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Elfriede Jelinek: Die Liebhaberinnen (Women as Lovers)

Depending on how you look at it, this is a cynical look at love and romance and the relationships between the sexes or a superb parody thereof. I’m going for the latter. Jelinek tells the simple and bitter story of two women who live in rural Austria and whose options are very limited. Indeed, their path is clear. Work in the bra factory. Get married. Have kids. That’s it. As Jelinek points out, at least the men’s lives don’t end when they become fathers. They can still go out drinking and play with their cars.

The story is about two of these women – Paula and Brigitte. Paula is engaged to Erich, who likes drinking and cars and is adored by his parents. Poor Paula wants to marry Erich, primarily because there is nothing else but the bra factory. Erich liebt seine motore und seinen schnaps. Paula liebt ihren zukünftigen mann und ihre kinder und ihr zukünftiges eigenheim. [Erich loves his motors and his schnapps. Paula loves her future husband and children and home.] (And, by the way, as this quote shows, Jelinek writes exclusively in lower case, which is particularly striking in German, as all the nouns normally start with a capital letter.) Paula follows the path that she has to follow but, one day in the station, a man approaches her and offers her money for sex. She takes up his offer and is soon a prostitute. Jelinek makes no judgement. Indeed, Paula at least has a car and some money.

For Brigitte, stuck with fat and stupid Heinz, it may be a bit better, as at least her marriage holds up and Heinz is not a serious drinker. He becomes a successful businessman and Brigitte settles down to the standard bourgeois life. Is she happy? Again, no judgement from Jelinek. But the bleak irony is evident throughout the book.

Publishing history

First published 1975 by Rowohlt
First English translation in 2004 by Serpent’s Tail
Translated by Martin Chalmers