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Elfriede Jelinek: Lust (Lust)

As with all of Jelinek’s novels, this is not a barrel of laughs nor is it romantic. It tells the story of the director of a paper factory in an Austrian ski resort and his wife, Gerti. He is normally referred to simply as The Director and she as Die Frau which, in German, can mean either The Wife or the Woman. As with all of Jelinek’s heroines, she is a victim of her sex and of her husband. He has given up other women, primarily out of fear of catching a nasty disease but he is still insatiable. Their sex is anything but romantic, as he takes her, often violently, how and when he wants. There is no love, only sex and control. She, of course, does not enjoy it. While going through the motions of being benevolent to his employees and the town, he is anything but. He treats them badly. In addition, his factory pollutes the town.

Much of the book is along these lines with graphic and unpleasant descriptions of their sex. Eventually, she does find a young and ambitious lover, Michael, but he turns out to be not much better than her husband. Gerti and the director do have a son but he too is despised. He is spoiled and greedy though he does show a little (but only a little) sympathy for his mother’s plight. There is nothing redeeming in Jelinek’s vision. Gerti is despised for allowing herself to be a victim while the director is cruel and heartless and rapacious. Marriage, the tourists, the children, all come in for Jelinek’s scathing criticisms. Of course, she writes very well. Her use of language is abrupt and direct and she makes extensive use of clever puns. But her story is not one to enjoy, even if you accept her view of the world.

Publishing history

First published 1989 by Rowohlt
First English publication in 1992 by Serpent’s Tail
Translated by Michael Hulse