By Elfriede Jelinek.
Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel (from the 1983 German edition, Das Klaverspielerin).
280 pages
London: Serpent's Tale, 1989.
ISBN: 1-85242-157-6

Comments of Bob Corbett
May 2001

Thirty-eight year old Erika Kohut, piano teacher in a Vienna conservatory, is not her own person. She been shaped, even brutalized into a "safe" form for her domineering mother. "Mother wants to utilize the child's life herself." Mother wishes and imagines her daughter as a famous concert pianist, but it is quite clear that she's not headed in that direction. What is much less clear is whether this is because Erika doesn't have the talent, or whether she has purposely sabotaged her own career in order to spite Mother. However, she is not much of a rebel. Mother bullies and cajoles, screams, slaps, cries and professes love, and always gets her way. "Tonight, when they're watching TV, she'll give Erika the silent treatment. And if Mother does break the silence, she'll tell Erika that everything Mother does is motivated by Love. Mother will declare her love for Erika, which should excuse any possible mistakes that Mother might make."

However, we see small signs of trouble brewing in Mother's tightly knit world. First there is the ambiguity as to whether or not Erika did in fact throw away her chances to be a concert pianist just to hurt Mother. We do early on learn of slight moves of rebellion on Erika's part, such small things as spending money on clothes she'll never wear which Mother wants saved for a new apartment.

Soon Jelinek begins to reveal deeper and more threatening movements toward rebellion. Erika has dark sexual urges and in an especially grimy scene she goes to a Turkish peep show beneath a bridge in a sleazy part of Vienna to watch live sex shows where she is the only non-performing woman around. Later we follow her to hidden parts of town where she goes to watch brutalizing sadomasochistic movies and then into a dangerous world of spying on lovers in the late night and dark regions of the Prater where she almost gets caught.

For the first half of the novel Erika is successfully brow-beaten by Mother and only rebels by herself. However, from the beginnings of the story a 17 year old student, Walter Klemmer, has been falling in love/lust with Erika. He is a handsome, talented, popular and athletic boy. We are led to believe that some sort of affair may develop between student and teacher. However, we have been well-prepared that Erika's sexual desires might well lead this student flirtation into murkier waters. Nonetheless most readers will be rather startled at just how brutal Erika's dark physical sexual expression can get and how confused, angry and revengeful Klemmer can be.

Ultimately Mother loses her power and place, Erika sort of carries on in her darkness and Klemmer seems to go his own way, plunging back into the world of conquests among his student set.

The story is an important vehicle for Elfriede Jelinek's bitter pessimism. She seems to be an equal opportunity hater, despising Mothers who oppress, daughters who cave into such bullying control and little boys who internalize the male ideal of objectified love. Along the way virtually any other social custom or institution which intrudes is given a sharp slap in the face as well, especially the educational system.

This is the fourth novel of Elfriede Jelinek I have read in the past three years. It is reputed to be her best novel by most critics. I personally preferred Wonderful, Wonderful Times, which I found to be a more persuasive telling of her dreadful vision of the world. What I did find strangely odd was that it seemed that Wonderful, Wonderful Times should have been a later development of what Jelinek was doing in The Piano Teacher. Yet, given than Wonderful, Wonderful World was copywritten in 1980 and The Piano Teacher in 1983, it would seem that Piano Teacher was written AFTER Wonderful, Wonderful World. I found that curious on two grounds: first what seemed to be a definite development leading from the seemingly earlier to the seemingly later. The Piano Teacher pushes us to the edge of degradation and yet can't end it in total tragedy. Yet Wonderful, Wonderful World, seeming written earlier, is able to embrace the full catastrophe of Rainer's murders and suicide. Perhaps the answer is that Jelinek thinks living on in the world as Erika Kohut is a harsher ending than being murdered or committing suicide.

The second puzzle in this regard are the comparative characters of Rainer Maria Witkoswski of Wonderful, and Walter Klemmer of Piano Teacher. Both are self-centered and self-absorbed. Both are ruthless, cruel, carry illusions of great dreams and are driven by an image in a book (Rainer, Camus' The Stranger and Klemmer is enamored of Normal Mailer). Both are fascinated by violence. But certainly Klemmer is not quite the pathetic character that the ultimate loser, Rainer is. Klemmer is talented, handsome, popular and athletic, all things which Rainer is not. Again, I would have thought Rainer is the developed pessimistic character and Klemmer just the warm up. But, it seems not so.

I find my own fascination with the dark and nihilistic works of both Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard to be hard to understand. I just view the world so differently. Thus on this read I kept a careful eye out for just how it was that Jelinek so captivated me. The shock value of her story is a part. The dramatic challenge to my own view of the world is another. But what kept calling attention to itself is the utterly brilliant style which allows Jelinek to carry off her relentless negativity in a way that keeps me eagerly turning the pages. Some of the particular devices she uses are:

While all these things do suggest she makes her pessimistic case by exaggeration, nonetheless the individual characters live and are believable. The exaggeration is not such that no one could be the way she describes, just that as a universal picture of human kind the picture is exaggerated. The tactic may well be necessary to get us to consider the point she is making. She draws us to her pessimism and cynicism.

Despite my general attraction to Jelinek's writing, I wasn't as impressed with The Piano Teacher as I was with Wonderful, Wonderful World and I think this was because Wondeful… is carried forward by a story which flows more easily and because it is more relentlessly consistent with the tragedy being built in the plot. The Piano Teacher seems to have separate special scenes strung together in ways that gave the novel a rather disjointed form and ultimately, it didn't have the nerve to carry the coming tragedies to their fullest conclusion. On the other hand, one might well argue it is more tragic to have Erika and Mother live on than to die at Klemmer's hand as other's did at Rainer's.

Whatever the comparative value of the two novels might be, Elfriede Jelinek has the ability to make human love seem more hopeless and more disgusting than any other author I have ever read. I may be mesmerized by her writing and her characters, but I certainly work always to live in a much more hopeful and caring world than that which she pictures as rather typical of human kind.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett