Words That Sing

Ella Fox-Martens reviews Elfriede Jelinek's Rein Gold, translated from German by Gitta Honegger and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions on January 13th.

Words That Sing

By any standards, Wagner’s Ring Cycle is a colossal endeavor for an opera company; four full nights of performance, totaling approximately 15 hours of stage time. It’s immense and complex – the music is richly textured and layered with leitmotifs and dissonance – and as the work goes on, it becomes steadily denser. The story – that of a magic ring that allows the bearer to rule the world while simultaneously nullifying the power of a woman’s love, and the god Wotan’s schemes to take control of it – has historically been regarded as a socialist critique of industrialist society. The first of these cycles — Das Rheingold — is entirely without an interval. It is this work that Elfriede Jelinek’s novel Rein Gold (translated wonderfully by Gitta Honegger) is fittingly named for, given the unbroken and complex nature of the monologues that structure it. Jelinek takes the events of Wagner’s opera and translates them into the modern day, opening with Brunhild, Wotan’s daughter, chiding her father, lamenting him as a victim of capitalism as he falls into debt over his desire to build a castle (Valhalla), and is left “unable to pay the credit.” Jelinek, in a breathless 186 pages, extends her critique of capitalism into the present day, touching on Marx, the 2008 financial crisis and the NSU murders in the process. It is a sweeping and thorough exploration into greed, corruption and ideology, and the results of Jelinek’s investigation are laid out bluntly: “even God is a slave to money.”

Rein Gold was originally written for the Berlin State Opera in 2014, as a buhnenessay — what Jelinek has herself suggested to translate to ‘stage essay.’ In true Berlin style, it had its three-hour premiere at the Staatsoper, soundtracked to electronic music (one reviewer remarked wryly that “older audience members began to exit the opera house in droves”). The original theatrical intention of the work is impossible to ignore. In truth, Rein Gold reads much more like a script than a novel, which is unsurprising, given the work’s origin and Jelinek’s history as a playwright. Its stream of consciousness dialogue is conversational in tone, repeating phrases and words like “the value is eternal” (in a nod to Wagner’s leitmotifs), playing with rhythm and repetition that comes to sound beautifully musical, fulfilling Jelinek’s reputation for masterful melody and what the Nobel Prize Society described as “linguistic zeal.”

The content of Rein Gold, too, will be familiar to anyone who has read Jelinek’s work before. She has continually, through her acclaimed body of work, addressed the commodification of relationships and personhood under capitalism, and the subsequent subjugation of women and their bodies. Wotan’s bleak attitude – “love is a fallacy...it will consume itself” – is countered by his daughter’s earnest pleas, and her dependence on “a hero” to save them. But there is no hero (Wagner’s Ring Cycle ends with Brunhild’s suicide) and Wotan sinks further into greed and emotional apathy as Rein Gold wears on. The discussion also returns repeatedly to issues surrounding Germany’s history of genocide, industralism and contemporary events like the murders perpertrated by the neo-Nazi group NSU in the mid-2000s. “Everyone will want to have Germany,” Wotan remarks, urging the country to wake itself, “but Deutschland will want to have and hold onto herself.” Later, as Brunhild prepares to fling herself onto the pyre, Wotan notes that from the fire “these words emerge: Made in Germany!”

Even after Wotan has lost his daughter, he is still “tempted” by “imperial pomp....goods...God, yes, gold.” Here, the novel’s ironic title becomes particularly apt; by removing the ‘h’ from Rheingold, the translation becomes “pure gold.” In the opera, Brunhild’s suicide breaks the cycle, bringing an end to the suffering and a return to love, but here, Jelinek provides a darker outlook. There is a sense that Germany – and the world – will never escape money and its commodification, because it is “eternal,” the only thing that is truly immortal. But as Wotan stares at the flames of Brunhild’s final sacrifice, he is curious “to see what becomes of it…[this] totally different thing.” The suggestion of change is not particularly hopeful, and carries with it a note of uncertainty. What is next? What will rise from the ashes? These are timely, sharp questions, and there are no sure answers.

Jelinek’s prose and arguments are undoubtedly masterful; she is, despite the never-ending controversy around her boundary-breaking work, rightfully regarded as one of the greatest living authors writing in German. Honegger’s translation is vivid and equally as skilled, but the fact remains that with no paragraph breaks or real chapter divisions, Rein Gold can be overwhelming — especially when paired with sections like the discussion of anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and his central “property is theft” manifesto. As I struggled through the pages, I thought about the question of readability. Perhaps, as a modern audience, we have grown accustomed to ease as it manifests in literature, with sparse prose and ever-shrinking word counts, and are thus unwilling to work for meaning. Rein Gold is not a comfortable read, but really, given the subject matter, should it be? Wagner is not especially comfortable to sit through either, but you don’t go to see his Ring Cycle for a light, airy performance. You go to see and hear a work of genius. Important literature is rarely easily digestible.

Yet as with any script, or any work originally intended for a visual and aural medium, you wonder what little things you are missing – the musical nuances that you can’t pick up on the page. Reading Rein Gold is wonderful, but I couldn’t help but feel that if I were sitting in the Staatstoper in 2014, listening to the blaring techno soundtrack as indignant traditional opera goers exited in a huff, Rein Gold would reveal itself more wholly. In the end, what I really wanted was to experience the music, with its contradictions, chromaticism and phrases; to hear the words singing.

Ella Fox-Martens

is a Canadian-born, Australian/South African-raised essayist and poet. She has been published in Observer, Meanjin, The Rumpus, Westerly, Cordite Poetry Review and others. She lives in London.

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