Throughout its history, the Swedish Academy has certainly made a number odd choices for the coveted honor of the Nobel Prize for literature. One thinks, for example, of Dario Fo, the Italian communist-anarchist playwright who scooped up the prize in 1997, or José Saramago, a Portuguese communist who got it in 1998. Sure, there have been plenty of worthy Nobel laureates—Rudyard Kipling, W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, and Thomas Mann for starters. But an equally impressive list could be made of those who did not get the prize, beginning with Henry James, Marcel Proust, Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka, and Wallace Stevens. In recent decades, the prize has often been more a badge advertising political—that is, politically correct—virtue than a recognition of literary accomplishment. There have been exceptions—we still remember the gasp of amazement in 2001 when it was announced that V. S. Naipaul had won. More and more, though, the Nobel Prize has gone to a person who has the correct sex, geographical address, ethnic origin, and political profile—“correct” being determined by the commissars at the Swedish Academy. So it was no surprise when a distinct mediocrity like Toni Morrison got the prize in 1993: an American, yes, which was a drawback, but at least Morrison was the right sex, the right color, and spouted the right opinions.

Laureates like Toni Morrison, Dario Fo, and José Saramago cheapen the Nobel Prize. But this year’s laureate, the Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek (born 1946), marks a new low. It is likely that you hadn’t heard of Jelinek before—or, if you had, it was probably only because her sadomasochistic fantasy The Piano Teacher (1983) was made into a movie with Isabelle Huppert in 2001. Other titles by Jelinek have been translated into English—Lust (1989), for example, an unrelieved carnival of sexual and physical brutality culminating in a woman’s murder of her son. Jelinek is a radical left-wing fantasist. She was a member of the Austrian Communist Party from 1974 to 1991—a period when, as Stephen Schwartz pointed out in The Weekly Standard, the organization “was little more than a KGB network.” With the fall of the Soviet Empire, support for its satellites dried up, so Jelinek left the party. But she didn’t abandon her left-wing animus. Her most recent work is Bambiland (2003), a stream-of-consciousness anti-American effusion masquerading as a play. Most of her work is a species of arty pornography. The Nobel judges rhapsodized about Jelinek’s “musical flow of voices and counter-voices … that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.” But what the reader actually finds is not the revelation of but a shameless wallowing in clichés. The Swedish Academy has made plenty of mistakes. In choosing to honor Elfriede Jelinek it has made itself a laughingstock.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 3, on page 4
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