The English-language title of Jelinek’s 1980 novel comes from the reminiscences of one of its characters, Herr Witkowski, a former SS officer in post-War Vienna. Unlike his ex-colleagues, who are thriving in late 1950s Austria, he is a powerless cripple, humiliatingly reduced to only abusing his wife and children (though, to his credit, he does this with invention and rigour). He isn’t a protagonist of the book however, because the future belongs to the young, in this case, four teenagers introduced and condemned in the novel’s first paragraph. We first encounter them in the middle of a violent assault on a stranger in the municipal park, an attack designed to outrage conventional, law-abiding society:
‘He is a victim … The victim is always better because he is innocent. At this time, of course, there are still a good many innocent perpetrators. With their wartime memories, their souvenirs, they stand gazing into the audience from windows bright with flowers, all friendliness, waving, or else they are in high office. With geraniums. Forgive and forget the whole lot, is what they say, so a completely new start can be made.’
The teenage gang have no respect for such innocence. Rainer and Anna Witkowski, consumed with superiority and self-loathing, rely on the money and violent release afforded by muggings to escape from their hideous poverty-stricken home. Providing the muscle is Hans, child of dedicated socialists, whose father died in Mauthausen concentration camp. Uninterested in his parents’ blood-soaked cause, Hans has aspirations to join the middle-classes and marry a millionaire. Completing the quartet is the beautiful Sophie, who has the opportunities, confidence, money and poise her comrades desperately seek. You would say she had no reason to join in the senseless attack, but then this would be an attempt to categorise and understand the world, aims which have no place in Jelinek’s Austria.
Like The Piano Teacher, ‘Wonderful Wonderful Times’ is a visceral, exhilaratingly accomplished novel. If the violent youth culture is reminiscent of Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ the book is, if anything, more horrifying through its historical specificity, with the pretentious protagonists seeing themselves as part of the European intellectual tradition. Rainer’s obsession with Camus and Sartre become starker in the novel’s original language title, Die Ausgesperrten, which (so Google informs me) translates as ‘The Barred’, a reference to the nihilism and absurdism of Camus’ L’etranger but updated for its precise post-Holocaust Viennese setting. Last week I raved about ‘The Radetzky March,’ a book that grappled superbly with national and personal tragedy. Half a century later, ‘Wonderful Wonderful Times’ also explores what it means to be Austrian – an enduringly daunting topic and tackled by Jelinek with at least equal aplomb.