First things first: Wonderful, Wonderful Times is a deeply unpleasant book. Elfriede Jelinek’s 1980 novel (translated from the German by Michael Hulse) is a tour through the various depravities of 1950s Vienna: unmotivated crime, unenthused sex, unrepentant Nazism, and so forth. I do the vast majority of my reading on the bus these days, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so self-conscious about reading a book in public. Granted, I do have something of a moralistic streak that’s been bubbling up on me of late, but Wonderful, Wonderful Times is so unrelenting in its grime that it borders on the lurid.
To take just one example: there’s a scene in which one of the main characters allows (encourages?) a man on the tram to grope her so that her friends can filch his wallet. That about sums up the book’s moral universe: even the victims are perpetrators, and vice versa.
Despite all that, despite one’s natural revulsion at the novel’s content, I find myself agreeing with Richard Eder’s assessment in the Los Angeles Times, in which he detects in Jelinek’s work “a hint of delicacy and lyricism” and “a measure of perverted innocence.” I attribute a fair amount of this effect to Jelinek’s narration, which blends every character’s dialogue and inner thoughts into a single voice that almost tears itself apart from its own incoherence, but it’s more an artful melange than a morass of text. It takes a few sections that get used to it, yes, but there’s something mesmerizing in watching it unfold speaker by speaker. But even more than the prose style, it’s Jelinek’s character crafting that gives the novel its odd beauty.
Wonderful, Wonderful Times tells the sordid stories of four young adults in post-WWII Austria. At the novel’s center are Rainer and Anna Witkowski, a pair of twins from a middle class family with ties to the Nazi power structure that their abusive father remains proud of. Rainer is self-styled poet who builds his life around the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, a young man who envisions himself as the leader of a revolution of thought as he paraphrases other people. Anna, by contrast, is a promising student and musician given to prolonged periods of absolute silence, when she’s not lashing out with absolute rage. Joining the Witkowski twins are Sophie Pachhofen, a rich athletic girl with tons of fight and nothing to actually fight for, and Hans Sepp, the son of a Communist activist who longs for Sophie’s sort of luxury. Together, these four have made it their job to terrorize the streets of Vienna, because what else is to be done?
The novel opens with the four in action, beating the living daylights out of a random passerby out for a late night stroll. The assault is already underway, which has given the narratorial voice enough time to start pontificating on the nature of violence. “Particular courage is required,” the voice informs us, “if you are to scratch a man’s face while he is looking full in your own (though he cannot see much since it is dark) or indeed try to scratch his eyes out. For the eyes are the mirror of the soul and ought to remain unscathed if possible. Otherwise people will suppose the soul is done for” (p. 7). The reader is forced to accept the nature of this novel from the first paragraph: its characters will aim for your eyes, will try to extinguish your soul and whatever hope you may have for it. In its sheer bluntness, the opening assault functions as an initiation rite, signalling what you’ve agreed to read.
For the first third of the novel, the prose and the luridness were enough to pull me along, past scenes where Herr Witkowski forces his wife to pose for pornographic photos and scenes where Anna initiates sex in a school bathroom with all the passion of ticket-taker. But while I had been initiated into the circle of these characters, I still felt like I was at more-than-arm’s distance from them. They were more intellectual constructs than people, more forms of pointless rebellion than rebels. The turning point for me happened at a different point of initiation, when Rainer decides it’s time to officially initiate Sophie into their little band of mischief. The four protagonists head out into the Vienna Woods to engage in some old-fashioned animal cruelty:
What distinguishes the group from other groups who are out and about dressed for a ramble is that they are not dressed for a ramble, but instead they are carrying a basket containing a sack tied shut. There’s an amount of scratching and whimpering going on inside the sack. This is because there is a cat in it. They caught the cat. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason is a character who wants to drown his cats, and so today they are planning to drown this cat too, though this cat also has a right to live. Rainer says that he himself has an equal right to non-existence, just as this cat does, the cat which he is going to assist on its way to non-existence before it can count to three. The cat has its suspicions. Hence the brouhaha in the sack.Wonderful, Wonderful Times, p. 88
Here is where I started to see that “perverted innocence” that Eder mentioned. Take out the part about trying to drown a cat, and what you’ve got is a scene about four young adults enjoying a nice day out in nature, looking to recreate something from a novel. They seem like overgrown children here, play-pretending with something that will, in fact, have consequences. More than anything, I’m reminded of Tom Sawyer’s role in the final chapters of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, cooking up an absurdly elaborate plan to rescue Jim from a shed inspired by all the adventure novels he’s read. Never mind that Jim is a human being and not an excuse for a quest; never mind that “this cat also has a right to live.” The perverted innocents will let nothing get in the way of their fun, for what is fun is serious business.
The cat-drowning attempt is also the point at which the romance elements of the novel begin to center themselves. Rainer is in love with the Sophie, Anna is in love with Hans, and because fate is cruel, this whole initiation is what drives Hans and Sophie into a romantic pairing. Throughout the scene, events highlight the divide between the Witkowskis and their friends. One example: whereas Sophie and Hans are at ease traipsing through the forest, Rainer and Anna “are not altogether in their element. Their lungs are rattling. They have none of that fitness and stamina” (p. 91). When the scene ends with Hans kissing a soaked and bleeding Sophie, the narrator bothers to point out the obvious: “This little scene leaves two people satisfied and two unsatisfied. It is always like that in life. Fifty-fifty. Which makes things fair” (p. 93).
The remainder of Wonderful, Wonderful Times, it often feels, tracks the fallout from this initiation scene, as Rainer and Anna struggle to win back the objects of their affection. What once appeared to be, to use the title of Eder’s review, a “cuckoo Clockwork Orange” turns into young adult novel. The characters’ concerns suddenly seem much more teenage: worrying about university, trying to escape parental influence, and of course how to resolve these overlapping love triangles. Several times, as some aspect of this heightened high school drama gave me pause, I had to remind myself of where this novel started, i.e., with our heroes engaged in a for-kicks beatdown.
Rather than lowering the stakes, though, the result is that Jelinek has a chance to give her characters greater depth, to turn grotesques into people. We see that Rainer’s penchant for philosophizing everything is a smokescreen for his cowardice and his self-doubt. We see that Hans, the one who has entered the working world, wants to define himself in opposition to his mother’s quixotic fight for social democracy is an increasingly consumerist Austria. Anna in particular comes alive in the homestretch, as she struggles with her personal demons and gets to experience one of the novel’s few moments of ecstasy before everything is taken away in an explosion of violence. There’s a possible world where she’s the relatable, troubled heroine of a contemporary young adult novel, and what I wouldn’t give to see what exactly that world looks like.
There’s a lot more in Wonderful, Wonderful Times that deserves scrutiny, particularly the character of Herr Witkowski and how he and what he represents factor into the moral rot that helped birth our protagonists. (Let’s just say that the line “After 1945 History decided to begin again from scratch and Innocence, after much hesitation, forced itself to take the same decision” [p. 94] is just dripping with evil.) But I think I’ll leave things there, and simply encourage you to seek this one out—at least those of you who can stomach this sort of novel.
Those are my thoughts, but what’s your take? Does a novel like Wonderful, Wonderful Times hold any appeal for you? Can you think of other works which explore this sort of “perverted innocence”? Let me know in the comments!
If you’d like to see what’s on the horizon for my Classics Club challenge, you can view the master list here. And if you’re interested in more general thoughts on the classics, I recently wrote about OCLC’s Library 100 list, which you can read here.
And, as always, thank you for reading!