Greed by Elfriede Jelinek

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Greed by Elfriede Jelinek

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Curd
Reviewed by Paul Curd
Summary: Greed is a kind of crime novel in that a number of crimes are committed, but it is really a book about the nature of men and women, written in difficult-to-follow, rambling prose. If you like complex, stream-of-consciousness literature, you’ll love this book.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846686665

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Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004, but I had never read her work before. One of her previous novels, The Piano Teacher, was apparently made into a film that won several prizes in Cannes in 2001, but I have never seen it. So I had little to prepare me for Greed, her latest work to be translated into English. But I did have some preparation: last year, as a bet, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses. There are many similarities. If you like complex, stream-of-consciousness literature, you’ll love this book.

Greed is a kind of modernist crime novel. A number of crimes are committed, probably (nothing in this novel is clear) by an ambitious, frustrated country policeman amid the mountains and small towns of southern Austria. We are told quite early on that the country policeman, Kurt Janisch is 'completely dominated by a kind of greed'. This greed, we discover, is for property; specifically, the property of lonely middle-aged women on whom he preys. And Janisch’s story is related by one of these women who decides on page 4: I’d better take over the telling of the story myself now. Don’t interrupt!

It is often quite difficult to understand exactly what is going on, but the gist of the story is that the country policeman uses his position of male authority to satisfy his greed. Meanwhile, a number of young women have gone missing, often tourists or hitchhikers or other vulnerable single women. It is not clear whether Janisch murdered them, although the implication is that he has. But his main preoccupation is acquiring property, something he does by seducing widows and other single older women. Women don't know how dangerous he really is, says the narrator. Then, at a key point in the book, it appears the country policeman murders the daughter of one of his victims (the murder itself is described in a typically complex and tangential way, until the narrator herself has to admit: Now I've lost the thread myself, the first set goes to you). Janisch dumps the victim's body in the lake, tidied up, wrapped up and removed from the earth and dispatched to the water.

One of the reasons I found Greed such a difficult read is the degree of authorial intrusion into the narrative. Pages and pages of diatribe against man-made pollution, modern Austria, banks and financial institutions and the ownership of property, God and religion, shallow women and despicable men. This really is a novel about the difference between men and women, in which men are painted as beasts ruled by their penises who are ruining the planet, and women are portrayed as pretty damned stupid for allowing it all to happen. Jelinek (or at least, her narrator) has a low opinion of humankind. It was for this reason, I suspect, that whenever I put the book down I often found it hard to pick up again.

The narrative is undoubtedly difficult to follow. The length of the very long and rambling, multi-clause sentences and complex paragraphs that run for pages without stopping for breath can be rather off-putting. For the reader, the best approach would appear to be to read Greed in the way I was advised to read Joyce’ Ulysses: that is, to not attempt to make sense of every word but to just 'go with the flow' and enjoy the ride. There is a story buried away in there somewhere, in the same way as the murder victims are hidden in the woods around the country policeman's village. And between the polemic there is quite a lot of pornographic sex. There is also a surprising amount of humour in this novel, too. When I did bring myself to return to the book after another much-needed break, I usually enjoyed reading it. But only for so long at a time.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For something equally modernist but somewhat more accessible, try Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad.

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