The novels of Elfreide Jelinek seem to me a conspicuous illustration of the limits of translation. Reviewers and critics favorable to her work tend to be familiar with it in its German versions, while those unfavorable tend to judge it based solely on the English translations available. While the former generally caution against forming conclusions about Jelinek's practices as a writer without considering the effect of her prose style as encountered in German, the latter generally ignore this advice, or at least proceed as if criticism of a writer known for having an unorthodox style and for creating special linguistic effects need not finally be constrained by these facts. Since I do not read German, I of course cannot myself attest to the specific qualities of Jelinek's prose that ought not be overlooked, but that is precisely the point: I feel that I must defer ultimate judgment of Jelinek's fiction because in a very real sense I cannot actually read it. I am left with those elements of her novels that I can discern and appraise, and to that extent I am much more well-disposed to them than her many detractors.
The most serious accusation made against her, at least for me, is that her work is a narrowly focused social critique of her native Austria, and a particularly "shrill" one at that. That her novels portray postwar Austria in an unflattering way can't be denied. To a degree it is indeed focused on specifically Austrian cultural failings--its attempt to whitewash its role in the Nazi era, its effort to crassly forge a national identity through emphasizing its tourist appeal and its musical heritage--but in other ways it isn't a "provincial" critique at all. The social and gender relations portrayed in Jelinek's novels are, or should be, perfectly recognizable to most Western readers. Coarse commercialism and patriarchal assumptions are hardly confined to Austria, and if the depiction of these forces in the novels is indeed unsparing, it's hard to argue it's inaccurate.
A closely-related complaint, or at least so it seems to me, is that Jelinek's fiction is short on "character." Joel Agee frets that "none of her specimens are alive. To be alive—or to seem so—a person must exhibit at least the appearance of autonomy, and none of Jelinek’s characters have enough consciousness to surprise themselves or the reader in the least." Of course, what we find in a Jelinek character is not "a person" to begin with. It is precisely a character, and providing a character with "consciousness" (or at least the illusion of such) is only one expedient with which a writer might proceed in creating a compelling work of fiction--and it remains just as much a piece of artifice as any other literary device. Jelinek herself comments on this in her essay/monologue "I Want to be Shallow":
I don't want theatre. Perhaps I just want to exhibit activities which one can perform as a presentation of something, but without any higher meaning. The actors should say something that nobody ever says, for this is not life. They should show work. They should say what's going on, but nobody should ever be able to say of them that something quite different is going on inside of them, something that one can read only indirectly on their faces or their bodies. . . .
Jelinek is here referring literally to theater, but it doesn't seem an inappropriate leap to conclude that she has a similar disinclination to dwell on what "is going on inside of" the characters in her fiction, apart from what can be included as "a presentation of something," a "presentation" rather than a "representation." Readers are of course free to prefer characters whose creators are attempting to represent the "higher meaning" of consciousness, but it isn't finally a valid criticism to dismiss a writer for not effectively carrying out an aesthetic strategy it is not her intention to use in the first place.
I'm pretty sure that what most readers would find most distinctive and ultimately memorable about Jelinek's novels (with the possible exception of The Piano Teacher, which arguably contains her most fully developed characters and is more conventionally narrated) is less their themes or their character creation but instead the unorthodox way in which the themes and characters are presented. That language itself will be perhaps the primary focus of interest in, say, Lust, is implicitly announced in its first few sentences: "Curtains veil the woman in her house from the rest. Who also have their homes. Their holes. The poor creatures. Their hideaways, abideaways, their fixed abodes. Where their friendly faces abide." The wordplay continues throughout the novel, most notably in the form of puns:
The banks offer shoulder bags in an attempt to win the custom of the very young. Even this riff-raff, the mere proteges of parents, want accounts of their own; there's no accounting for it. In a year or so the money will be looking good: it'll be a car, for death on the roads, or a furnished apartment, for death in your own four walls. Always assuming that--like the Direktor's son--you are a child under fourteen, guiltless, single, alive, but already singled out for a life among the clientele, the future consumer guild that will tax their hearts with the wish--consume their souls with the desire--to have some guilt-edged value added. . . .
Jelinek's narrator remains well outside her characters' "thoughts," at best externalizing them in her own declarations, otherwise observing, commenting, indulging in these linguistic games. To the extent a story and characters emerge from the narrator's discourse it is almost despite that discourse rather than because it is focused on telling a story. To me, the reward of reading Jelinek's fiction is in untangling the story from the circuitous narration, without severing the story from the free play of that narration.
And yet I still finally feel that I can't fully appreciate what Jelinek is trying to do with language and narration because I can't read her actual language, German. It is no slight to her translators to say the equivalents they have found to her punning and other linguistic twists may not be as satisfying, or as true to her talents, as what we would find in the German texts. This lack of true acquaintance with Jelinek's writing allows some critics to go on about her toneless social criticism or her purported "nihilism," but the genuine nature of her achievement ultimately eludes such assessments (as it does my own).