Women as Lovers
Die Liebhaberinnen; Women as Lovers (1975)
This novel is the antithesis of a ‘Heimatroman’ (regional novel), because it dismantles romantic clichés about rural life and young love.
It focuses on two young women, Brigitte and Paula, who work in a bra factory in a nameless Austrian province, thus manufacturing the instruments of their own oppression. The narrator calls Brigitte ‘the good example’ because she succeeds in marrying Heinz, an electrician with good prospects, and becoming a middle-class housewife. Brigitte snares Heinz by fighting off her bourgeois rival, Susi, despite the fact that Susi is a superior cook. Paula – aged only fifteen – is ‘the bad example’ because she ‘falls in love’ with an alcoholic, abusive woodcutter called Erich who has nothing going for him except his looks. The marriage between Paula and Erich is disaster, and Paula turns to prostitute as a source of income.
These young women are forced to choose between three very limited roles: being a housewife, sales assistant or a factory worker. Paula briefly contemplates becoming a seamstress, but this avenue is soon forgotten. The men, too, face limited career alternatives: they must choose between life as a woodcutter, a carpenter, an electrician, a builder, a metal worker or a factory worker.
The narrator dissects the provincial marriage market with profound disgust. She is horrified by the characters and the choices they make. She is particularly disparaging about popular culture (what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer call ‘the culture industry’) which fills the characters’ heads with cheap fantasies. Paula imagines that her best friend is the celebrity Ushi Glas, a film star she has never met. Erich is obsessed with the Formula One racing driver Niki Lauda, motorbikes and World War Two adventure stories. This is particularly ironic because he cannot get a driving licence.
Paula is doomed by her teenage illusions about love. She thinks that love will conquer everything, but her idea of love comes from glossy women’s magazines. She has no clue about contraception, and she does not realize that love is not like a Hollywood rom-com. She does not understand the harsh reality of conventional (pre-feminist) marriage – in which the woman is expected to do the housework and suffer her husband’s bullying in silence – until it is too late. As the narrator comments drily: ‘daß die liebe nur etwas mit arbeit zu tun hat, das sagt keiner gern.’ [Love is just hard work and nothing else, but nobody likes to admit it]. In this way, the novel uses Marxist and feminist perspectives in order to reflect on a series of horrifically unhappy marriages.
Further Reading in English
Allyson Fiddler, Rewriting Reality: An Introduction to Elfriede Jelinek (Oxford: Berg, 1994), pp. 64-76
Brigid Haines, ‘Beyond Patriarchy: Marxism, Feminism, and Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Liebhaberinnen’, Modern Language Review 92 (1997), 643-55
Brigid Haines and Margaret Littler, ‘Elfriede Jelinek, Die Liebhaberinnen (1975)’, in Contemporary Women’s Writing in German: Changing the Subject (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), pp. 39-56
Pacale LaFountain, ‘Heteroglossia and Media Theory in Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Liebhaberinnen’, Modern Austrian Literature 43:1 (2010), 43-64
Jacqueline Vansant, Against the Horizon: Feminism and Postwar Austrian women writers (New York: Greenwood, 1988)
Anthony Waine, Changing Cultural Tastes: Writers and the Popular in Modern Germany (New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2007), especially pp. 97-101
Further Reading in German
Alexander von Bormann, ‘Dialektik ohne Trost: Zur Stilform im Roman “Die Liebhaberinnen”’, in Gegen den schönen Schein. Texte zu Elfriede Jelinek (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Neue Kritik, 1990), pp. 56-74