Literary Corner Cafe

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Book Review - Nobel Winning Authors - The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

Although it was first published in 1986, I read The Piano Teacher in 2004, after author Elfriede Jelinek’s Nobel Prize win. I was still living in Switzerland part of the time, and I bought the book there and read it in German, since I was still concerned with keeping my German fluent. It wasn’t until very recently that I read the English translation. This really isn’t a book to read twice – it’s too dark – but a group of friends were discussing it, and they were discussing the English translation. I felt I needed to read that, too, in order to really participate in the discussion. And, in the seven years since I’d read the book, I’d forgotten some of the details.

The Piano Teacher is harrowing and intense, and it explores a side of life and sexuality that is so dark, most people will, I think, find it a little disturbing or off-putting. This is a book that repulses, while at the same time pulls you deeper and deeper into its dark and tormented heart.

The Piano Teacher centers around Professor Erika Kohut, a brilliant pianist and distinguished Schubert scholar at the Vienna Conservatory. Erika is a fortyish, repressed spinster type who still lives at home with her elderly mother. (Her father went mad and died in an asylum.) Despite Erika’s intelligence and talent, she’s never developed a life of her own, and she hides a dark and disturbing secret: Erika Kohut revels in sado-masochism and self-mutilation. Though legally sane, Erika knows she’s only one step away from madness, and she relishes that one step, wanting to experience it over and over and over again, if for no other reason that to prove to herself that she is still in control. This love of the thin line that separates the sane from the mad is, I think, the key to understanding Erika and the dark forces that drive her.

At the Conservatory, Erika rules her students with an iron hand. Instead of encouraging them, even the ones who show great promise, Erika belittles them, instead, and tells them they’ll never be real pianists. She also seems bored with her duties, and one gets the distinct impression that she considers her mediocre students beneath her and feels threatened by the ones who are truly brilliant. This is a teacher who could never win a popularity contest, and her harsh and demanding ways, of course, really don’t bring out the best in her pupils. Clearly, Erika relishes the sadistic control she exercises over her students.

We get some glimpse into why Erika feels she must be so controlling and disciplined at the Conservatory when we see her interact with her mother, a domineering woman who is something of a sadist herself, a woman who feels she must be Erika’s “inquisitor and executioner all at once.” Erika’s mother gave up much in her life to encourage her daughter’s musical talent and now she expects to be repaid. She expects Erika to hand over, not only her paycheck, but her soul as well. And while Erika and her mother trade slaps and punches, they also trade kisses of an erotic nature, and night after night, they share the same bed.

Most women of forty would simply leave and pursue a life of their own, but Erika is far too damaged and tormented for that. She finds some solace in voyeurism and in the sleazy video booths that show very badly made pornographic films. “Mother,” of course, knows nothing about Erika’s more kinky side. She lives under the illusion that her daughter is a fine, upstanding member of Viennese society and that her dignity and scholarship would never come into question.

Enter Walter Klemmer, a handsome, young engineer with a talent for, what else? The piano. And whose music? Schubert’s, of course. Over her protestations, Klemmer eventually becomes one of Erika’s pupils, and he proves to be something of a prodigy himself. He shines, and he also falls in love with Erika, despite the twenty-year gap in their ages. When the two embark on an affair, it’s an affair totally dictated by Erika. They engage in sexual relations, but only in the manner in which Erika wants to engage in them. And there is nothing “loving” about the love Erika and Walter make. It’s perverse, and it’s twisted, for Erika insists on, not the open and giving nature of true love, but the role of a victim, one who’s beaten, one who’s defiled, one who’s tormented. If Erika’s piano lessons are exercises in sadism, her lovemaking is an exercise in masochism.

What makes this book a masterpiece, and it is a masterpiece, despite its extraordinarily disturbing qualities, is the relationship between Erika and Walter. Although Walter tells Erika, “You repulse me,” and “You should know what you can and can’t do to a man. The playing field must be level,” he nevertheless finds himself more and more attracted to her because she is, quite simply, awakening his own repressed sado-masochistic tendencies and desires.

Whenever two people become involved – as lovers, as friends, as student and teacher, as doctor and patient – there is some struggle for power, no matter how subtle. One person always emerges emotionally dominant, though not, perhaps stronger. This simply can’t be helped since people are not, as Walter would like, equals. Trouble comes when one is very much stronger than the other or when the “game” they’re playing is one fraught with danger. Erika and Walter prove to be more equal than Erika might have liked or was prepared for, and much to Walter’s dismay, he proves to be as apt a pupil in the bedroom as he is in the music room. He differs from Erika in one respect, however – he doesn’t know when to stop. He doesn’t have Erika’s control.

I think most readers will initially feel some sympathy for Erika, though she’s not at all likable. She didn’t, after all, grow up with the best of parents or in a family that could, by any stretch of the imagination, be called “nurturing.” As the book continues, however, it becomes more and more difficult to feel any sympathy for Walter, primarily because he refuses to share in the blame for the monster he becomes. As he tells Erika:

You have to admit it. You’re partly responsible. You can’t delve around inside people and then reject them.

No, you can’t, or at least you shouldn’t, but Walter’s ultimate revenge is too violent, too much of a betrayal for him not to shoulder some of the blame himself. Had he only admitted that he liked what Erika was awakening in him, maybe I could have understood him, but his refusal to accept any culpability at all makes him the “bad guy” of this book, no matter how charming and “normal” he seemed initially, and no matter how easy and convenient it would be to shift all the blame to Erika or her mother. And they, of course, are not blameless.

The second half of this book, which revolves around Walter and Erika’s affair, was, for me, more disturbing than the scenes of self-mutilation that came before. Many readers, I think, will be disturbed by the explicit descriptions of the tormented sexual encounters, some so much so, that they won’t want to finish the book. This isn’t, however, a book about sex. It’s a book about control and domination, about how control kills, maims, and eventually destroys beyond redemption. And shockingly, to the readers who are also music lovers, and I am one, (well, I have to qualify that, I love classical and baroque music), this is a fascinating exploration of the link between music and madness. Even though, as music lovers, we might like to deny this link, in our heart of hearts, we know it exists. The greatest musicians were obsessed, and anyone who’s studied music seriously knows the commitment to rigorous discipline that must be made. Even Schubert, the musical genius Erika and Walter both revere, died a madman, something Erika never tires of telling Walter. This isn’t to say that all musicians are madmen, only that the potential for madness exists in a higher degree than it does in most “ordinary” persons.

And, although this book may seem to present very explicit depictions of domination and control, the dynamics between Erika and her mother, Erika and her students, and Erika and Walter are really quite subtle. All of us know that our deepest passions, and I don’t mean just sexual passions, if wholly aroused, might very well spin out of control, and this both attracts and repulses some of us. Most of us, luckily, never have to grapple with the question of whether or not we could control ourselves at our most base. Erika is, admittedly, an extreme case, but still, she touches a chord within us.

The Piano Teacher is an extraordinarily bleak book, and its characters are people who have traveled far beyond the point of redemption. Yet they remain so very human, and that, I think, is what is so disturbing about this book. The fact that something and someone so bizarre and so violent could also be so overwhelmingly human comes as a bit of a surprise. At times I felt totally repulsed by the book, but I understood why, and I was able to look at it objectively and realize that it is truly a masterpiece of the interactions of people who teeter on the very brink of madness.

Like it or hate it, and I really think most readers are going to hate the book, it certainly isn’t forgettable, and I have to applaud its author for not shying away from uncomfortable subject matter. I know some readers will certainly be put off by the explicit descriptions of sado-masochistic sex between Erika and Walter, but had Jelinek failed to describe those scenes, we would have never known how far both Erika and Walter allowed their basest instincts to emerge. I’m definitely not a fan of books with explicit sexual descriptions. I think when sex is involved, it’s best to leave the details up to the imagination of the reader, but in all fairness to Jelinek, her readers would have never conjured up what she delivers. In order to fully understand the very damaged Erika and the dark forces she unleashes in Walter, one simply has to know the details, like it or not.

After reading this book in both the original German and in English, I have to say I think the English translation, by Joachim Neugroschel is excellent. The sentences seemed clipped and terse in English, but the book had that feel in the original German as well. Much of the book reads like the example below, which is taken from its beginning:

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. Her mother is old enough to be her grandmother. The baby was born after long and difficult years of marriage. Her father promptly left, passing the torch to his daughter. Erika entered, her father exited. Eventually, Erika learned how to move swiftly. She had to.

If you like to read Freud or Jung, especially Freud, and you want to explore the darkest, most dangerous recesses of the human psyche, then you will probably find The Piano Teacher to be a masterpiece, much as I did. (Though I admit, I do not read Freud or Jung, and I’m not terribly interested in psychology. I am, however, interested in human beings.) However, this is not a book for the faint of heart or those who like to live under the delusion that the world has been spun from pink cotton candy. If you want to stay away from darkness, from torment, from violence and despair, even in your reading material, then you probably wouldn’t like this book. And though you may admire the author’s extraordinary talent, this book elicits shock, horror, revulsion, and ultimately, fear. As Jelinek shows so clearly, the line that separates the sane from the insane is a very thin one, and as one approaches it, one hears, not the sweet music of Schubert, but a very discordant melody, instead.


Recommended: To readers who are interested in the psychology of madness. The book is extremely dark, and some readers might find the scenes of violence and aberration disturbing. This is a book for people who loved D.M. Thomas’ The White Hotel.

Note: Elfriede Jelinek won the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature. This is the only work of hers I've read, and I honestly don't think most persons would include her on a list of the "world's best" authors. The Nobel Prize, as we all know, has a definite political component, and this book was cited by the Nobel committee as expressing "the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power." Sadly, I don't know a lot about Austria and its literary traditions, though I spent a lot of time there when I lived in Switzerland. I do know the Swiss always said Austria was "very old fashioned." I just know Austria has wonderful pastries. :)


Irma said...

What a review! Excellent, really.Now I can see this book more clearly.
I read this book a few years ago and was very suprised I liked it. I usually do not like books like this - with a lot of violence, sado-masochistic sex and so on. There are really so many other things making this book a masterpiece.
And the Austrians... I think they are a bit introverted and sometimes they look quite different than they really are. This may surprise you.And their pastries are delicious, I agree.:-)
Thank you for this review.

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Dustin S said...

Oh, wow. What a shockingly good review. I scrolled down first and though oh my goodness, this is a long post - but upon reading the first paragraph, I had to go to the second. Then on and on - Almost as if the sadomasochism inside ME was getting turned on by it ;)

I wonder, does music drive one mad or do the mad relish in music?

As for me, playing the aggressive pieces of the piano like Mazeppa for instance, elicits a raw need to destroy, to hammer, to let my anger into the keys. I know exactly what it feels like to 'make love to the piano' and I admittedly have had crushes on most of my female students - not at all times acting on them of course - but it's still a total pleasure to teach teenage girls - I do develop an attraction to them at some level - but would never act on it for sake of staying professional and of course prison time.

It's amazing what teaching piano can do to open up the emotional and physical attraction you feel for a student. Perhaps it's just me as a young 24 year old male, but I would be willing to bet it happens to more than just me.

I loved the review and it really got me thinking of myself and how my relationships with my teachers and my students have developed.

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