The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek


The Piano Teacher, Translator: Joachim Neugroschel, Serpent’s Tail Classics, Elfriede Jelinek copyright 1983

It’s been two days since I finished this book and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it. I certainly didn’t enjoy reading it but neither would I align myself with the member of the Nobel panel who resigned over its being the recipient of the prize and labelled it “whining, unenjoyable, public pornography.”

This is the most famous book by Austrian author Elfriede Jelenik and was first published in German in 1983. The story focuses on a thirty-eight year old piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory, Erika Kohut, who lives with her authoritarian and possessive mother. Veering from utter dependency to sporadic attempts of freedom at Turkish peep shows Erika’s daily routine is transformed when an egotistical and good looking student sets out to seduce her.

This is such a suffocating book. When I was halfway through I thought I absolutely can’t do this I can’t go on. But I’m glad I forced myself and took some time after to think about it.

The narrative is rather like being stuck in a room with someone droning a long boring story about people who display some of the worst traits of humanity and by that I mean small mindedness, selfishness, shallowness, pettiness. I originally picked this book up because I thought it focused on classical music but although it is about music it sucks all the life out of it. Although it is about obsessive love and sex it turns it into something foul and disgusting to read about. I don’t know why the offended Nobel panel member labelled it “pornography” since I don’t think anyone would read this to get pleasure out of it.

The first half of the story is like an endless tortuous wheel of; Erica stays out, her mother attacks her when she comes home for doing something without her, Erica hits back, her mother starts crying saying she’s old and she’ll die, Erica is overcome with guilt…and on and on. I got utterly exhausted just reading it. The insights into Erika’s childhood as she is raised to be a concert pianist are utterly horrifying:

The two venomous women, a pair of spiders, listen to their victim, whom they have sucked almost dry. In their dirndls with flowery aprons, they are more considerate of their clothes than of their prisoner’s feelings. They bask in their own hubris; How modest the child will remain, even though she’ll enjoy international fame and fortune. For now they are holding back the child and grandchild, keeping her away from the world, so that someday she won’t belong to Mama and Grandma anymore, she’ll belong to the whole world.

The autobiographical nature of the book explains why it is so uncomfortable and truthful to read. Jelinek uses the vessel of a novel to rage against the patriarchal Austrian society she grew up in through explicit descriptions of sado-masochism, voyeurism, obsession and violence against women. It is so claustrophobic I won’t read it again but I certainly won’t be able to forget it.