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Slanging match: rein GOLD, by Elfriede Jelinek, reviewed

20 March 2021

9:00 AM

20 March 2021

9:00 AM

rein GOLD Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Gitta Honegger

Fitzcarraldo Editions, pp.200, 12.99

I’ve tried hard to think of someone I dislike enough to recommend this novel to, but have failed. Elfriede Jelinek is Austria’s leading contemporary literary figure, and to open rein GOLDat random is to get the impression that she is the successor to Thomas Bernhard — page after page without a single paragraph indentation, a general ranting tone, maddening repetitiveness, and cult status. Just in case Jelinek’s is an unfamiliar name: she is an extremely neurotic person, a sufferer from many phobias — unable to travel to collect her Nobel Prize; a copious writer, many of her books having been translated into English among other languages; and, most significantly, one of those authors whose favourite idiom is humourless parody.

The title rein GOLDis of course a parody of Das Rheingold, the first part of Richard Wagner’s cycle of music dramas. The book was apparently originally written as a libretto for the Berlin State Opera, though it must have undergone drastic revision. In the novel, the two chief characters from Wagner’s Ring, the god Wotan and his favourite daughter the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, engage in enormous recriminatory dialogues, each of which is between 30 and 40 pages long, so couldn’t possibly be set to music. Wagner’s characters’ famous monologues are in fact quite short, and packed with indispensable information and feeling. On YouTube you will find short pieces from what I take to be rehearsals of rein GOLD, with Siegfried’s funeral music and other excerpts shriekingly delivered, but they are too brief to give any impression of what the whole work would have sounded like. It can’t have provided any experience remotely like that of reading the novel.

Nonetheless, any reader of rein GOLD must be intimately familiar with the Ring if he or she is to understand the point of much that the two characters (both of them apparently tireless listeners as well as talkers) say. So the first thing to do is to read the poem of the Ring. Wotan is the chief of the gods, but robs Alberich the dwarf of the Rhinegold, which he stole from the Rhinemaidens by foreswearing love. But Wotan compounds the crime, as well as being serially unfaithful. Then Brünnhilde, his beloved daughter, disobeys him, having seen what human love is like; so Wotan, enraged, tells her that he will deprive her of her godly status. They havea lengthy argument in Act III of Die Walküre, before Wotan surrounds her with fire, to be penetrated only by the bravest of heroes, Siegfried.

Jelinek’s novel — and presumably the opera to which it is related — consists of the scene between Wotan and his daughter carried to inconceivable lengths, sometimes in mock-heroic terms, mainly in slang, with plenty of contemporary references — which fail to conceal the fundamental banality of the book’s outlook and message: the evils of capitalism, alienation, reification and so on. If Adorno had written a novel, this would be it. I’m not sure whether Adorno ever wrote at length on parody, but that is what Jelinek is practising, though if a parodist has no sense of humour it can seem rather heavy.

Jelinek is regarded as not only a profound diagnostician of the things all decent people want to be diagnosed but as someone who devastatingly makes her points by relentless, unrelieved parody. The basic idea of having two celebrated mythical figures talking in contemporary slang and telling one another to go and have a wank is all very well, but it can’t be the main feature of what feels like an interminable book.

Jelinek is presumably a well-read person, so she will know Thomas Mann’s great parodies: Doctor Faustus, a shattering tragedy, and The Confessions of Felix Krull, a hilarious comedy. Nothing from one of them could possibly occur in the other. But fusing the two is exactly what Jelinek attempts, which means that we take no interest whatever in the two characters, whose mode of address is identical. Open the book at random and see if you can guess who is speaking.

It would only be possible to think that rein GOLD is a helpful book if one managed to persuade oneself that there is at least some momentum, that some of the points each character takes themselves to have made they actually have. But that would need a radically different tone from time to time, even if the words ‘But seriously though…’chill the brain.

I would be interested to find a person who actually enjoyed this book, and could tell me why.

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