a peer reviewed scholarly journal on literature and art in the German speaking countries after 1945
Glossen 21: Artikel
Gender, History and Memory in Marlene Streeruwitz's Recent Prose
In Marlene Streeruwitz's writings, gender, history and memory are central themes. Her investigations of historical renderings of literature and culture have contributed immensely to the representations of modern day Austrian memory. Streeruwitz's feminist approach to different forms of individual and cultural memory has opened a new way of looking at the Austrian past. Her recent novel Nachwelt (1999), her short story Norma Desmond (2000) and the novel Partygirl (2002) are among those that seek to address "official" Austrian versions of the country's cultural past vis-à-vis individual and fictionalized memories. This article examines different approaches that question concepts of gender, memory and history in Streeruwitz's prose writings, her lectures on poetics and in interviews. My analysis shows how the author challenges dominant discourses and attempts to support voices of marginalized groups.
Similar to the work of Elfriede Jelinek, and yet in many ways very different, Streeruwitz's oeuvre plays an important part in the process of creating a new tradition of refiguring the past through critical, feminist eyes of the generation of post-war writers. The gender(ed) perspectives of these two authors have contributed to Austrian cultural memory by investigating fairy tales, myths, news and the Western literary and musical canons by critiquing and transforming them. In Streeruwitz's Nachwelt, the plot is concerned with an investigation of memory as the protagonist traces the story of the Jewish exile artist Anna Mahler, the daughter of Gustav Mahler and Alma Mahler-Werfel, and in the meantime finds her own past reflected in what she discovers about her biographical subject. In Norma Desmond, the author creates a science fiction story with the aging actress Norma Desmond, a character taken from Billie Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, and Streeruwitz incorporates other stories of Western cultural heritage. The author uses the older, unsuccessful silent screen star to depict the almost invisible role of older women in Western society. Their role is to be forgotten but when they resist this role they can only become mentally deranged. In Partygirl, Streeruwitz uses literary characters taken from Edgar Allen Poe's story "The Fall of the House of Usher" and addresses Lady Usher's incestuous relationship with her brother Roderick, the circumstances of her early death, and the extinction of the Usher family in Poe's story. Here again, Streeruwitz rewrites stories from the past and challenges the theme of the female victim and the male victimizer in Western culture. In an interview about gender relations and her prose texts, Streeruwitz confirms her intention of focusing on the forgotten, secondary female characters in literary history. She remarks in an interview with Dagmar Lorenz and Helga Kraft about Partygirl: "Das Buch wird, was ich im Seminar [an der University of Illinois] gemacht habe: die Umarbeitung des Fall of the House of Usher in ein Theaterstück. Ich jedoch mache ein Prosastück daraus und schreibe Madeline's Story" (234). These re-writings and re-visions of previously existing texts are at the heart of Streeruwitz's endeavor to come to grips with reality and the power of Western culture and what Western civilization considers its cultural memory that is worth passing on to future generations.
Streeruwitz's lectures held at the universities of Tübingen and Frankfurt provide a good look at the theoretical framework for her feminist approach on gender roles in Western history and its cultural memory. Gendered memories, she argues, can help analyze cultural forms of representation, be it film, theater, fiction etc. by considering different ways of representing history. She writes in her Frankfurter Poetikvorlesungen:
Erst wenn von beiden Seiten [der männlichen und der weiblichen] der Aufbruch in ein Anderes gewagt wird, kann Freiheit von Unterdrückung und Unterdrücken beginnen. Wir wissen, daß die Unterdrückten mehr wissen als die Unterdrücker. Mehr wissen müssen. Aus diesem Grund wäre es notwendig zu beginnen, den Frauen zuzuhören. (26)
The oppression and discrimination can only be erased if both sides are willing to work on making change possible. Streeruwitz emphasizes that the repressed minorities still do not have a lobby or a platform from which they are being heard. Streeruwitz has repeatedly stated that post-colonial studies have shown that repressed minorities know more about their own world of repression and about the world of their oppressors than those who oppress them.
In Streeruwitz's works, gendered memories can be distinguished as the female characters -- women such as Anna Mahler and the narrator of her story, Margarethe Doblinger, as well as Norma Desmond and Madeline Ascher (Lady Usher)-partially function as mouthpieces for the author's feminist views. Interestingly, Streeruwitz (re)writes the lives of three women (two fictional and one historical character) in these novels as she has done before in Verführungen (1996) and Lisa's Liebe (1997), and most recently in Jessica, 30 (2004).
One of Streeruwitz's techniques to question official versions of cultural memory in Austria is her use of characters that reflect on the past and question stories of Austria's role in 20th century history. The characters' relationships to things Austrian are always ambivalent. Streeruwitz's critical view does not let her get away from Austria; most of her texts take place in or include characters from her home country. In Nachwelt and Frankfurter Poetikvorlesungen, for example, the author criticizes both Germany and Austria as fascist countries. Her frequent allusions to the Austrian capital Vienna and her hometown Baden offer pictures of a population that is stuck in small-town attitudes and gossip-ridden talk. In Frankfurter Poetikvorlesungen, Streeruwitz writes about Vienna by playing with the tourist slogan "Wien bleibt Wien." She describes women's lives that are 'catastrophic' if seen from a feminist viewpoint but that are officially not catastrophic because they are considered 'normal' lives in patriarchal society. The conservative Vienna -- a never-changing city and life-style -- has been created by the conservative government and its officials who support the traditional role that Vienna has played as a bustling place with music, ballet, opera and the famous Viennese balls.
Die katastrophalen Frauenleben, die nicht katastrophal sind, finden in Wien statt. In einem Wien, das Wien bleibt. Der Lederhoseneffekt zerschmettert jeden Versuch, gehört zu werden. Was aus Wien kommt, ist ohnehin alles Literatur. Und deshalb keine. Das Lipizzanersyndrom verkleinert alles zu einer entzückenden Miniatur. Liab sans. Die Weaner. Der Sachertortengau verdunkelt den Blick auf die Ergebnisse einer poetischen Analyse. Eingebettet in alle Vorurteile über Wien und dessen Geistesleben wird der Autorin [Streeruwitz] schon die Möglichkeit abgesprochen [gehört zu werden]. (29)
Streeruwitz combines the typical images that outsiders associate with Vienna such as the Lederhosen, Lipizzaner, and the Sachertorte. By adding "-effekt," "-syndrom," and "-gau" to them and combining this with "zerschmettern," "verkleinern," and "verdunkeln," she exaggerates the negative effect of the tourist attractions that symbolize Austrian national pride. With the dialect expression of "they are sweet, the Viennese" she ridicules the pretentious and uncritical view that Viennese often present of themselves and their apolitical cultural virtues and values.
Helga Schreckenberger offers an insightful analysis of Streeruwitz's earlier prose texts Verführungen and Lisa's Liebe and explores Streeruwitz's thematic and formal ways of depicting the banality of women's lives by describing in detail women's and mothers' everyday chores such as cleaning and taking care of children. "Marlene Streeruwitz [...] lenkt den Blick vor allem auf [...] die banalen, trivialen Tätigkeiten, aus denen sich Alltag zusammensetzt: Das Einkaufen, [...] das Bügeln, die Sorge um die Kinder" (138). These insights into Streeruwitz's strategy to uncover everyday myth and the power of gender-specific images also hold true for her more recent texts. Women in Streeruwitz's texts are often culturally programmed in such a way that they feel they have to serve the men around them. The women internalize the images of women and stereotypes that society offers them. Streeruwitz's women try to appeal through beauty and refer to women's magazines that tell them what exemplifies femininity in the current age. In Partygirl, this is emphasized in Madeline's interior monologues in which she is constantly concerned with women's outer appearance and how they are taught to negate their deepest wishes, for example, when she describes walking through the streets of Chicago in 2000: "Am American Girl's Place vorbei. Da, wo den kleinen Mädchen beigebracht wurde, daß alles rosarot sein sollte" (27). Madeline learns early on in 1973 that young women have no right to self-determination: "Sie wollten alle nur die Selbstaufgabe. Von blonden jungen Frauen wollten alle nur die Selbstaufgabe. Es wurde immer Selbstaufgabe vorausgesetzt" (240). Streeruwitz's character is called by her nickname: "Mad," short for Madeline, but also "mad" as in "crazy," alluding to the assumption about women's tendency to hysteria. At the end of the story, the reader is presented with scenes from Madeline's childhood: she had to take an oral exam and translate Latin sentences for the principal of the school. The sentence she had to translate is also the closing sentence of the novel Partygirl which underlines Streeruwitz's emphasis on gender-specific education: "Madeline las: 'Karl, der stärkste Schüler der Klasse, war mein Beschützer'" (416). The male principle functions here as the protector of girls and women, the one who is confident and in charge of any situation. Streeruwitz continues with her critical views of gender when she describes the protagonist's thoughts. Madeline compares her brother's and her own state of mind. While Rick is described as a sane, young man who laughs about everything, Madeline is torn with self-hatred and self-doubt:
Rick saß vor seinem Computer und lebte von Pizza und diet coke und sah immer gleich aus. Nich einmal seine Haare wurden grau. [...] Und Rick hatte auch keine Wut. Er hatte nicht diesen Zorn. Diesen Haß. Diesen unbändigen Haß. Der aufstieg. Von der Mitte her aufstieg und sich ausbreitete. Und dann den ganzen Körper füllte. Ausfüllte. Auffüllte. Bis der Haß sich selbst erstickte und sie wimmernd zurückblieb. Rick hatte keinen Haß. Keine Wut. Rick lachte über alles.(24)
Madeline struggles with an internalized self-hatred and offers the reader an image of her almost bursting ("füllen-ausfüllen-auffüllen") body that struggles to keep the anger under control. Another man eventually rapes Madeline and she cannot get away from the incestuous relationship with her brother. But unlike in Edgar Allen Poe's story the hero does not outlive his sister but Mad survives Rick in Streeruwitz's version.
The question arises in what way does Streeruwitz provide a different account of history or literary history for her readers? I argue that she writes women into existence in the process of re-membering and challenges traditional views of memory, gender, and history by offering new ways of explaining cultural values. In an article about the act of feminist rewriting of literature, Liedeke Plate explains how literature can function as cultural memory but also as cultural critique of that memory: "rewriting is the materialization of a desire for representation which, plumbing the texts of the past in pursuit of forgotten dimensions of experience, brings us back to the place of beginning to create an opportunity for untold selves to emerge" (74). Particularly women writers use stories to re-create cultural memories by giving them a gendered twist to point out differences in how men and women remember the (national) past. Plate refers to Adrienne Rich's famous lines on "writing as re-vision" of classical literature: "Re-Vision - the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction - is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival" (2045). In the interview with Norbert Jocks, Streeruwitz calls for an investigation of old stories and myths: "Diese Geschichten machen nichts anderes, als die Geschichte der Gewalt festzuschreiben. Insofern ist es naheliegend, die Mythen als Erklärungsmodelle für Vergangenes zu nehmen, aber nicht als Entwurfsmodelle" (71). Streeruwitz's goal is thus to explain the power relationships within these stories and the society in which they were written but she furthermore claims that power structures nowadays use old stories for their own interests: "Es zeigt sich, daß jedes Machtsystem sich die Mythologie so hin- und herbiegt, wie sie davon profitiert" (ibid. 71-72). The rewriting and retelling of stories, fairy tales, and myths by feminist authors is necessary for a society to realize that cultural products such as literature, both canonized and lesser known literature, should be read as representative products of the historical situation and the culture in which they were written. In addition, these rewritings point to the fact that these cultural products shape our way of thinking.
As Sigrid Berka correctly asserts in her article on Streeruwitz's plays, the playwright is in particular critical of what she calls "Austria's deep-rooted culture of hope" (231). Berka translates Streeruwitz's remark into English: "Because of a deeply anchored culture of hope, Austria is a model for a non-enlightened world. I put my strict speech constellations against the local state of mind" (232). Not only in her plays but also in her novels, Streeruwitz often deconstructs this utopian dream that enables some to avoid an open-minded coming to terms with Austria's political role during the Holocaust.
Streeruwitz's lectures on poetics are deeply influenced by postmodern theories and she has further demonstrated how her inquiry of texts extends beyond the content into discursive and grammatical principles. As is widely known in critics' circles, Streeruwitz's book titles and play titles almost always end with a period and her texts are filled with periods. Streeruwitz emphasizes in her Tübingen lectures on poetics Sein. Und Schein. Und Erscheinen.: "Ich habe durch die Notwendigkeit des Akts der Beschreibung eines Unsagbaren im Ausdruck zu Kunstmitteln wie Stille, Pause, dem Punkt als Würgemal und dem Zitat als Fluchtmittel gefunden, um damit dem Unsagbaren zur Erscheinung zu verhelfen" (48).
Before the publication of Jessica, 30 she hardly ever used semicolons, quotation, exclamation or question marks, and the sentences were rather short. The period, used as a "Würgemal," stands for the disruption of language, the shattering of what is not-but seems to be-a homogenous group of words that describes what has been considered true and just, concepts derived from ideas of the Enlightenment. Streeruwitz thus challenges ideas of a single, universal truth and questions traditional forms and rules of justice.
The characters in Streeruwitz's prose texts regularly refer back to the Shoa, the 1930s and early 1940s in Austria. She creates or writes about Jewish, 'half'- or 'quarter'-Jewish characters in Nachwelt and Partygirl and sometimes complicates these characters by selecting those who are hypocrites. For example, when she writes about the historical figures Berthold Auerbach in the Frankfurter Poetikvorlesungen or about Alma Mahler-Werfel, the Catholic who converted to Judaism and back to Catholicism, in Nachwelt and Madeline's father who committed suicide after he learned that he was of Jewish heritage in Partygirl. Similarly, in her lectures and in Nachwelt Streeruwitz recalls how she and the fictional character Margarethe had to watch documentaries about concentration camps as 6-year old girls and how this memory haunts her today. The author furthermore comments on the castration of Gypsies during the war. In Partygirl, Madeline remembers her family's history when she refers to her relative: "Die Hansi. Neu. Damals erst gekommen. Und immer geweint. Um ihren Hans. Der sich umgebracht hatte. Den hatten sie kastriert. Das hatten sie mit Männern gemacht. Wenn sie Zigeuner waren" (354). History and politics and their effects on families and individuals are always part of Streeruwitz's plots. In a discussion about the death of an African man in a Viennese hospital, Madeline's conversation partners doubt that the hospital staff displayed a lack of effort to revive the men. Madeline criticizes the man's ignorant attitude by replying: "Ja. Ja. Und das damals. Das haben auch nur die geglaubt, die es gewußt haben" (208). Madeline again refers to the Holocaust, the German and Austrian populations' support for Hitler and their conscious effort to deny knowledge of any brutality towards Jews and other minorities.
Streeruwitz frequently returns to Austrian literary history with allusions to Schnitzler's Fräulein Else and Leutnant Gustl, Hofmannsthal, Ingeborg Bachmann, the movies about the Austrian princess Sissi and suggests that the German and West European canons are conservative agglomerations of works. Her female characters are often professionally linked to male counterparts who work in the theater. These men usually follow the conventional path of offering well-known, traditional plays to the public. The author refers to Herder's works, Goethe's Faust, Shakespeare's plays Hamlet and King Lear as well as Maeterlinck's works and their outdated misogynist views. According to Streeruwitz, Beckett is one of the few authors who seemed to be able to offer something worthwhile and new to the stage in the 60s and 70s. But Streeruwitz goes even back further in literary history and analyzes the influences of myths in our culture such as that of the women characters Gretchen and Helena and their antiquated roles of feminine, passive beauty. Konstanze Fliedl comments on Streeruwitz's approach in her plays to deconstruct famous, passive women characters in literary history such as, for example, Melisande and Genofeva from Maurice Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Melisande (1892): "Der intrikate Doppeleffekt misogyner Diskurse besteht eben darin, dem 'Weib' Identität abzusprechen, bei gleichzeitig wuchernder Bilderproduktion. Streeruwitz' Texte führen vor, wie die Leerstelle des weiblichen Nicht-Ich mit den entsprechenden Weiblichkeitsikonen besetzt worden ist" (846-47). Streeruwitz uses many references to canonized texts in her plays and thus demonstrates how female characters in the patriarchal tradition often conceive of themselves or other women as their fiercest enemy because 'woman' has no independent, active role to play in a patriarchal world.
Moreover, Streeruwitz criticizes the institution theater in all her prose texts and regrets that old-fashioned dramaturges run these stages. She quotes statistics in her lectures noticing that dead authors wrote 95 % of currently staged plays. Hardly any plays by living playwrights are performed and even fewer by women playwrights. Streeruwitz opposes the Viennese Burgtheater because it does not represent any artistic challenges to the status quo but, according to the author, it rehashes established authors and plays without offering new views regarding Austrian cultural memory. In Norma Desmond, she even stages a scene within this science fiction story in a reservation where everybody is dressed in Renaissance clothes and a dramaturge called Claus Stein tries to entice Norma Desmond to play Margarethe's part in Faust for him. Here Streeruwitz alludes to the former Burgtheater director Claus Peymann and the Salzburger Festspiele director Peter Stein who staged a Faust marathon in 2000. By combining the first and last name of two prominent directors, she morphs them and thus downplays their achievements because they are trapped in the reservation world, an artificial and isolated place, and have not moved ahead to the science fiction world in which Norma lives.
According to Streeruwitz, literature is the cultural mold that holds and reflects memory, history, and concepts of gendered behavior as literature tells the story of the "imagined community" of Austria and its national past. Streeruwitz's criticism of much of Western literature is that it pretends to tell stories of lives that, according to her, cannot be written. In Nachwelt, an anti-biography or postmodern biography, and in interviews about biography, the author repeatedly questions the authenticity of biographies and whether traditional literature can describe lives as they were lived. She frequently voices her mistrust in reading and writing literature and asserts that literature frequently betrays the reader by offering 'realistic' images of the world that lack authenticity but provide a space for dreams that cannot come true. In Partygirl, the author suggests that a chronological biography of a person's life does not exist and negates the possibility that a life can be told forward (it has to be told backward) and turns the clock around. Streeruwitz reaches a similar conclusion as Søren Kierkegaard in his assertion that lives can only - if at all - be understood in retrospective when the narrator starts the story on a recent day in Madeline's life in Chicago and moves back through the decades and several countries where Madeline spent time till the story concludes with Madeline's childhood days in Baden.
In Streeruwitz's writings, some aspects are fundamental and recur throughout her texts: Austria's role in World War II; the persecution of Jews and Gypsies in Germany and Austria; the collective memory of the Austrian nation; the role of women and men and their gender-specific upbringing. Streeruwitz offers feminist investigations of classical texts and films and analyzes the memory of the Austrian nation by confronting it with the memories of individuals. She examines the cultural memory in Western civilization that has been created over centuries in works of art and literature by questioning the validity of that memory, particularly when the works are openly misogynist or otherwise biased renderings of the world. In her recent prose texts Nachwelt, Norma Desmond and Partygirl, Streeruwitz problematizes once more "official" versions of Austria's cultural past and that of a colonizing Western tradition.
1 In the science fiction story Norma Desmond, Streeruwitz enables Norma to undo her aging with anti-aging supplements that allow her to look young. The character reverts her age from that of a young woman to a teenage girl and lives several hundreds of years.