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the complete review - drama / prose
Her Not All Her
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- on/with Robert Walser
- German title: er nicht als er (zu, mit Robert Walser)
- Translated by Damion Searls
- With an Afterword by Reto Sorg
- With thirteen paintings by Thomas Newbolt
- Awarded the 2011 ACF Translation Prize
- First performed at the Salzburg Festival, 1 August 1998, in a production directed by Jossi Wieler
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A- : fascinating, dense piece about writing and the writer(s)
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "(A) radical and impassioned performance monologue (...) The result is a Janus-like dialogue, which deliriously combines the melancholic, ghostly voice of Walser with that of an existentially brutalized Jelinek, the poetic images and caustic revelations flashing dangerously like knives in the face of any snug conviction." - Will Stone, Times Literary Supplement
- "In gewohnter Sprödigkeit verweigert Jelineks Text jede szenische Handhabe. Herkömmliche Rollenzuschreibung und Dialogform kümmern sie längst nicht mehr. (...) Er spricht, aber nicht als er. Jossi Wieler gelingt das Schwierigste: Er hält den Dichtergipfel in der Schwebe zwischen Huldigung und Hohn. Wenn die beredte Jelinek dem verstummten Walser ihre Sprache leiht, dann ist das ja ein Akt der Demut. Oder der Anmaßung." - Sigrid Loeffler, Die Zeit
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Her Not All Her is, as the subtitle has it, a piece on/with Robert Walser, as author Elfriede Jelinek presents a short, dense text that is both an homage to and inspired by the peculiar Swiss master.
It is a prose-text that is a performance piece -- it has frequently been staged over the past fifteen years; the German audio-version (the piece as monologue ...) was recorded by Bruno Ganz -- but defies simple categorization and also has both essayistic and poetic qualities.
Jelinek uses many of Walser's own words, but the voice in this text she has fashioned is distinctly her own; it is a portrait of the artists that reveals layers of selves, from the simple facts (and words) of Walser to how Jelinek has understood them to Jelinek's own creative identity.
Jelinek shapes Walser here, in word and description -- but clearly Walser has also shaped Jelinek, and that too emerges in this text, which is also one of the internalization of influence.
The text is presented as a volume in the beautiful Cahiers Series, with thirteen full-page reproductions of Thomas Newbolt's colorful 'Head'-paintings (see also this catalogue (warning ! dreaded pdf format !), which includes reproductions of many of them).
Kokoschka-like, the broad brushstrokes, melding of color, and especially the close-up feel of these expressionistic portraits -- the paintings show faces in almost uncomfortable immediacy, cut off at the forehead and cheeks, as if the full head couldn't fit the canvas -- are appropriate illustrations for this particular text.
Similar in their basic features -- just faces, with large, often hollow eyes -- the paintings nevertheless are distinct, suggesting how much can be found in what superficially might appear to be only variations on the same basic theme and approach -- exactly as Jelinek manages.
An Afterword by Reno Sorg, head of the Robert Walser Zentrum, is also a helpful gloss on Jelinek and her connection to Walser.
As always, these are beautifully produced booklets, down to the nice touch of interspersing some of Jelinek's original German sentences -- in red ink -- literally between the lines.
Damion Searls' ACF Translation Prize-winning translation (note: I was one of the jurors for this prize) deals admirably with the complexities of the text and language.
This edition of Her Not All Her is an attractive volume; a fascinating literary-historical document (with regards both to Walser and to Jelinek); and a powerful, dense work of creative prose -- both original and repurposed.
It is a significant work, and well worth seeking out and engaging with.
As noted, Damion Searls' translation of Her Not All Her was awarded the 2011 ACF Translation Prize.
Here is my laudatio, delivered at the prize ceremony for the Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize on 9 January 2012:
The text awarded this year’s Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize is her not all her (on/with Robert Walser), Damion Searls’ translation of Elfriede Jelinek’s 1998 piece, er nicht als er (zu, mit Robert Walser).
One might think that a Nobel laureate needs no introduction, but in the case of Elfriede Jelinek I’m afraid that’s not quite true.
Even Austrians were surprised – or even taken aback – when it was announced that Elfriede Jelinek had won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2004. Peter Handke, or the poet Friederike Mayröcker were often mentioned as possible Nobel winners, but Jelinek ?
Some seven years later she remains a very controversial but undeniably significant author in Germany and Austria; here in the United States, however, her work is still not nearly as widely known as one might expect for an author of her stature. One of the foremost European dramatists, her plays remain largely unperformed in the US, and while much of her fiction is available in English, her prose magnum opus, the 1995 novel Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead’) is still only in the process of being translated (and I would not be surprised if in a year or two that translation is one of the works we will be considering for this prize.)
Admittedly, Jelinek is not an easy author; she also has a reputation as being a writer of unpleasant, even off-putting works – and it is this reputation that has become common currency when referring to her and her work.
In a piece in The New York Review of Books (issue of 19/7/2007) Tim Parks discusses reading all five of her novels that have been translated into English, and finds "each more determinedly and uniformly unlovely than the one before".
Reactions to her being awarded the Nobel Prize included denunciations of her work as: "a species of arty pornography" (that in The New Criterion, November, 2004) and of Jelinek herself as a "sensationalist, communist, and anti-American hack" (in the Weekly Standard).
Esteemed critic Ruth Franklin called her work simply "appalling" in The New Republic (1/11/2004), and argued that her "novels of the 1980s are prooftexts of a particularly virulent sort of radical feminism".
So, yes, in a sense Jelinek needs no introduction.
Certainly, if people have an opinion about her, they tend to have a very strong opinion about her – indeed, I don’t think she’s given nearly enough credit for being able to arouse such passionate responses.
There is some truth to many of these generalizations and simplifications.
Many of her works are irritating, filled with ugliness, even numbing.
What I would suggest, however, is that while Jelinek’s work is perhaps not misunderstood, it is incompletely understood.
And one of the reasons I am pleased that it is this particular text that we are honoring here tonight is that it helps complete the picture – though I’m afraid it will be a disappointment to those who were hoping for more "arty pornography".
As Jelinek explains in her afterword to this piece – here slightly embellished by Damion Searls, to explain how he arrived at the translation:
The title of this play – in German er nicht als er, literally "he not as he" – has been put together from the syllables of his name but it doesn’t add up to a whole or a meaning: Rob-er-t not as Wals-er, er not as er, he not as he; -er- not -al-er, HER NOT ALL HER.
Damion Searls presents the text to us as: her not all her – in part, of course, because that allows him to preserve the echo of the name, Robert Walser, but fortuitously it is also an apt description of the text itself in both its literal and larger senses.
The words, too, are hers – but not all hers.
And while Jelinek’s text is, among other things, a gloss on and introduction to Walser, it also serves as gloss on and introduction to Jelinek herself.
Always remembering, of course, that the picture may be a reflection and representation of her, but is also only partial: her but not all her.
As Jelinek has her Walser playfully observe:
Are you looking for me ?
You won’t find me in me but if you go down on one knee you’re welcome to look me over !
her not all her is an invitation to shift perspective, to look at something – someone – in a different way.
It offers a very personal reading of and into Robert Walser, an author whose work has attracted a growing audience in English, as more of it has become available, but who remains an enigmatic figure.
Jelinek’s take on him comes at a useful point in the American reception of Walser, as enough of his work is now accessible – and has been written about – to allow for a closer understanding of the writer but while we still await, for example, the first full biography – which I hope Susan Bernofsky will provide us with in a few years’ time.
I also see her not all her as an invitation to shift perspectives in how Elfriede Jelinek and her work are considered, and I hope that readers will be willing to go down on one knee, as it were, and at least look Jelinek over once again, via Walser. I think they might be pleasantly surprised.
I would identify two major reasons why Jelinek is not properly or fully appreciated in the United States, and both have to do with aspects of her work that have largely been missed by English-speaking audiences and critics.
One is an aspect of her writing itself, by which I mean her use of language.
In his review of Greed, the English translation of Jelinek’s novel, Gier, in the London Review of Books Nicholas Spice agrees with the critics who called the book "atrocious" – but he offers a qualification: "Greed is unreadable. But it is not the same book as Gier."
This has been a fundamental hurdle for Jelinek’s work – the hurdle of translation.
In awarding her the Nobel Prize the Swedish Academy explained that she was being honored:
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
In her Nobel interview Jelinek herself suggested:
If I have to describe my literature, then it can be likened to a musical or compositional work with the language.
But she immediately went on to note:
The problem is that it is difficult to translate. In that sense, I am a provincial writer …
Gitta Honegger, who has translated several of Jelinek’s plays, is writing a cultural biography of the author, and is also in the process of translating Die Kinder der Toten, specifically notes:
Jelinek's linguistic strategies tie her all the more inextricably to her native language.
Her performance texts are nearly untranslatable.
her not all her is such a performance text, but obviously we on the jury found that Damion Searls did manage to extricate it into English in a way that was true to Jelinek’s original.
Arguably, this task was made somewhat easier by the fact that the text engages so strongly with the writing of Robert Walser – perhaps made doubly easier, in this case, as one of Damion Searls’ other forthcoming translations is a collection of Walser’s work, and I imagine there was some overlap between his work on Walser and his work on Jelinek’s take on Walser.
Jelinek acknowledges at the end of her not all her: "most of this text, too, is from him".
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to see it as simply a Walser-collage, or some sort of portrait-in-his-own-words.
This is he not as he – and her not all her.
The choices Jelinek has made – what she has included, what she has omitted, what she has combined – are as revealing of her as of Walser.
And it is also a reflection of how she sees Walser’s own work – and, I imagine, the process of writing and artistic creation generally –, as she has her Walser acknowledge:
And the words that do come to me like foundlings are ones I found somewhere else.
They insisted they all went together.
The affinity between Jelinek and Walser might strike some as surprising – though again I would suggest this is in part because the image most have of Jelinek is an incomplete one.
In fact, she has long been fascinated by the man and his writing.
In a 2004 interview she describes him as a "pointillist author" whose entire universe was contained in each dot, and there is much of this kaleidoscopic approach in her own writing – and in this text.
But the kinship extends even further, as she also revealed in this interview that she has always surreptitiously slipped a sentence of Walser’s into each of her works.
So while her not all her is an explicit tribute to him, she has, in fact, always been paying tribute to Walser; he has always literally been part of her work.
The other aspect of Jelinek’s writing that has largely been overlooked in the United States is her performance texts, whose very nature seems to make it difficult for American audiences to know what to do with or make of them.
As I mentioned, Jelinek is a leading playwright in the German-speaking world.
Among many other honors, she has won the prestigious Mülheimer Dramatikerpreis for best play four times, including two of the last three years, and she was named playwright of the year by Theater heute in 2007 and 2009.
But her stage works are in a very different tradition than what is most commonly seen in the United States.
These are not the kind of works that make it to Broadway.
And, indeed, very few have appeared on American stages.
her not all her is, among other things, a work for theater – though I would stress that it is a text that is equally successful simply as a work of prose, to be read.
As a theater piece, it is certainly not of the kind most American audiences have been confronted with.
As is the case with most of her stage work, Jelinek leaves a great deal up to the director.
She refrains not only from offering stage directions, she avoids almost any sort of guidance.
This is a work that offers as a starting point nothing more than:
A number of people to each other, by all means kind-hearted (maybe lying in bathtubs, as used to be the custom in mental hospitals)
So, in this case, she does not even specify the number of actors involved.
(The rowohlt-Theaterverlag's acting edition of the text helpfully notes: "Besetzung variabel, mindestens 1 Darsteller" -- 'Cast variable, at least one performer'.)
Consisting of a dozen … let’s call them passages – monologues, arguably – there is no indication of even what should be a ‘role’ here.
The play was first performed at the Salzburg Festival in 1998, when Jelinek was Guest-Poet at the festival.
That production had a cast of six; two of the parts were listed in the program as "und" – "and".
Reportedly, too, the text was radically reshaped – and about half of it cut – which isn’t unusual for Jelinek’s performance texts.
Yes, this is not how Arthur Miller did it.
Or Samuel Beckett – a playwright whose estate generally insists that his plays be performed essentially to the letter, each and every stage direction precisely adhered to.
Jelinek, on the other hand, places a great deal of trust in those who stage her pieces.
She allows them more or less to make of her texts what they will.
These texts are not set in stone; they are malleable and adaptable; they invite interpretation and reinterpretation.
Indeed, the lack of practically any stage directions demands it.
Recall also how Jelinek described her writing as "musical or compositional work with the language"; the text shares some similarities with a score, the performance then shaped by the interpreters – the director and performers.
her not all her, in particular, is not a final text, but an intermediate one.
It is part of a continuum.
From Walser’s life and words to Jelinek’s recasting of these to, for example, the various performances of the piece.
It should also come as no surprise that a composer – Dieter Kaufmann – has written a musical piece – Fuge-Unfug-E – based on the text.
12 Variations for Trombone and Orchestra.
I’m not sure where the trombone came from, but the composition is a logical step in the transformations that Jelinek has set in motion. As is, of course, another form of adaptation: translation of the text into other languages.
er nicht als er has also been translated Czech, Danish, Dutch, French, and Spanish.
And Damion Searls’ text is another variation in this larger continuum.
There were quite a few very strong submissions to the Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize this year, but I have to admit that I am pleased that not only are we giving the prize to an excellent translation of an important work by a significant author, but that the work itself is one that is so focused on translation, in its broadest meaning – as Jelinek’s text is, after all, a very personal and subjective translation of Walser’s work – and that it constantly forces us, with its precise and carefully chosen expression, to consider questions of language, reading, interpretation, and translation.
"But what does language make happen ?" Jelinek asks in the text – and then shows us, through and with Walser, what it can – as then does Damion Searls in his translation.
It’s also a question all three take very seriously, I believe: as Jelinek’s Walser maintains: "Language is worth as little as life itself, for it is life itself."
In Damion Searls this text also found a translator well-equipped to deal with its complexities.
Translating Walser’s own work no doubt helped, but so has his broader experience in re-presenting texts.
Remarkably, he has translated works not only from German, but also French, Dutch, and Norwegian – and co-translated works from the Croatian.
This range – and the works themselves, from Rilke and Proust, to Stéphane Hessel’s recent bestselling polemic, Time for Outrage ! to works by Norwegian author Jon Fosse – like Jelinek, known both for his prose and works for theatre – surely served him well in capturing and conveying the two voices in her not all her – Walser’s original, and then Jelinek’s contemporary overlay.
Two of Damion Searls’ other works are also worth mentioning in this regard.
One is his one-volume abridgement of Thoreau’s Journal – reducing the 7000-page original into a 700-page version.
The other is Herman Melville's, ; or The Whale.
Here he came across an edited British version of Moby-Dick – which they actually called Moby-Dick in Half the Time – which was meant to sort of cut to the chase, as it were – offering readers only what they thought was the good stuff, and cutting out all of the fat, Melville’s digressions and the like.
Damion Searls’ version then was the inverse of that, including only those parts that had been cut from that version – which made for a fascinating illustration of what we consider significant in a text and why.
In her not all her Jelinek also relies to a great extent on another author’s own words, and I think Damion Searls own work in selecting – in very different ways – from the works of Thoreau and Melville helped him in understanding and reproducing what Jelinek had done so well.
I hope I have been able to convey why Damion Searls’ translation of Elfriede Jelinek’s her not all her is both a remarkable and important work – and clearly a worthy winner of the Austrian Cultural Forum Translation Prize. It is my great pleasure, on behalf of the jury, to congratulate Damion Searls.
- M.A.Orthofer, 9 January / 8 November 2012
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Her Not All Her:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek was born in 1946.
She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004.
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© 2012-2021 the complete review
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