Michael Tanner

Slanging match: rein GOLD, by Elfriede Jelinek, reviewed

Wotan and Brünnhilde quarrel interminably in this tedious retelling of an episode from Wagner’s Ring

Elfriede Jelinek. Credit: Getty Images

I’ve tried hard to think of someone I dislike enough to recommend this novel* to, but have failed. Elfriede Jelinek is Austria’s leading contemporary literary figure, and to open rein GOLD at random is to get the impression that she is the successor to Thomas Bernhard — page after page without a single paragraph indentation, a general ranting tone, maddening repetitiveness, and cult status. Just in case Jelinek’s is an unfamiliar name: she is an extremely neurotic person, a sufferer from many phobias — unable to travel to collect her Nobel Prize; a copious writer, many of her books having been translated into English among other languages; and, most significantly, one of those authors whose favourite idiom is humourless parody.

The title rein GOLD is of course a parody of Das Rheingold, the first part of Richard Wagner’s cycle of music dramas. The book was apparently originally written as a libretto for the Berlin State Opera, though it must have undergone drastic revision. In the novel, the two chief characters from Wagner’s Ring, the god Wotan and his favourite daughter the Valkyrie Brünnhilde, engage in enormous recriminatory dialogues, each of which is between 30 and 40 pages long, so couldn’t possibly be set to music. Wagner’s characters’ famous monologues are in fact quite short, and packed with indispensable information and feeling. On YouTube you will find short pieces from what I take to be rehearsals of rein GOLD, with Siegfried’s funeral music and other excerpts shriekingly delivered, but they are too brief to give any impression of what the whole work would have sounded like. It can’t have provided any experience remotely like that of reading the novel.

Nonetheless, any reader of rein GOLD must be intimately familiar with the Ring if he or she is to understand the point of much that the two characters (both of them apparently tireless listeners as well as talkers) say.

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