
From the Reviews:
- "The plot is propelled by an “accidental” murder. Villagers try to piece together the mystery; a suicide follows. But this novel has no intrigue. To unravel the chain of events means slogging through the swampland of Jelinek's prose, which is alternately stupifyingly dull and flecked with brilliance. (...) Jelinek seems to connect better with nature than with her characters: Her criticisms of ecological devastation sting, while her portrayal of relationships runs cold." - Lenora Todaro, Bookforum
- "Jelinek's characters are agents of ideology, more caricatures than personalities. (...) Greed inverts the storybook picture of an alpine paradise." - Ben Naparstek, Financial Times
- "In Gier sind die Frauen nur noch sperrangelweit geöffnete Einfallstore zur Durchdringung von Raum. Ihre ureigene Funktion als Objekte männlicher Lust haben sie nahezu völlig eingebüßt; es ist jetzt viel schlimmer. Jelinek liefert die Frauen gnadenlos dem Okkupator aus (.....) Die eigentliche Heldin der Gier ist aber die Sprache. Jelinek -- genauer das erzählende Ich, das allwissend ist und nur kokett so tut, als sei ihm so manches gar nicht bekannt -- zerrt an der Sprache wie an einer Schleppe, deren Gewicht ihr Ich, das sprechen muß, ständig zu erwürgen droht. Diese Schleppe ist von grundsätzlich unendlicher Ausdehnung in Zeit und Raum, jedenfalls im deutsch-österreichischen." - Rose-Maria Gropp, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "Jelinek's work is brave, adventurous, witty, antagonistic and devastatingly right about the sorriness of human existence, and her contempt is expressed with surprising chirpiness: it's a wild ride. (...) The innovation in Greed is that Jelinek intrudes more than ever before, rushing in and out of her own book like someone with tummy trouble. (...) What it amounts to is a dismantling of the novel before our eyes. Greed lacks the focus of Jelinek's previous books, and is nearly incoherent at times. It is a cry of despair -- despair about herself as a writer as much as about the characters she invents" - Lucy Ellmann, The Guardian
- "This is a long novel, but few of its many pages actually advance the plot. Only now and then, as a sort of concession, will a sentence or two tell us what happens next. Greed might be variously described, but not, I think (pace the blurb), as a thriller. Mostly, Greed consists of digression, commentary and repetition. A reader interested in story will feel consistently thwarted (.....) Her plot and its characters are a canker within the canker of Austria, which may itself be an exemplar of things in general. (...) Jelinek seems to want to match the ugliness of her subject with a language that, if not always downright ugly, is never attractive. The sentences are made unshapely by the expanding bulk of ridiculed material. Her book steadfastly prohibits what literary language engenders naturally: pleasure. Her translator aids and abets her in this. (...) Greed has considerable energy and force. Its moral urgency is beyond doubt. But, reading it, you enter a swirling fog of rage, outrage and sardonic contempt that envelops everything" - David Constantine, The Independent
- "Les jeux de mots ont-ils plus de pertinence dans leur langue maternelle ou bien ne servent-ils qu'à agacer ? Les cataclysmes syntaxiques y sont-ils atténués ou bien faut-il déchevêtrer les mêmes écheveaux ? (...) Avidité est une épopée de l'abjection" - Eric Loret, Libération
- "The considerable imaginative achievement of Gier lies in capturing and holding for a moment the darkness at the core of Janisch's psyche (.....) Beyond Gabi's murder and the disposal of her body in the mountain lake, and the various scenes of sexual abjection between Janisch and Gerti, nothing happens in Greed. But the novel extends to 462 pages in the German edition and consists of several hundred undifferentiated blocks of prose, without indents or dialogue. The exact length of the novel is in fact immaterial since the way it works has nothing to do with linear form. (...) To dismiss Greed for its disorder is to misunderstand it. What Jelinek has fashioned here is an immensely expressive medium that goes to the very edge of coherence, but never beyond it. (...) Greed is unreadable. But it is not the same book as Gier." - Nicholas Spice, London Review of Books
- "The plot of Greed takes up perhaps 5 percent of the book's 330 dense, often impenetrable pages. Rather than coat hangers for suits of language, the characters are intermittent and precarious stepping stones in a flood of sardonic generalizations about life's awfulness (.....) Unpromising as all this sounds, the book might just have worked had Jelinek dedicated any energy at all to creating the dramatic encounters and characterizations that make The Piano Teacher such a strong novel, or alternatively if her ruminations were sufficiently coherent and convincing for us to take them seriously. (...) (T)he social criticism she offers seems simplistic, rancorous, and willfully unhelpful, while Greed itself is unreadable: I recall not a single moment of pleasure turning its pages, not a single insight that impressed. (...) This feeling that a wrong note has been struck is constant throughout the translation and robs the work of the linguistic conviction it presumably has in the German. If the text did originally have the music that both Jelinek and the Nobel committee speak of, it has now disappeared. How far the translation problem contributes to the book's failure in the English edition is hard to say." - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books
- "(C)onsiderable rhetorical skills have been employed to nip any possible suspense in the bud. No one's pleasure will be spoiled if I give away the plot. (...) That sounds like a page turner. Now I too have misled you. Nothing is farther from Jelinek's mind than advancing a plot or even just telling a story. Her business is social dissection. Not vivisection, for none of her specimens are alive.(...) Instead you will find the purely rhetorical life of a language engaged in a program of perpetual derision and snide deprecation. It does not help that Jelinek's style displays verbal dexterity, that she juggles high diction together with low dialect and jargon, erudite reference with wordplay and puns. Every witty turn comes with full marching orders. There is no freedom in this play. (...) Some of Jelinek's linguistic sparkle is lost, perhaps of necessity; but so are her untranslatable puns, which are often more banal than clever." - Joel Agee, The New York Times Book Review
- "Its tone is contemptuous, and its plot -- centering on a murderous country policeman who seduces local women in order to acquire their property -- is confusing and skeletal. But Jelinek has a way of provoking us to reëxamine our instinct to recoil. The bitterness of her narrative voice conceals a perverse humor" - The New Yorker
- "Los enunciados de la "novela amena" parecen escupidos de una máquina de acuñar frases hechas. Jelinek no pretende narrar, ordena sus juegos verbales alrededor de un argumento trivial, dejándose llevar por el valor asociativo de las palabras. No obstante, entre retruécano y alfilerazo cuaja una especie de cuento de hadas al revés. (...) Comentarios jocosos como éste, no sólo eximen a la autora de cualquier responsabilidad con sus enunciados, sino que privan al lector de todo margen de pensamiento propio. Tarde o temprano, la lectura asistida, inevitablemente, deriva en aburrimiento." - Cecilia Dreymüller, El País
- "Peu importent donc les aléas de l'intrigue, les personnages n'intéressent que dans la mesure où leurs comportements sont typiques d'une couche sociale ou d'une mentalité, d'un sexe ou d'une opinion. A partir de l'observation circonstanciée de détails et de faits multiples, l'attention se fixe d'abord sur le désastreux état du monde et ses affligeants modes d'existence." - Wilfred Schiltknecht, Le Temps
- "About 100 pages into this atrocious novel, I suddenly couldn't bear it one second longer. (...) A story of some sort emerges, but the thrust of the novel is really the most vulgar and stupid commentary imaginable about the murderous misogyny of men, the environment, the appalling taste of the kleinburgerlicher and so on. (...) Densely unreadable as it is, there is something terribly banal about every one of its intellectual propositions; as hopelessly banal in its attempted chic as its predominant present tense. (...) To Jelinek's academic admirers, this might look fascinatingly subversive. To any paying reader, it will look overwhelmingly as if she can't do any of it very well. It is about as subversive as a bicycle with square wheels. (...) Nor is anything made much easier for us by the translation. Jelinek's extremely casual prose style is already fairly hideous, but the translator's slavish preservation of German punctuation and that frightful habit of the splice comma makes it all but unreadable" - Philip Hensher, The Telegraph
- "Disturbing, many-layered, if rather slow." - Kate Saunders, The Times
- "Greed is heavy with hints of other books. But Jelinek is relentless. Hers is a world where, time and again, authority is allowed, too easily, to seduce; a society that needs its men to be aggressors and its women their willing dupes, and where human relationships are merely transactions in an economy built on exploitation and greed. There is no escape. (...) Martin Chalmers has made a brave, and on the whole effective, job of rendering into English a narrative that is characterized by stylistic unpredictability and manic shifts of register." - Ian Brunskill, Times Literary Supplement
- "Das ist böse, decouvrierend und gemein. Ein angeblicher Unterhaltungsroman, der einem mit seiner in virtuos beherrschte Sprache gebrachten Hass die Nackenhaare aufstellt. Kein Grund zur Besorgnis: alles wie gehabt. (...) Erregung und intellektuelles Vergnügen bei der Lektüre verdanken sich nicht dem handelsüblichen Strickmuster von Verbrechen, Aufdeckung und Strafe, den Gewürzen und Sättigungsbeilagen des Kriminalromans. Was uns bewegt, berührt und fasziniert, ist Sprachkunst als Ideologiekritik und umgekehrt. (...) Der böse Blick der Jelinek hat nichts von seiner Schärfe eingebüßt, er beschädigt Klischees, Trivialmythen und den patriotischen Verblendungszusammenhang. Alles Eklige, und das vorsichtshalber unter der Lupe betrachtet, ist ihm nur ein Gleichnis: für Niedergang und Niedertracht des Heute im Allgemeinen und des heutigen Österreich im Besonderen." - Ulrich Weinzierl, Die Welt
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
[Note: this review is based on the German original; I did not have ready access to Martin Chalmers' English translation (i.e. was unable to read it), but enough of it is available on the Internet so that all English quotes are taken from his translation.]
The original German edition of Greed comes with a descriptive subtitle, presenting it as: Ein Unterhaltungsroman -- an 'entertainment-novel' --, suggesting a light, diverting read; of course, Jelinek's novel is anything but.
There is a playfulness to some of it, and Jelinek relies on some of the clichés and clichéd expression of popular fiction for effect, but the mélange that is Greed is much more and messier than just this.
Greed is set in the Austrian provinces, in a small town in Styria.
Local police officer Kurt Janisch is the dominant figure.
[Janisch is a Gendarm (as opposed to policeman -- Polizist), as Austrian law enforcement outside most larger urban areas was handled by the Gendarmerie (until 2005, when it was absorbed by the police); Chalmers translates Gendarm as 'country policeman'.]
He is already past middle-age, married, with a son, Ernst, and a young grandson Patrick, who also live locally; typically for the novel, Janisch's wife's name is never given (and she mostly putters around in their garden).
Despite being married, both father and son Janisch: "pay court to women", but it is Kurt who is the real ladies' man and lady-killer, (ab)using his position to ensnare vulnerable older women.
Kurt doesn't sound or seem like much of a catch -- he's married, taciturn, and violent, and though he keeps physically fit, he's no spring chicken any longer, either -- but the women here readily, even desperately, fall for him.
Janisch's interest in these women mostly isn't primarily sexual; what he's really after is their real estate holdings.
He doesn't so much care about personal conquest; he's after property -- combining: "the pleasing with the useful".
(How exactly he gets his conquests to sign over their property isn't made very clear, but given his continuing relentless pursuit he must be meeting with some success at it.)
The Janischs will do most anything to accumulate property.
Ernst and his family already have their own house -- but it's not quite theirs: they entered into an agreement with the old woman who owns it, allowing her to remain in the house until she dies -- which they had imagined would happen very soon.
Instead, the woman stubbornly remains alive, Ernst's wife forced to care for the old invalid, a considerably greater burden than anticipated.
Kurt's method -- of seduction, without making any real promises and without offering much in return (beyond the occasional quick and hardly passionate schtupping) -- is certainly a more to-the-point (and apparently effective) one.
For all of Janisch's local dealings, it's only gotten him so far.
He is in debt; his exact financial situation and the reasons for it are unclear, but it seems he is -- perhaps because of his real estate speculation -- overextended and in financial difficulties; by the end, he is possibly heading for bankruptcy -- appropriately enough, for a character whose moral bankruptcy is clear from the start.
(In Jelinek's world, everything is corrupt, from politics to commercial activity, the powerful having their way and say, without concern for the fallout; so also, for example, among the topics addressed in Greed is environmental degradation.)
There is something of a plot to Greed: one of the available women with a promising house Janisch has sunk his claws into is Gerti.
She is slavishly, desperately devoted to him even as he can barely bring himself to give her the time of day; even with his eyes on the prize, he struggles to give her any bit of attention (much less the amount she longs for).
Jelinek's brutal description of them having sex gives some idea of his character:
One would like nothing better than to tear her to shreds, this woman.
Instead, decorated like a fighting cock, with its little red helmet, his cock enters Gerti because that's what she wants, it would prefer to go somewhere else.
And once it is standing erect, it can't do it fast enough, so that it's over and done with once again.
Oh dear, already over ?
Please, here's the gate, where it always is, and as always it's as wide open as a barn door, and we eat human flesh like a horse.
No music needed for resuscitation.
The man can't bear to hear anymore, he's already had to hear so much, for him the whole thing is a process without any adornment.
The process can just go ahead and proceed.
It'll be over all the more quickly.
The man really has no grounds to care one way or the other, all he needs is the ground, he can throw the rest away.
Janisch does also have a much younger lover, Gabriele 'Gabi' Fluch.
('Fluch' is German for 'curse'.)
She is not his usual type of conquest -- not even sixteen yet, she doesn't offer much real estate potential yet.
More baffling is why she should have succumbed to him, even as she has a perfectly decent-sounding (and age-appropriate) boyfriend.
Gabi isn't entirely as submissive as the usual women Janisch beds -- and she does hold some cards the older women can't play: "I'm telling mommy, I'm not quite sixteen yet", she threatens him.
It's enough to make Janisch want to be done with her -- and then, when opportunity easily arises, almost casually, he kills her and dumps the body in a local lake.
It's a third of the way through the novel before the murder actually takes place -- and almost three-quarters before the body is then actually found and a murder investigation gets under way.
(In the meantime, there is some concern about the missing girl, but no one takes it too seriously.)
The investigation -- in which Janisch also participates -- doesn't really get very far; the death remains mostly a mystery.
A small bit of suspense arises from Janisch's concern about evidence he may have left behind at the scene and his trying to retrieve it.
A bit more suspense comes from the fact that Gerti could, if she wanted to, put two and two together, as she knows (all too well) of Janisch's relationship with Gabi, and that he drove off with her.
When what must have happened becomes all too obvious for her to ignore she does not, however, turn on Janisch but rather on herself; by the end, Janisch has another death on his conscience (or would, if he had much of a conscience).
Jelinek's figures mostly remain ciphers.
We only learn the names of a few of them, and even when those characters are featured she often prefers to describe them in much more general terms -- 'the man', 'the woman'; Janisch is often also featured in his role (of Gendarm) rather than personal identity.
There's little depth or history to the characters, save some at the end, as Janisch is left behind and we follow Gerti to Vienna, the focus here more tightly on the doomed woman.
Janisch's character, in particular, remains elusive.
He's not so much a cipher as, in Jelinek's effective presentation, almost a blank.
She notes: "The country policeman is partial to the darkness of night" ("Der Gendarm hat eine Vorliebe für Nachtdunkelheit"), and he remains a shadowy figure throughout.
What little self-reflection she allows him barely extends beyond: "Kurt Janisch sometimes asks himself where this dark side comes from"".
Even his actions are presented in subdued manner: the local police station has a reputation for brutality, for example, but in the county town (Kreisstadt) it's just: "mentioned with a laugh and a particular, knowing expression. Nothing can ever be proved".
Baffling is why the women are so drawn to Janisch: "They often cling to him, the country policeman, like the members of a society which has a code of honor: stick at it !"
Their devotion is clingy -- none more so than Gerti's -- and complete -- while Janisch often seems largely indifferent, his conquests more like a job, the possibility of property-acquisition not so much the ultimate but rather the only goal.
By and large, people simply want to be rich, they don't want anything more than that.
Women, on the other hand, want love
Certainly, the women in Greed see and seek fulfilment in men -- even a man as terrible as Janisch.
They long seem blind to just how terrible Janisch is -- or are attracted to that uniformed symbol of power from which they naturally expect abuse -- and while that seems ridiculously exaggerated it does allow Jelinek to ultimately present something of a shift.
There is more subtlety to Greed than there might first seem, and a nice touch is how, when, after he has murdered Gabi, Janisch begins sweating it, a bit (not least because he knows Gerti an cause him problems).
Suddenly, the shine is off:
He wants to get hold of the property of women, this man, at which he possesses great skill, which now, however, increasingly seems to be leaving him.
Men don't give up what they've got.
But recently the women, as already said, seem to suspect something, not what this man intends, they would never guess that, but whatever it is, inconsistent as their sex is according to legend, they for their part no longer want anything at all from the country policeman.
The narrative voice shifts a great deal in Greed -- including right at the beginning, where the authorial-I quickly pushes the 'we' she began with aside: "I'd better take over the telling of the story myself now. Don't interrupt !"
She incorporates possible criticisms into the text proper -- "no, you can't say that Mme. Author" -- and nudges the reader when things get (even more) confusing: "Is it getting too complicated for you with all these old ladies ? Don't worry !"
She acknowledges her approach to the subject-matter -- "So I pass judgement, and my judgement is harsh" --, as well as aspects of her distinctive style, as in noting parenthetically: "here I am, as I see, tireless in my urge to describe !" ("unermüdlich in meiner Beschilderungswut", as the original nicely has it).
Jelinek's tirelessness can get tiresome for readers.
She does not drone, but the story only offers loose holds, not least because Janisch is such an elusive character.
The narrative swirls more than it proceeds, Jelinek taking in a great deal surrounding the limited plot -- yet often without going into many of what would seem the more obvious details, speaking more in generalities.
(Some of the strongest scenes are the ones with a tighter focus, such as when Gabi's corpse has been found, or when Janisch hits a large stag while driving.)
All this subject-matter isn't tangential -- Greed is very much all of a (broad) piece -- but unfolds in a less than straightforward way.
Other aspects of the writing help hold the reader's attention -- not least a surprising humor.
An often harsh one -- but, for all the anger expressed in Greed, it is not a bitter novel.
The language is also filled with echoes of the familiar, both of general and literary expression, playfully twisted here -- occasionally awkwardly, too, but generally to good effect.
Greed is an unusual, challenging work of fiction.
Its dark worldview -- with specifically Austrian conditions and politics certainly coloring the overall feel ("soon the whole world will be Carinthia", she suggests, in one of the most amusing asides -- Carinthia notoriously being the 'brownest' (as in lingeringly Nazi-brown) of the Austrian provinces, with Jörg Haider governor at the time the action takes place) -- and arguably ridiculously simplistic (and/or exaggerated) in its presentation of the sexes and their roles.
One might easily dismiss the novel and Jelinek's presentation as banal, but there's something to be said for this kind of crude critical depiction of present-day reality.
Greed is an intentionally uncomfortable work, both in content and form.
Certainly not for everyone -- but there's enough to it (as there is arguably too much to it ...) to thoroughly engage the reader willing to go on this long and bumpy ride.
- M.A.Orthofer, 26 May 2021
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Other books by Elfriede Jelinek under review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek was born in 1946.
She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004.
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© 2021 the complete review
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