Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 5, 2010

The Piano Teacher, by Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Joachim Neugroschel

Elfriede Jelinek is an Austrian author who writes in German. According to Wikipedia, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004 for ‘for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power’.  The prize was not without controversy because of  her views about feminism and her political opinions, considered extreme.  She also offended the Academy for refusing to attend in person to collect the prize, but Wikipedia says this is because she suffers from anxiety disorders (which are none-too-subtly attributed to her mother and to her Catholic education).

I didn’t know any of this when I picked it up at the library; I borrow books like this when I see them to encourage my library to buy serious literature.  (Periodically it goes through phases of ‘dumbing down’ so the pressure needs to be sustained). So you can imagine my dismay when I looked her up online and found her work described as ‘whining, unenjoyable public pornography’   (Knut Ahnlund who in 2005 resigned from the Swedish Academy in protest) and on a bookseller’s blurb as a ‘haunting tale of morbid voyeurism and masochism’, albeit ‘one of the greatest contemporary European novels’.   Intrigued, I then checked it out on GoodReads where most reviewers rated it highly…and then stopped messing about and started reading it to find out for myself.

It’s a wild ride.  It reminds me of the frantic prose in Rosa Cappiello’s Oh Lucky Country, and Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fe because it depicts extreme behaviour.  The turbulent piling on of images is like The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead.

The Piano Teacher begins like this:

The piano teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother.  Mama liked 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. Her mother is old enough to be her grandmother.  The baby was born after long and difficult years of marriage.  Her father promptly left, her father exited.  Eventually Erika learned to move swiftly.  She had to. Now she bursts into the apartment like a swarm of autumn leaves, hoping to get to her room without being seen.  But her mother looms before her, confronts her.  She puts Erika against the wall, under interrogation – inquisitor and executioner in one…

Erika is a teacher of piano at the Vienna Conservatory but to say that she leads a double life is an understatement.  This bizarre relationship with her mother dominates her life.  It provokes Erika to violence, fighting back against Mama’s obsessive control by tearing out clumps of her mother’s hair and attacking other commuters on the trolley car with her musical instruments.

The hawk mother and buzzard grandmother are likened to spiders as they weave a web of constriction around Erika in her adolescence.  Their hatred of men and boys is visceral and so when in her thirties Erika becomes interested in one of her music students, Walter Klemmer, her love/hatred of her mother becomes even more self-destructive.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Erika began self-harming as an adolescent; she fantasizes about being taken by some ‘splendid big bad wolf’  but repels men with her body language.  ‘She has closed everything about her that could be opened. (p44-5)  Yet by night she is a voyeur of Viennese porn shows in a seedy neighborhood, somehow concealing this from her mother who is waiting up for her at home. (Her mother is highly skilled at detecting any breaches of her control: every dress Erika buys provokes such a scene that her wardrobe is full of clothes unworn.   Mama escorts Erika miles out their way home to avoid dress shops so that her demand for Erika to save for a condominium can be met).

The irony is that in the age of feminism, it is a woman who is behaving like a patriarch:

The ‘life of her own’ which the daughter longs for, will culminate in a zenith of total obedience, until a tiny, narrow alley opens up, with just enough room for one person to be waved through.  The policeman signals: All clear.  Smooth, carefully polished walls right and left, high walls with no apertures or corridors, no niches or hollows, only this one narrow alley, through which she must squeeze in order to reach the other end.  Somewhere, she doesn’t know where, a winter landscape is waiting, stretching far into the distance, a landscape with no path, with no castle to offer refuge.  (p104)

A Mama who ‘knows best because she never stops being a mother’ has never been so perfectly wrought.  Jelinek sees everything in terms of power relations:

Mother doesn’t sense that her child is yanking at her fetters, because she won’t see or sense the child yanking at her fetters for another half an hour.  Erika and Klemmer are busy trying to fathom who loves whom more and is therefore the weaker. (p206)

The scene in which Klemmer finds out what Erika means by this is beyond strange and definitely repellent.  The denouement more so.

There’s a sarcastic omniscient narrator who is privy to Mama’s rages as well as Erika’s scorn and Walter’s fantasy of subjugating his teacher so there is a constant roller-coaster ride of passion, fury and disgust but there’s also a strong sense of loss, of lives wasted as they are in Auto-da-Fe and The Man Who Loved Children.   I can see why many readers would turn away in distaste, (especially when my favourite music is used as a weapon by Erika and Walter) but I can also see why the Nobel jury was impressed.

I couldn’t read this at night: it’s one of those books that triggered responses that I had to blog about as I read it and that’s no good for bedtime reading.  (I read The Boys from Bondi by Alan Collins instead; a great memoir of Depression era Sydney and I’ll be blogging that soon).

For an academic perspective, see Vienna Roast, by Marjorie Perloff.

Update, 17.11.12

From reading an interesting review and the ensuing discussion over at A Fiction Habit I realised that there was something I had missed entirely when I wrote the review above.  It’s the significance of the title:

I’ve just read Murray Bail’s new novel, The Voyage, about an Australian inventor of a new piano mechanism who goes to Vienna the city of music to try to market his piano, but they are too conservative to countenance it.  (That summary is too banal, don’t be misled, it’s a brilliant book and exquisitely clever as all Murray Bail’s books are.  Read my review to see what I mean).

Anyway, now I recognise the resonances in Jelenik’s title: Erika is a piano teacher in Vienna, the city of music.  This is why music is used as a weapon, because (if you accept Bail’s suggestion that Vienna is wedded to its C19th musical traditions and hasn’t/won’t move on into the 21st century) music – and the piano in particular –  represents the way Jelenik’s society is hidebound by tradition and has to maintain its elegant Viennese waltzes and the Mozartmania to keep its identity (and the tourist dollars).  They don’t want anyone remembering that Vienna nurtured Hitler and enthusiastically supported his regime and ambitions!

So, the ‘respectable’ piano teacher, in the sort of job that respectable women can have in a respectable society, feels the frustration of living in a city that stagnates in the prestige of its 19th century cultural achievements.  The cultural past is a fortress which repels any change – which for Erika/Jelenik, includes feminism.  But Erika seeks out and easily finds the underbelly of that society, the discordant notes that shatter the harmonies of the waltzes and the sonata principle which underlies the careful structure of a symphony…

Author: Elfriede Jelinek
Title: The Piano Teacher
Translator: Joachim Neugroschel
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail, London, 1999
ISBN: 9781852427504
Source: Kingston Library



Responses

  1. Oh, Vienna… I wonder if there is Austrian writer out there who writes about happy people who have a wonderful life…

    …if there is, I bet they had a messed-up childhood ;)

    • I’ve never read anything else from Austria, from my travels there I associate it more with music than with literature, and I see it as a place with an over-commitment to tradition, a view reinforced by Murray Bail’s wonderful new novel: an Australian inventor goes to Vienna sell his new design for a piano and comes up against an unwillingness to try anything new.

      • No, definitely literature :) Schnitzler, Roth, Musil, Bernhard… and (of course) Mr. Freud himself!

        • Freud wrote novels???

  2. Lisa, a great review, it captures the turbulent nature of this book. I’m finding it quite disturbing and a little difficult to follow at times. I have about 80pgs to go, then will digest and write my thoughts. Need something a bit lighter next!

    • Thank you! I know exactly what you mean about wanting something lighter afterwards too!

  3. Great Novel and well after read your review i am gonna read this book..
    :-D

  4. Thanks for directing me to this review. I was really interested in the comparisons you made – I’ve very recently re-read ‘Auto-de-fé’ and I get what you say about the frenetic and hysterical prose feeling similar. ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ is very high on my wish list for next year and the fact that you compare it to ‘The Piano Teacher’ is extremely intriguing :-)

    • Have you reviewed Auto-da-fe on your blog? I don’t know of many reviews for that one, and, well, it’s the sort of book that’s so rich and complex, every review adds something new to an understanding of the book:)

      • I’m afraid I haven’t reviewed it – I mostly only review books which are new to me. I recently re-read it for a bookclub though and it may end up getting a post in the new year because I find it fascinating!
        To make sure Canetti gets a mention in 2016, I will definitely be reviewing his memoir ‘The Tongue Set Free’ as my non-fiction read for December.

        • I’ve never read any of his NF so I’ll look forward to that…


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