Dark and Disturbing: ‘The Piano Teacher’ by Elfriede Jelinek (1983)

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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!)

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I missed German Lit month last year what with all the Russians I was reading then.  I’m so pleased to be able to join now, and with such a great book!

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This entry was posted in Elfreide Jelinek, Nobel Prize for Literature, Reading in translation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Dark and Disturbing: ‘The Piano Teacher’ by Elfriede Jelinek (1983)

  1. mouse says:

    I haven’t read it (as usual) but this was made into a film I want to see… but now I definitely want to read it first, based on your description!

  2. Izzy says:

    I wonder if the film in question is “la pianiste”, by Peter Hanecke, with Isabelle Hupert in the title role ? I haven’t seen it either but this review makes me want to read the book first !

    • Yes, and it’s a photo from the film on the cover of my paperback edition. I can’t compare the two yet, but if the film’s anywhere near as powerful as the book watching it will be quite an experience.

  3. pigeonel15 says:

    I’ve seen the film, which is slightly different. The focus becomes a female student and the relationship between the two, rather the pianos teacher’s cruel domination, which left me something to think about, even now. Disturbing realism — is that a potential gendre? Definitely packed with psychological insight!

    • Interesting – I wonder how that affects the important but very complex gender politics of the novel. I was really interested in the way Erica is a victim as well as a dominator in her different relationships … it’s absolutely a book that leave you with lots and lots to think about!

  4. I’m totally sold – this sounds incredible! I saw the film years ago so hopefully I’ll approach the novel with fresh eyes.

    • It was one of those times when a book sits on the ‘to be reviewed pile’ for a while so when I get round to writing about it I start to wonder if it is as good as I first thought. Then I re-read a few pages and realise it’s even better!

  5. Stefanie says:

    I’ve been meaning to read Jelinek for ages but have yet to manage it. I’ve meant to watch the film of this book too but haven;t managed that either. Sigh. I think I would rather read the book. maybe I will manage it in the coming months.

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