Book Review: Lust by Elfriede Jelinek

Do not be fooled by the title. Lust is not a summer beach read. In fact, I’m not sure how I would classify it. Some reviewers have called it “pornographic”. I would disagree with that characterization. Typically, pornography excites an individual. It makes him/her want to act on the feelings of lust it arouses. This book made me ashamed of being human. Confused? Please allow me to explain.

The language in this story jolted me. Let me just write I found it unique. Lust certainly wouldn’t end up in a book store’s erotica section. I’ll cite the more memorable descriptions I read. As a life-long male, I’ve heard people use vulgar expressions in reference to women’s breasts. I have to admit the expression “big warm steaming cowpats of breasts” (page 17) was a new one on me. The author described the conclusion of a sexual act as follows: “The Direktor withdraws from the woman, leaving his waste behind.” (Page 19) Possibly the most troubling line in the book: “They say a fire burns within women. But it’s only dying embers.” (Page 67) Not the kinds of expressions one would expect in a novel titled Lust.

The author didn’t limit her criticisms to relationships between the sexes. Lust also served as a vehicle to critique capitalism.

For the Direktor, people count simply because they are people and can be used or else can be made into consumers who use things. (Page 62)

Ms. Jelinek used blatant language in the above passage. Here’s one where she attempted to connect with readers on an emotional level.

The poor go walking along the banks with their children, where chemicals corrode the waters. The main thing is to have a job at all. And to come home from work with a suitable industrial disease. (Page 110)

The quote below combined the two.

What people live on, apart from their hopes, is a mystery to me. They seem to invest everything in cameras and hi-fis. There’s no room in their houses for life anymore. (Page 114)

The author presented her view of men’s treatment of women as something akin to genocide. Capitialism turned all people into objects. Surely, Ms. Jelinek couldn’t utilize Lust as a means to blast anything else? Actually, no. She also took shots at the Catholic Church. Here’s an example.

Now all of us in this Roman Catholic country will go down on our knees for a while so that all can see us washing the blood of innocence off our hands, the blood that God, making a superhuman effort has transformed into himself (no capital H in the original text): man and woman, right that was his work, his doing. In readers’ letters to the paper they are true to the spirit of Christian architecture, forever striving heavenward. There is nothing to be said against the Pope. Who belongs to the Virgin Mary. (Page 106)

Due to passages such as these I totally lost focus on the story. It had something to do with a woman in a dehumanizing relationship with her husband. For succor she began an affair with another man. I thought this a bit odd and out of synch with the book. If relationships between men and women caused nothing but suffering for the latter, why would the protagonist seek another one?

My main criticism dealt with the scope of the book. Ms. Jelinek’s took an egregiously negative tone throughout the work. I didn’t read any redemption or sense of hope in the entire novel. I would suggest that the author determine an “ideal state” for humanity to live. Let her characters strive towards it. Get away from the construct that life is unbearable, but can only get worse. It made for some agonizing reading.

In 2004 Elrfriede Jelinek received the Nobel Prize in Literature for: “her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.” I’ve read other works by the author. Because of that I can understand the Nobel Prize Committee’s citation. Due to the insufferable way the author expressed her views in Lust, I’d have to recommend reading her other material instead.

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