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"My Characters Live Only Insofar as They Speak": Interview with Elfriede Jelinek Brenda L. Bethman Introduction While researching my dissertation on Elfriede Jelinek in Vienna during the 1998/99 academic year, I had the opportunity to talk to her about her work and politics. We first met in Darmstadt at the Büchner Prize ceremony in October 1998, to which she had graciously invited me. Back in Vienna, we met several times, both informally and more "formally" with a tape recorder. What follows is collated from two separate conversations, on 23 February and 10 June 1999. The first took place in her home in Hütteldorf, in her study, a comfortable room with a lovely view of the Vienna Woods; the second (which she was kind enough to agree to after my recorder had destroyed much of the tape from the first interview) took place at Café Museum, in the center of Vienna. Rather than separating the questions and answers into two interviews, I have organized them by theme. A bibliography of her major works in German and in English translation is appended. [BLB] Interview Brenda Bethman: Is there such a thing as an Austrian identity ? Elfriede Jelinek: If there is, then it is a very fragile identity. For that reason your question is difficult to answer. There certainly was one, and I think that Austria identifies with this time, thefin-de-siècle. And then, after World War I, no one believed any more in this Austrian identity, with its well-known consequences, the catastrophe. Thus, if an Austrian identity exists today, I believe that it is a very split identity: some look back to those times of glory, to culture, or rather, to that culture of lightness embodied by waltzes and savoir vivre, while others, I for one, believe that because of this association with lightness, Austria was much more readily allowed to become innocent again than Germany; and for Women in German Yearbook 16 (2000) 62Interview with Elfriede Jelinek that reason Austrian identity is in fact a non-identity, based on amnesia, so to speak. That's really the negative aspect of identity, namely that Austria since then has not been able, like other countries, to identify with the great, important figures of its past, its culture, or its history, and is stuck in the alternative of lightness or mountains of corpses. But not many people see this as I do; your first question is indeed quite difficult to answer. What does being Austrian mean to you? Or is it more important that you are Viennese? To say the least, there are many different cultural realms in this tiny country. I believe that there really are an eastern and a western cultural sphere, and I see myself more as a Viennese. That is, I come out of this eastern cultural tradition, whereas the more western authors such as [Thomas] Bernhard or [Peter] Handke, or even [Franz] Innenhofer, were marked by their rural or small-town experiences. Although I have written many texts that do not take place in Vienna (in fact, most of them), I believe that this experience of an eastern, urban culture has nonetheless left its mark on my work. For a long time, Austrians have attempted to forget and repress their past, and the Allies, during World War II, developed the myth that the Austrians were "Hitler's first victims. "' Since the "Waldheim Affair, "2 however, Austrians have supposedly been forced to confront their past and come to terms with it, and in addition it is maintained that, indeed, their relationship to the past is slowly changing. Do you see such a change ? Well, I would certainly say that it would be a belated development if it had not taken place until after Waldheim, for there were indeed authors and intellectuals who had addressed this topic long before Waldheim, as I, for example, did with my play Burgtheater. It was a great scandal at the time, even though it has never been performed in Austria. So it could be said that after Waldheim no one could any longer deny anything . It has also perhaps become clear to the world since then that Austria, or...


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