Gisela Elsner

Biography

Gisela Elsner was born in 1937 in Nuremberg into a wealthy family. Her father was a member of the executive board of Siemens, and Elsner was chauffeured to the convent school she attended. Before finishing school she left her family home to live with Klaus Roehler, who was later to become an author and editor, and whose bohemian student lifestyle seemed to offer Elsner the freedom missing in her bourgeois family. Her parents were strictly opposed to the relationship and even turned to the police in order to end it. The correspondence between Elsner and Röhler documenting the struggle with her family was edited and published as Wespen im Schnee (2002). Around this time, in 1955, Klaus Röhler made his début at a meeting of the Gruppe 47 and, one year later, Elsner and Roehler published Triboll (1956), a collection of surrealist prose miniatures. After finishing school, Elsner studied German Literature, Philosophy and Theatre studies in Vienna for two years. During this time she continued living with Röhler, whom she married in 1958. When she gave birth to their son, Oskar, she left university without a degree.

The relationship did not last and, in 1962 after Elsner had left her husband and their three year-old son, the marriage ended in divorce. In the same year she read an extract from the novel she was working on at one of the Gruppe 47 meetings. The piece received very mixed praise, but attracted the attention of the copy-editor of the renowned Rowohlt publishing house where it appeared as Die Riesenzwerge. Ein Beitrag in 1964. The grotesque novel is an enquiry into the life of the lower middle-classes in post-war Germany as viewed through the eyes of a child. With uncanny precision little Lothar Leinlein registers the brutality lurking behind the façade of conventionalism and petty bourgeois decorum, exposing the world and everyday routines of the adults surrounding him as full of monstrosities. At the time it was  published the novel created a stir in the media and was even classified as harmful to minors in Austria. Yet it was received favourably by literary critics, translated into twelve languages and Elsner was awarded the prestigious prix Formentor for it. Even if Die Riesenzwerge in many respects set the tone for much of Elsner's later writing, it remained her only critical and commercial success.

In the following decades she published various novels which, in characteristically complicated and over-long sentences, dealt with the collective amnesia of West-German society with regard to the Nazi past and the terrors of family life. Although a critical examination of gender relations is a recurring theme in her novels, in particular in her modern-day Madame Bovary adaptation Abseits (1982) and the 1984 novel Die Zähmung, Elsner gained no popularity among the emerging German women's movement, arguably due to the fact that contemporary ‘Frauenliteratur’ consisted mostly of heartfelt confessional literature while Elsner's highly artificial language rendered an identificatory reading impossible. In addition, her texts put an emphasis on women's complicity in their own oppression, a notion which was at odds with the predominantly radical feminist theory which informed much of the German women's movement of the time.

Another theme to be found in many of Elsner's writings is that of class relations. From the 1960s on, Elsner had attended the meetings of the Dortmunder Gruppe 61, a group of writers who sought to engage with industrial production in a different way than the Bitterfelder Weg had in the GDR. Elsner herself publicly voiced her sympathies for the GDR in several interviews and joined the West-German Communist Party (DKP) in 1972, but she never subscribed to the aesthetics of socialist realism in her writing. Much like her female characters, the blue- and white-collar workers appearing in texts like Das Windei (1987) and Otto der Großaktionär (published posthumously in 2008) are mere negative mirror-images of their oppressors and provide no positive role model. In the late 1980s her publishing house cancelled her contract because her works were no longer commercially viable. Elsner was not able to attract the interest of a new publisher, leaving her feeling artistically isolated and powerless. Moreover, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the GDR, Elsner lost her hope of a social alternative to capitalism. She committed suicide in 1992.

While Elsner has often been termed 'Jelinek's older sister' for her merciless satirical style and choice of subjects, there is very little research on her works. In 2000, Oskar Roehler, Elsner's son, directed a film, Die Unberührbare, based on his mother's last years. Although the film was a success, it did not heighten interest in Elsner's writing. Only recently, Verbrecher Verlag, a small publishing house in Berlin, has begun re-editing Elsner's writing, among them works which have never before been published.

Compiled by Anja Henebury (Leeds)

Bibliography

Fiction

Triboll: Lebenslauf eines erstaunlichen Mannes, with Klaus Roehler [short-stories] (Olten: Walter-Verlag, 1956)

Die Riesenzwerge: Ein Beitrag [novel] (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1964)

Der Nachwuchs [novel] (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1968)

Das Berührungsverbot (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1970; Berlin: Verbrecher, 2006)

Herr Leiselheimer und weitere Versuche, die Wirklichkeit zu bewältigen [short-stories] (Munich: Bertelsmann, 1973)

Der Punktsieg [novel] (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1977)

Die Zerreißprobe  [short-stories] (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1980)

Abseits [novel] (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1982)

Die Zähmung: Chronik einer Ehe [novel] (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1984/Berlin: Verbrecher, 2002)

Das Windei [novel] (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt,1987)

Friedenssaison, with music by Christof Herzog [opera] (Hamburg: Poststskriptum, 1988)

Fliegeralarm [novel] (Vienna: Zsolnay, 1989/Berlin: Verbrecher, 2009)

Heilig Blut [novel] (Berlin: Verbrecher, 2007)

Otto, der Grossaktionär [novel] (Berlin: Verbrecher, 2008)

Versuche, die Wirklichkeit zu bewältigen: Gesammelte Erzählungen I, ed. by Christine Künzel [short-stories] (Berlin: Verbrecher, 2013)

Zerreißproben - Gesammelte Erzählungen 2, ed. by Christine Künzel [short-stories] (Berlin: Verbrecher, 2013)

Non-Fiction

Gefahrensphären [essays] (Vienna: Zsolnay, 1988)

Wespen im Schnee: 99 Briefe und ein Tagebuch [letters between Elsner and Klaus Roehler] (Berlin: Aufbau 2001)

Flüche einer Verfluchten - Kritische Schriften I, ed. by Christine Künzel [essays] (Berlin: Verbrecher 2011)

Im literarischen Ghetto - Kritische Schriften II, ed. by Christine Künzel [essays] (Berlin: Verbrecher 2011)

English Translations

The Giant Dwarfs: A Contribution [Translation of Die Riesenzwerge: Ein Beitrag by Joel Carmichael] (New York: Grove Press, 1965)

Offside [Translation of Abseits by Anthea Bell] (London: Virago, 1985)

‘The Engagement’ [Translation of ‘Die Verlobung’ from Die Zerreißprobe (pp. 143-66) by Minetta Altgelt Goyne] in Contemporary German Stories: Peter Handke, Friederike Mayröcker, Uwe Timm, and Others, ed. by A. Leslie Wilson (New York: Continuum, 1998, pp. 72-86)

 

Criticism

Jeremiah, Emily: Troubling Maternity: Mothering, Agency, and Ethics in Women's Writing in German of the 1970s and 1980s (Leeds: MHRA, 2003)

Künzel, Christine: ‘Make-up als Mimikry: Die Gesichter der Autorin Gisela Elsner (1937-1992)’ in Gesichter auftragen: Argumente zum Schminken, ed. by Christian Janecke (Marburg: Jonas, 2006, pp. 155-173)

—: ‘Eine “schreibende Kleopatra”: Autorschaft und Maskerade bei Gisela Elsner’ in Autorinszenierungen: Autorschaft und literarisches Werk im Kontext der Medien, ed. by Christine Künzel and Jörg Schönert (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007, pp. 177-190)

: ‘Leben und Sterben in der “Wirtschaftswunder-Plunderwelt”: Wirtschafts- und Kapitalismuskritik bei Gisela Elsner’ in ‘Denn wovon lebt der Mensch?’: Literatur und Wirtschaft, ed. by Dirk Hempel and Christine Künzel (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2009, pp. 169-192)

— [ed.]: Die letzte Kommunistin: Texte zu Gisela Elsner (Hamburg: Konkret, 2009)

—: ‘Satire und Groteske als Mittel der Dekonstruktion (klein-)bürgerlicher Rituale und Mythen: Gisela Elsner’ in Brüche und Umbrüche: Frauen, Literatur und soziale Bewegungen, ed. by Margrid Bircken, Marianne Lüdecke and Helmut Peitsch (Potsdam: Universitätsverlag Potsdam, 2010, pp. 403-425)

—: ‘The Most Dangerous Presumption: Women Authors and the Problems of Writing Satire’ (Gender Forum 35, 2011) available online at http://www.genderforum.org/issues/gender-and-humour-ii/the-most-dangerous-presumption/

—: ‘Ich bin eine schmutzige Satirikerin’: Zum Werk Gisela Elsners (1937-1992) (Sulzbach: Helmer, 2012)

—: ‘Der Fluch der Herkunft: Gisela Elsners Versuche, sich mit der Arbeitswelt auseinanderzusetzen’ in Schreibarbeiten an den Rändern der Literatur: Die Dortmunder Gruppe 61, ed. by Ute Gerhard and Hanneliese Palm (Essen: Klartext, 2012, pp. 159-172)

Mindt, Carsten: Verfremdung des Vertrauten: zur literarischen Ethnografie der "Bundesdeutschen" im Werk Gisela Elsners (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2009)

Smith-Prei, Carrie: ‪‘Satirizing the Private as Political: 1968 and Postmillennial Family Narratives’ (Women in German Yearbook 25, 2009, pp. 76-99)

—: Revolting Families: ‪Toxic Intimacy, Private Politics, and Literary Realisms in the German Sixties (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013)

Lorenz, Dagmar C. G.: ‘Humor bei zeitgenössischen Autorinnen’ (The Germanic Review 62.1, 1987, pp. 28-36)

Opitz-Wiemers, Carola: ‘“Vom Heulen der Wölfe und des Windes”: Gisela Elsners postum erschienener Roman Heilig Blut’ in Zwischen Globalisierungen und Regionalisierungen: Zur Darstellung von Zeitgeschichte in deutschsprachiger Gegenwartsliteratur, vol 5, ed. by Martin Hellström and Edgar Platen (Munich: Iudicium [Perspektiven: Nordeuropäische Studien zur Deutschsprachigen Literatur und Kultur 4], 2008, pp. 166-176)

Weder, Christine: ‘“Im Reich von “König Sex”: Vom Zwang zur Freiheit in Theorie und Literatur um 1968’ in Bann der Gewalt: Studien zur Literatur- und Wissensgeschichte, ed. by Maximilian Bergengruen and Roland Borgards (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2009, pp. 543-582)

 

Interviews

‘Es ist nicht meine Absicht, zu schockieren!’ [radio interview, 19 September 1971], reprinted in the brochure for the film Die Unberührbare, available online at http://cplush.de/cplush_2/Scrapbook_Seite_21_files/Die_Unberuehrbare.pdf

‘Vereinfacher haben es nicht leicht: Ein Gespräch mit der Autorin der Romane “Riesenzwerge” und “Punktsieg”', reprinted in Im literarischen Ghetto: kritische Schriften, ed. by Christine Künzel (Berlin: Verbrecher, 2011, pp. 33-40)

Altenburg, Matthias: ‘“Schreibprobleme müssen vom Autor gelöst, aber nicht beschrieben warden”: Gespräch mit Gisela Elsner’ in Fremde Mütter, fremde Väter, fremdes Land, ed. by Matthias Altenburg (Hamburg: Konkret, 1985, pp. 134-151)

Ekkerhart, Rudolph: ‘Gisela Elsner’ in Protokoll zur Person: Autoren über sich und ihr Werk (Munich: List, 1971, pp. 45-58)

Hoffmeister, Donna L.: ‘Gespräch mit Gisela Elsner’ in Vertrauter Alltag, gemischte Gefühle: Gespräche mit Schriftstellern über Arbeit in der Literatur, ed. by Donna L. Hoffmeister (Bonn: Bouvier [Abhandlungen zur Kunst-, Musik- und Literaturwissenschaft 382], 1989, pp. 103-119)

Serke, Jürgen: Frauen schreiben: ein neues Kapitel deutschsprachiger Literatur (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, 1979)

Starkmann, Alfred: ‘Keine Zeit für Sympathie: Neue Definition des Riesenzwergs – Ein Gespräch mit Gisela Elsner’ (Die Welt, 9 September 1965)