It’s very hard to know where to start with reviewing Jelinek’s ‘The Piano Teacher’; it’s one of those short books that contains such explosive force that once the book has been opened and read it seems impossible to pack the subsequent barrage of impressions into anything resembling a coherent blog post.
As a testament to Jelinek’s craft, I feel my overwhelmed response to the innocuous-looking 280 page paperback is challenging yet perfectly appropriate. After all, the main character is severely repressed while simultaneously brimming with nearly uncontrollable passions. The book begins as: ‘The piano teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother. Mama likes calling Erika her little whirlwind, for the child can be an absolute speed-demon. She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties.’ Erika and her mother live together in a claustrophobic nest of superiority and obsession. The focus of the obsession is Erika herself and her music and her genius. ‘Erika gets to the heart of artistic and individual considerations: She could never submit to a man after submitting to her mother for so many years. Mother is against Erika’s marrying later on, because ‘my daughter could never fit in or submit anywhere.’ That’s the way she is. She’s no sapling anymore. She’s unyielding. So she shouldn’t marry. If neither spouse can yield, then a marriage is doomed. Just be yourself, Mother tells Erika. After all, Mother made Erika what she is.’
Submission and domination don’t just play a role in this tight, demented family unit, but throughout the Vienna that Erika traverses on her brief forays away from work and home. Erika has her own games at domination, with her terrified students, the harried commuters she slyly bashes with her musical instruments and on her regular visits to porn shows. We see the bitter satisfaction she reaps from such encounters, but as the book progresses this precarious balance of power starts to collapse.
An outsider male, one of Erika’s students, is determined to use Erika as his own fantasy romance. He’s excited by the thrill of seducing his teacher and becoming a mature lover through the experience. It’s a fairly bourgeois young-man’s narrative and for a nanosecond the reader is tempted to think it might work, after all Erika herself could gain independence from Mother and even some potential normalcy from the relationship.
And then you realise it’s just not that kind of book. Erika’s sexuality has been far too battered to allow her to play the ‘older woman’ from another novel. When given the opportunity to act out her fantasies with a partner, we are shown a far deeper layer of damage in Erika, in her student, and in society at large.
‘The Piano Teacher’ is a breathtaking novel. It is shocking and horrifying, but also blackly comic and bitingly insightful. One of the most powerful books I’ve read this year (and also probably the book I’m most concerned about recommending to my mother!)