Elfriede Jelinek: Die Kinder der Toten

Published at 5 Dec 2022




Brief Presentation

Elfriede Jelinek’s seminal novel Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead) attacks the continued repression of the memory of the Holocaust in Austria. Her novel revisits both the discourse of the historical avant-garde and the Austrian neo-avant-garde while highlighting the persistence of the void caused by the destruction of war, its aftermath and the loss of Jewish life and culture. Moreover, she points at the elusive, often invisible ways, in which memorialization, Holocaust memory and trauma are transferred and transmitted across generations. Published in 1995, her intense and critical text appeared at a time when the political right gained a new momentum. Jelinek uses key strategies of the European neo-avant-garde to shed light on different forms of political framings in relation to memory culture, feminism and economization that eventually lead to forms of de-humanization.

On the level of structure, the novel uses linguistic cut-up techniques such as “word-compounds” and montage. A polyphony of voices stemming from intertextual and intermedial material summons up the repressed past. Jelinek’s text points to a traumatic real, which too often remains hidden in plain sight. Set within the genre of the horror or ghost story, the plot revolves around “death” as a main character in a hyper-baroque theater of cruelty. Jelinek portrays a surrealistic danse-macabre of ghostly phantoms that shifts between the gruesome reality of the holocaust and an accumulation of accidents and “everyday” crashes. In marked reference to Herk Harvey’s movie Carnival of Souls (1962) the undead protagonists dance on the entrails of the living while shattering layers of persistent forgetting to uncover mass-graves of the past.

On a theoretical level, Jelinek plays with Bataille’s concept of formlessness (informe) and the embedded idea that both art and ideology need to be broken down towards a “base materialism”. In that respect, the novel takes up an artistic approach that is reflective of Jelinek’s opposition to master narratives. Both in terms of style and in terms of content, her prose leads towards an all-compassing fluidity (Vogel 1998). In applying an aesthetics of the informe and “entropy as a narrative concept” (Schönsee 2021) she takes up key neo-avant-garde discussions on subversion and the leveling in of vertical power structures thriving within art theoretical discourse of the 1960s and 1970s and leading up to the 1990s. She moreover includes references to mysticism, mythologization and mediality purported by the historical avant-gardes and subjects them to a critical re-investigation. The prose recalls strategies of transformation stemming from language philosophy as well as anthropological approaches to the distributed nature of agency, environments and structures.

While focusing on modes of de-subjectivation and the dissolution of the self, Jelinek comes up with a novel and often noted technique of creating surface effects (Eder and Vogel 2010). By means of dissociative techniques Jelinek’s prose opens up binary models of identity towards acknowledging a new materiality. Hence, the materiality of the soil and its fluidity become a medium of a novel, bodily driven language. Her images evoke an entropic momentum of dissolution, from which – and this forms part of the uncompromising avantgarde-technique of her work – a new agency arises: namely, the agency of the decomposing corpse and its evidential trace (Crossland 2017). Consequently, her neo-avant-garde strategies generate a paradoxical anthropology of death.



Jelinek’s deeply unsettling novel transgresses genre boundaries to present a post-traumatic moment. We find ourselves as readers in a critical space that portrays the landscape of the Austrian alps as riddled by false mythologies engraved in the soil and haunted by deceiving metaphors of light, strength and beauty. Her magnum opus critically engages with the aesthetization of the Austrian Alps and their picturesque landscape for commercial purposes. Die Kinder der Toten traces the continuity of the past in present-day discourses of discrimination: Austria comes to stand “pars pro toto for Western European culture with its postwar affluence” (Konzett 2007: 8). Moreover, the site of Austria demonstrates a “fertile battleground in which European xenophobia and anti-Semitism had reached its most extreme form” (Konzett 2007: 9). The undead protagonists merge with the Alpine landscape to unleash the forces of nature and to unearth a repressed history. They expose “the ground on which we all stand, the mud, the clay in which the dead lie” (649). One who constantly stirs up the ground, setting its undercurrents into motion, is the philosophy student Gudrun Bichler: “Under the current, Gudrun Bichler [...] gets up again, staggers around, a fallen tree trunk; […]. She is now falling into the house with the door, riding along on a few thousand cubic meters of earth and rubble” (641). The image of the ghostly, witch-like Bichler is contrasted with the image of another undead protagonist, Edgar Gstranz, a skiing athlete who has died in a car crash. The narrator imagines how Edgar and two other undead young boys have their photos taken: “[t]heir childhood up in the mountains – what happy times! In each of them we can immediately forget a few hundred thousand dead, they are so new, so immediate (‘unversehen’). I cannot get enough of it (‘Ich kann mich gar nicht sattsehen’). However, we can forget the dead, anyway! My Tyrol, I miss you, wherever I am” (642). The narrator’s play with the words “seeing”/”unseeing” or misreading (“versehen”) underlines the dynamic of forging a moment of happy times onto a landscape riddled by grief. Eventually, the children – who come to stand metaphorically for reconfigurations of the transcorporeal and a (sign) language of the dead – rise like ghosts to greet the undead. In a reflection on her work, Jelinek explains how she uses the “undead as a chiffre to stand for a history, which is never fully dead and which always has a hand growing out of its grave” (Interview by Carp 1997: 61). Accordingly, her characters transverse a dynamic ground. They rage against form, specifically forms of patriarchy, economic power structures, and fascism.

By acts of confrontation and deconstruction the novel activates its readers to think about the agency contained within different media. Jelinek’s texts become a space for a transgressive play with hauntology and everyday myths (Janz 1995). Hence, Die Kinder der Toten comment on important discourses of the 1970s, such as on Barthes’ Mythologies (1957) or Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967). The use of hypertexts and the play with frames and references provide the tools by which Jelinek presents her readers with the persistence of structures that direct political discourses. “Jelinek’s novel […] forces its readers to confront the way culture and society after the Holocaust continue many of the structures that preceded it”, as Ian Wilson points out (Wilson 2006: 44). Through her montage of images, voices and intertexts the novel produces a meta-discourse driving the reader to reflect on the critical space presented to us. Simultaneously, the reader becomes immersed within the plot of the “ghost story” which essentially follows three “undead” protagonists, Gudrun Bichler, Edgar Gstranz and Karin Frenzel. They meet at the unhomely crossing point and center of the novel – Pension Alpenrose – a tiny hotel, which is depicted as “a soul that is shown to a group of tourists: cursed, but not closed, that’s how it settles in the body of the mountains and destroys their character” (18). Only slowly do the zombified tourists come to understand their undead and invisible states after having died prematurely, either by suicide (Gudrun) or in a car accident (Karin and Edgar). In part, they may be read as allegorical figures, representing all that Jelinek deems wrong with philosophy (Gudrun), winter sports and athletics (Edgar) and coercive family systems, as expressed in Karin, the “eternal daughter” of a widowed mother (236), an often-varied theme in Jelinek’s work. While the female guests at the pension replicate into monstrous vampires and cannibals or man-eaters (“Menschenfresserinnen” [30]) the narrative sheds different spotlights on the protagonist’s lives: Edgar’s success and failure as an athlete and aspiring right-wing politician, or, for instance, Karin’s dashed hopes and/or expectations of becoming a mother “[n]ot a whiff in her cold old hands. The son does not breathe, because he didn't come at all” (102). Gudrun keeps awakening to her invisibility and “meatlessness” (“Fleischlosigkeit”) (164) which on a critical level is equated with an invisibility of women (158) and her search for identity (61) in a patriarchal society.

All characters are on a quest for the margins of death into an uncanny environment, which uncovers a “traumatic real” or a “real as an event of trauma” (Foster 1996: 107), that is the gruesome past of the Shoah. Within the invisible structure of the ghostly creatures, the dead of the Holocaust reappear. They enter a “space of resonance” (“Resonanzraum” (261)) which substitutes the lack of light: “Because nothing and no one stands behind the dead to enlighten them. […] As in an ant colony, the deceased flock together within these two mortuaries [Edgar and Gudrun, RS], who are ringing together armed with a pouch of skin, to become visible again”. (467) In the end, an epilogue reveals that the pension Alpenrose has been buried by a natural disaster, leaving the undead visitors on the horrific scene, while rescue teams and recovery works find mass graves of those who have been denied their deaths in the past.

Jelinek links her role as a writer with that of a “Trümmerfrau” (“rubble woman” Interview by Müller [2011:126]), in reference to women after World War II who would reconstruct shattered cities and tear down ruins but also helped to clear debris from the street. They not only laid bare the grid of the city but also became a symbol of female struggle and temporary emancipation. Jelinek sees her writing as analogous to the work of the rubble women in that she re-processes linguistic rubble and images. Within the text, the narrator appears as a “Totensammlerin” (“collector of the dead” 241). The narrating voice collects remnants of the past and by re-assembling its tokens gathers an intense and powerful language that opens a space for a multitude of critical voices. The “collector of the dead” and death guard becomes a key metaphor for Jelinek’s style: on the one hand by referring to the historical reference-frame of the novel, on the other hand by referencing a metaphysical dimension and participating in a romantic tradition. Her narrator re-enacts the role of a magician, “apparitionist” or “ghost seer” – now female – who conjures up ghosts of past and present. This places Jelinek in a tradition of the Viennese neo-avant-garde recalling an artistic technique employed by the Wiener Gruppe, particularly the work of H.C. Artmann who combined black romanticism and surrealism with the magic plays of the Wiener Volkstheater (Rühm 1967: 9). At the same time Jelinek deviates from this tradition by repositioning images of black romanticism into a feminist discourse: for example, she sarcastically describes the female guests at the pension Alpenrose as hideous strangers and killing machines. Gudrun and Karin do not shun away from sacrificing children, predominantly young boys (410), in order to create death which “only begets more death” (Schönsee 2021: 66). In the context of the narrative setting their action adopts an inverted meaning. Death awakens a traumatic memory from the living ground, marked by an ominous stillness: “Here they come, here the wondering-creatures (‘Wander-Geschöpfe’) swell […] and now all of a sudden deep water, screeching, cracking, crunching, stillness” (503). As vampires, the women dynamize the environment into a maelstrom, which eventually lays bare a hidden guilt. Through her alignment with romantic traditions, Jelinek stresses her neo-avant-garde stance: “Her Austria offers an updated version of the avantgarde notions of psychology and critique offered by Freud and Kraus and revisits its strengths and flaws” (Konzett 2007: 9). Her updated version sets up a multipolar network of cross-references. In an almost kaleidoscopic manner, images, voices and characters form a synesthetic surface, which will eventually collapse in the all-compassing fluidity of the text and its drive towards the obscure. The apocalyptic images lead to a grotesque dismantling or “demontage” of their sacred subtext (see Vogel 1998: 236). As with E.T.A Hoffmann’s style of suddenly drawing the reader into his phantasmagoric images by means of abrupt invocations of the real, Jelinek shifts between different dreamscapes which always bear the reality of horrific cruelty.

The key target of Jelinek’s critique is the mediatization of images to collaborate in acts of de-humanization. One metaphor frequently used to underline the effects of obscuring reality by popular images is that of light and darkness. Paradoxically, darkness comes to stand for moments of clarity within the course of the novel, which guides the reader to turn away from flashy media images and instead acknowledge their frame of reference. The narrator displays different techniques of keying by means of light. By “keying” I refer to the term Erving Goffman uses in Frame Analysis, defined as “systematic transformation across materials already meaningful in accordance with a schema of interpretation” (Goffman 1986: 45). Here the schema of interpretation is one of inversion. While lightness is associated with an act of covering up, the “darkness of death” becomes a means to dis- or uncover a fascist past (46) and to analyze its repressed dreams: “Sleep does not simply mean turning on the muggy red light in the darkroom” (62). That is why Jelinek’s film-noir technique is an important instrument of her criticism. Darkness becomes a signifier of formlessness and of instability, which produces a temporal ground that eventually digs up the past. “Space is disfigured by time” (651). As such it provides the reader with a new-found clarity of the obscene. Jelinek’s paradoxical use of darkness goes hand in hand with her use of temporality: present and past tense collapse into a simultaneity, which appears as an after-effect to the paradoxical animations of death. Jelinek stresses how her creativity stems from a negativity (Interview by Müller 2011: 125) with regard to a failed attempt of acknowledging the past while continuing with daily routines (Interview by Carp 1997: 66). Her aesthetic approach may also be linked with that of photographic processing. Instead of presenting a positive image her prose leads us into a camera obscura or a “dark room”. Rather, the darkroom paradoxically animates her sensory experiences at the frontier of sound. Paradox becomes an important narrative tool: the “emphasis on a living deadness paradoxically lends animation to these texts” (Naqvi 2006: 4). Consequently, “[t]he Shoa’s epistemological aftereffects take on a never-before-seen urgency and achieve a new level of stridency. All other political interventions emanate from this central concern” (Naqvi 2006: 3). This method of paradoxical animation can be demonstrated best by Jelinek’s attribution of voice, or rather the lack of it, as her protagonists – in the course of obstruction – have lost their voice: in a performative turn they never speak, indexing silence and repression. The (un)dead appear voiceless. In the midst of the dissolution of structures, Jelinek depicts an environment in motion, from which ghostly creatures and haunted bodies emerge. While the undead speak in a language of non-verbal code, mostly just gazing while discarding our day-to-day language as a senseless act of “humpty-dumpty”, a pneumatic language emerges: it is a visceral language that turns towards the body and the corpse. It comes to stand for a communication system of the dead and the indices they emit after “the house of language has collapsed” (340). Their specific language of signs carries a disruptive potential in that it plays with and exposes contemporary modes of xenophobia in Austria.


Avant-garde strategies

By placing a master narrative under scrutiny, the text displays a “literalization of difference” (Kecht 2007: 202), which is key to understanding Jelinek’s feminist and neo-avant-garde approach. Besides a great number of intertextual references (e. g. Heidegger, Barthes), her prose is marked by an “incessant cascade of words and genres”. In fact, “[h]er mix of genres seems out of control” (Kecht 2007:191). However, despite its grave subject matter, a feature which often goes unnoticed is her use of polemic and parody, as Kecht points out (Kecht 2007: 191). Jelinek’s use of the grotesque takes up traditions of the Viennese “Wurstelkomödie”, leaning on devilish images that chuckle at the monstrous. At one point for example Edgar comes across as “the jester of the unhoused” (“Kaspar des Unbehausten” (45)) and “[d]emiurg” (645) while Gudrun is depicted as Munchausen, the fictional baron of marvelous lies, who rides on her (!) cannonball, her “ice-cold, nipples erected like rubber plugs, and like suction cups she points them at a couple of gentlemen, who from the cold buffet just took their hot plates, mostly scrambled eggs” (641-42). She ejects and sacrifices her fertility (“eggs”) on the breakfast buffet of the undead males who feast on her femininity (642). Jelinek’s “pun-filled semantic shifting” (Kecht 2007: 205) reaches back most notably to baroque aesthetics, an aesthetics that also fascinates other European neo-avant-garde writers, especially in Austria, such as H.C. Artmann, Oswald Wiener or Gerhard Rühm in the context of the Wiener Gruppe. Rühm stresses how the variety of “constellations” (“konstellationen”) and a unique sensibility caused by a game of montage, namely a linguistic play which re-uses material, led to new effects of “zusammenhangsentfremdung”, “estrangement of context/connection” (Rühm 1967: 22). However, belonging to a later generation, Jelinek grew up when the Wiener Gruppe was already very prominent, allowing her to play with and deviate from their style: “I emerged from the Viennese avant-garde, from the Wiener Gruppe of the 1950s, which dealt with linguistic problems and advanced aesthetic methods” (Interview by Donna Hoffmeister 1987: 107). She brings a strong feminist perspective to her unique avant-garde style through her phenomenological approach and her use of flesh (“chair” in the terms of Merleau-Ponty). Thus, she clearly takes her own, singular direction. Her baroque play with words never dissociates from its alignment with bodily features and the topic of a feminist approach to language. This sets Jelinek apart from her counterparts in the Wiener Gruppe and marks her unique neo-avant-garde style. In the 1990s she partakes in a new wave of feminist approaches, which set out to criticize a male dominated art world.

By means of dissociative techniques, Jelinek’s prose disrupts notions of wholeness relating to the body and identity. She repeatedly attempts to rupture and cross over the distinction between signifier and the signified. Simultaneously pointing to the obscure gap between the signified and the signified, she reclaims the potential of the opaque phenomenology of the sign and its medium. Her linguistic investigations create a space in which the materiality of the soil and the increasing fluidity of the ground become the medium of a bodily driven language closely attached to notions of “flesh”. Yet, her struggle with the act of writing itself emanates from a heightened consciousness of whether and how to write after the Holocaust (Adorno). “Jelinek’s prose […] bears kindship with Kafka’s prose and is preoccupied with the legacy of the Shoa in a radically new explorative fashion similar to the spirit of Kertész” (Konzett 2007: 12). Within this context the decomposing body and its agentive power step in to compose a sensuous language that explores trails of difference and points both to structures of contemporaneous reality as well as to ways of speaking a historic truth. By integrating poetic elements with prose and juxtaposing discourses of banality with poetic allusions and intertextual voices Jelinek keeps ‘literalizing’ this ontology of difference and brings the narrative and rhetorical texture into constant flux. Within the discussion on the possibilities of poetry after the Second World War, she is firmly positioned as a neo-avant-garde writer. She recomposes a language of remembrance that employs a unique mode of immediacy and intensity.

Jelinek’s style also recalls techniques associated with the topic of silence and a mystic place of non-verbal expression erupting during modernism, as with a poetics of breath and admiration for dance and pantomime. This tradition of non-verbal expression reaches back to early baroque plays and was strongly revived in fin-de-siècle Vienna which re-discovered Viennese traditions of pantomime (George 2020). Accordingly, Jelinek’s mute figures can be interpreted as a means of integrating moments of pantomime into her prose. Thus, her novel is also an investigation into essential discourses of Viennese Modernism and its fascination with language critique and decadence, which preludes much later theories on performance and speech. For example, at one point she quotes Hofmannsthal’s Ein Brief (A Letter, 1902) as an intertext. Chandos, in Hofmannsthal’s letter, observes “these terms crumbled in my mouth like moldy fungi” (Hofmannsthal 2009: 73). Jelinek inverts this repeatedly quoted image, yet to the same end: “faces, re-emerge from the grass like moldy mushrooms” (198). Her skulls disrupt an environment in constant flux. “A branch of the past, which as well could have happened differently, lashes out, the face retreats into the ground in terror” (198). In the context of Die Kinder der Toten faces signify an entropic process of language critique, in which the text’s pneumatic grid is exposed: the dead have been “etched away by this new laundry detergent” (186), that is the picture-perfect image of Alpine tourism. Jelinek transforms the analytic process of modernist thought: the re-appearing faces, their death-masks and the disjunct bodies adopt their own agency. They initiate a linguistic investigation. By re-appearing from the ground, they recover a code which becomes a structural ground to Jelinek’s prose: its evidential dimension. Jelinek’s inversion of such tropes and images, closely linked to discourses of the historical avant-garde, recovers what has been exiled through reverse processing. Thus, Jelinek’s key neo-avant-garde technique resembles a mode of etching, which aims at revealing a newfound agency of a hidden materiality of the soil and its death mask. Accordingly, the masks buried within the environment form a grid, which adopts an agentive power within Jelinek’s novel. Her structural use of intertexts is in parallel to these remnants of the past, intersecting with its grid by forming nodes of their own. Dense textual collages interrupt the narrator’s voice, so that “multiple discourses seamlessly and ironically intertwine” (Konzett 2007: 13). Jelinek uses a “discursive polyphony” (Kecht 2007: 209) opening different echo-chambers of ideological discourse towards a critical dissonance. Word-compounds initiate chains of associations and connect different semiotic levels. Her “fractured focalization and vocalization” (Wilson 2006: 27) displays an ambiguity, which leads into a mode of “nonclosure” (Wilson 2006: 27): “A final main strategy in the novel is the rounded structure that develops as the text progresses from the prologue to the epilogue”, as Wilson points out (2006: 41). Her strategy adds to a technique which stresses the sensuous and rejects final interpretation. Jelinek’s deconstructive method of placing a master narrative under scrutiny, and her abundance of signifiers of decay and death causes a multitude of focalizations, which eventually exposes the exiled and confronts the monstrous.



Jelinek’s text is permeated by the theme of mourning. Her prose reclaims the wounded body as a site of memory and resistance. The topic of trauma and hauntology is portrayed through the visceral depiction of the body. Yet, its innovative stance lies in merging these themes with an element of satire that re-frames the monstrous and paradoxically highlights its gruesome reality. By opening up a critical space, Jelinek’s use of satire and polemic is essential to accessing the brutalist aesthetics of her text and to understanding her unique approach to the European neo-avant-garde.

Core themes that illustrate this polemic approach on the level of content are: a) the theme of the “horror story” and its film-noir avant-garde aesthetics in combination with her allusions to the Viennese tradition of the “Volkstück”; b) her feminist critique played out on the level of satire, e.g. the image of the female fairy now twisted to the image of the vampire; and c) her firm stance against notions of optimization as exemplified in her depiction of the athlete and winter sports that crash their aspirations in rather banal circumstances.

Herk Harvey’s low-budget horror film Carnival of Souls (1962) is one of the central influences on Jelinek’s conception of the undead (Wilson 2006: 31). The “ghost-story” as a key frame fr the work envelopes two aspects: the paradoxical temporality of the historical theme and the disruptive potential of an écriture feminine: “Appearing and disappearing like a ghost, the narrator playfully shifts perspectives” (Kecht 2007: 208). Jelinek plays with the genre of the “ghost story” to write an “experimental ghost story of remembrance” (Gsoels-Lorensen, 2006: 363). “The formless dead adopt an agency of materiality by which they refuse to assimilate to a present and past mediated by images of sameness and hyperreality” (Schönsee 2021: 69). Consequently, her novel creates a very specific “hauntology” in performing a meta-avant-gardist move: she evokes a dimension in which the repressed residues of the past can materialize and be discussed. Moreover, her novel presents a radically new perspective on the specter of the past by implicitly discussing the neo-avant-garde strategies of the 1970s from a feminist point of view: her critical play with the psychological and brutalist aesthetics of that era places the figure of the female vampire at center stage, thus reversing the male viewpoint often adopted in Viennese Actionism. Furthermore, the dissolving and collapsing structures form a momentum against interpretation”, as proposed in Susan Sontag’s essay from 1964. This may also be seen as a mode of feminist critique in that the novel withstands a hierarchical order of interpretation. Jelinek turns against norms of gender-inequality. No longer are her female protagonists inactive or passive characters in a power-scheme of strength but they adopt their own agency and rage. Consequently, a key theme in Jelinek’s oeuvre which forcefully re-emerges in this novel is her feminist attack on the commodification of the body and its economization. Her “ghosts” point to a great extent to the invisibility of women in an economy of patriarchal exchange. Only that now, within her plot, women dominate the chain of exchange. Thus, her work can be viewed in the context of the radical approaches to feminism that emerged in the 1990s, especially in the field of applied arts. This meta-avant-gardist movement and the integration of themes taken from popular culture and its representation of pleasure and desire would disrupt and fundamentally change artistic debates. Jelinek addresses feminist issues such as the women’s function as bearers of children by portraying women as bearers of death: Karin and Gudrun are vampires who instead of giving birth, give death. “The dead want to be free, but to reclaim their life, they must kill the living” (456). Thus, they create an existence which appears ruptured. Instead of re-appearing it disappears into a haunted space.

The invisibility of women is a dominant theme in other works by Jelinek as well. In an interview from 1996 she explains: “The vampires in Sickness or Modern Women are paradigmatic in this play for the female existence that is never quite there and never quite gone” (Interview by Carp 1997: 61). Her attempts at attacking patriarchal structures merge with the goal of tackling wider issues of identity. Jelinek’s zombies seem to be devoid of identity. “The boundaries of characters become porous and discourse begins to flow across her cast of characters” (Konzett 2007: 14). They easily multiply, just like Karin and Gudrun. It is through the rhetorical figures of segmentation, fragmentation and repetition that the loss of identity and origin adopts its own satirical note. As readers we do not know whether to be taken aback or whether to laugh about the ridiculousness of the seriality playing out as we read (see Interview by Müller 2011: 130). In a twist with the figure of the fairy common to the baroque Alt-Wiener Volkstheater and its “Zauberstücke” (“Magic pieces”), the undead ghosts become brutal and reckless. They thus dismantle the brutalist aesthetics displayed by actionists such as Hermann Nitsch or Günter Brus as patriarchal performative gesture. The theme of the horror story and the monstrous fortifies Jelinek’s feminist attack by hinting at the horror of the “maternal body made strange, even repulsive, in repression” (Foster 1996: 112). Her prose revolves around the topic of the abject, in Kristeva’s sense. The body as the primary site of the abject as well as a category of non-being – as “neither subject nor object” (Foster 1996: 112) – is hollowed out, while entering an interchange of flesh, shells and rubble. This counteracts the optimization of the body and a capitalist drive towards velocity and growth. In 2019 the New York theatre group The Nature Theater of Oklahoma and its directors Kelly Copper and Pavol Liška put the topic of the abject in the face of a failing process of optimization at the center of their acclaimed movie adaptation of Jelinek’s novel. Filming in Super-8 “they capture all with the look and feel of an old home movie: the frames loosely composed, the lens following the action, soundless” (Krasinski 2019) while simultaneously staging the novel’s “ecstatic horror” of modernity (Krasinski 2019).

In her text, Jelinek’s skepticism about technological optimization of the body is exemplified in the figure of Edgar Gstranz. Jelinek explains how important this figure is to her overall writing: “My enemies, the athletes, permeate all of my writing” (Interview by Carp 1997: 64). Edgar, a ski jumper and highly successful winter sports athlete, dies in a car-crash. As a satirical note to his life posits, “he did not fly into the open but crashed his car into a wall” (Wilson 2006: 29). His pursuit of winning ends in a nihilistic and almost ridiculous state of zombie-life. Edgar becomes a caricature of the mediatized image of strength and manliness common in winter sports and of the human being conquering cold and death purporting fascist aesthetics. To Jelinek the figure of the athlete shows how we as human beings easily become part of a machinery of death: “I am concerned with the juxtaposition of the greatest contradictions and the misuse, the Heideggerian use (‘Vernutzung’) of man. Sport, for example, is something that not only provides health, but also takes life” (Interview by Carp 1997: 65-66). Her statement highlights her avant-garde strategy of pointing out how media messages are fraught with messages of contradiction that ooze into discourses of biopolitics as described by Foucault. She portrays a perilous pass towards controlling life through images of power and the use of human beings as human capital, their “Vernutzung”, or abuse. Her concern for the mediatized portrayal of death as a means of controlling narratives on the value of life, drives her attempt at attacking mediatized images. She “tries to give an answer to the question of what types of images counteract this instrumentalization” (Arteel 2010: 158). Jelinek uses “nomadic” images to counteract repressive notions of history, as Inge Arteel has shown (Arteel 2010: 163). By juxtaposing disastrous accidents with a collective death, the novel evokes a paradoxical form of liquidity: While bodies and tissue dissolve, the ground preserves an “evidential dimension of the dead” (Crossland 186). The Austrian Alps as a landscape of pure contemplation is stripped bare of its artificiality and reconfigured from transcorporeal elements. The ground returns with a rage. In a wild dance of death, the undead keep exposing the shallowness that engulfs tourism’s attempts at whitewashing a site of trauma.



Jelinek’s text is a pioneering work in that it radically deconstructs images of wholeness while simultaneously holding on to the genre of the novel. She creates a very specific and unique linguistic play with surface effects (Eder and Vogel 2010) to depict an “emphatic phenomenology of the surface” (Vogel 2006: 17). The novel’s sharp criticism of a “culture of forgetfulness” (Wilson 2006: 27) erupted in the political climate of 1990s Austria to a point where the name “Jelinek” was instrumentalized in elections to polarize opinions.

Jelinek’s images of fluidity are set against the backdrop of a brutalist aesthetic used for decades by (male) neo-avant-garde approaches such as those of Chris Burden or Günter Brus. Her novel attacks the commodification of the body from a feminist and neo-avant-gardist perspective. It addresses wounding, pain and the abject in the face of economization and optimization, and the socio-economic plight of the female body and sexuality. Her text engages with the body through brutal images. By playing with the genre of the horror story and by using techniques of disintegration, cutting repeatedly into representations of bodily shelves, Jelinek discusses themes of identity, singularity and figure.

Consequently, her novel may be read as a container for different approaches of neo-avantgarde criticism. Her powerful prose not only touches on the literary experiments by the Wiener Gruppe but also comments on the language critique of the avant-garde discussed by the philosophers of the Wiener Kreis as well as by writers such as Kafka and Kraus (Konzett 2007: 13). By presenting an archive of false mythologies in Barthes’ sense, the novel gives access to a critical stance on postmodernism and late capitalism.

Jelinek’s novel shows a provocative reconnection with Viennese Actionism’s obsession with bodily fluids and the neo-avant-garde of the 1970s while reworking its iconography and framing it into a new language of pain. Die Kinder der Toten thus becomes an example of the appropriation of the heritage of avant-garde practices and techniques. The novel revisits their impact on political settings by transferring key discourses into a setting of obstruction, dissolution and demise to present us with the surprising realization that their subversive power rather than being annihilated may take on a new agency.

Jelinek’s prose explores the female body and the unique iconography of flesh and melting with a polemical edge. Repeatedly attempting to rupture the distinction between signifier and signified producing semiotic fluidity her style transgresses binary models of identity to discuss the relationship of figure and ground via the simultaneity of surface effects and simulacra. Yet, from her sharp confrontation with death and paradoxical liquidity a new agency arises. It is an agency of the ground which activates a novel materiality and by means of a re-configuration of the trans-corporeal opens up a critical and mnemonic space.

Further reading

  • Arteel, Inge: “Der Kampf um das Bild. Elfriede Jelineks Die Kinder der Toten im Dialog mit Franz Kafka und Gilles Deleuze”. Lob der Oberfläche. Eds. Thomas Eder and Juliane Vogel. Munich: Fink, 2010.
  • Copper, Kelly and Pavol Liška – Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Die Kinder der Toten. Produced by Ulrich Seidl. 90 Min. 2019. https://oktheater.org/news/kinder-der-toten ; https://www.ulrichseidl.com/de/ulrich-seidl-film-produktion/filme-in-verwertung/die-kinder-der-toten
  • Crossland, Zoë. “The Agency of the Dead”. Distributed Agency. Eds. N. J. Enfield and Paul Kockelman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2017. 181-190.
  • Eder, Thomas and Juliane Vogel, eds. Lob der Oberfläche: zum Werk von Elfriede Jelinek. Munich: Fink, 2010.
  • Foster, Hal. “Obscene. Abject. Traumatic”. October 78 (1996): 107-24.
  • Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience. With a New Foreword by Bennett Berger. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1986.
  • Hofmannsthal, Hugo von. “Ein Brief ”, 1903. Sämtliche Werke. Ed. by Ellen Ritter. Vol. 31. Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer, 1979. 45-55.
  • Hofmannsthal, Hugo von. “The Letter of Lord Chandos”. The Whole Difference. Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Ed. J.D. McClatchy and trans. by Tania and James Stern. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2009. 69-79.
  • Hoffmeister, Donna. “Access Routes into Postmodernism: Interviews with Innerhofer, Jelinek, Rosei, and Wolfgruber”. Modern Austrian Literature 20 (1987): 97-130.
  • George, Alys. The Naked Truth: Viennese Modernism and the Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020.
  • Gsoels-Lorensen, Jutta. “Elfriede Jelinek's Die Kinder der Toten: Representing the Holocaust as an Austrian Ghost Story”. The Germanic Review 81.4 (2006): 360-382.
  • Janz, Marlies. Elfriede Jelinek. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1995.
  • Jelinek, Elfriede. Die Kinder der Toten. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1995.
  • Jelinek, Elfriede. “Ich bin im Grunde ständig tobsüchtig über die Verharmlosung. Ein Gespräch mit Elfriede Jelinek mit Stefanie Carp” (12. April 1996). Elfriede Jelinek. Stecken, Stab und Stangl. Eine Handarbeit. Programmheft. Nr. 185. 20. September 1997. Wien: Burgtheater, 1997. 55-67.
  • Jelinek, Elfriede. Interview by Andre Müller (21. October 2004). Reprinted in: “Sie sind ja wirklich eine verdammte Krähe!” Letzte Gespräche und Begegnungen. Ed. André Müller with a preface by Elfriede Jelinek. Munich: LangenMüller, 2011. 120-136.
  • Kecht, Maria-Regina. “The Polyphony of Remembrance: Reading Die Kinder der Toten”. Elfriede Jelinek. Writing Woman, Nation, and Identity. A Critical Anthology. Eds. Matthias Piccolruasz Konzett and Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger. Madison, Taeneck: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2007. 189-217.
  • Konzett, Matthias Piccolruaz. “Preface: The Many Faces of Elfriede Jelinek”. Elfriede Jelinek. Writing Woman, Nation, and Identity. A Critical Anthology, edited by Matthias Piccolruaz Konzett and Margarete Lamb-Faffelberger. Madison, Taeneck: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2007. 1-21.
  • Krasinski, Jennifer. “Zombiland. Jennifer Krasinski on Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s ‘Die Kinder der Toten’.” Artforum 53. 3 (2019): 71. https://www.artforum.com/print/201909/jennifer-krasinski-on-nature-theater-of-oklahoma-s-die-kinder-der-toten-81061 (accessed 20.08.2022)
  • Naqvi, Fatima. “After Life. Reflections on Elfriede Jelinek’s Work since 1995”. Modern Austrian Literature 39. 3-4 (2006): 3-13.
  • Rühm, Gerhard. “vorwort”. Die Wiener Gruppe. Achleitner. Arthmann. Bayer Rühm Wiener. Texte Gemeinschaftsarbeiten Aktionen. Ed. Gerhard Rühm. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1967. 7-36.
  • Schönsee, Rebecca. “No Light against Entropy: Elfriede Jelinek’s Translation of Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ and Its Impact on ‘Die Kinder der Toten’.” Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies 57.1 (2021): 61-84.
  • Vogel, Juliane. “Wasser, hinunter, wohin? Elfriede Jelineks Kinder der Toten—ein Flüssigtext”. “Other” Austrians: Post-1945 Austrian Women’s Writing. Ed. Allyson Fiddler, Berne: Lang, 1998. 235-42.
  • —. “‘Keine Leere der Unterbrechung’—Die Kinder der Toten und der Schrecken der Falte”. Modern Austrian Literature 39. 3-4 (2006):15-26.
  • Wilson, Ian W. “Greeting the Holocaust’s Dead? Narrative Strategies and the Undead in Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Kinder der Toten”. Modern Austrian Literature 39. 3-4 (2006): 27-55.