the piano teacher
By Elfriede Jelinek
Translated by Joachim Neugroschel
(Serpent's Tail, 280 pages, $14)
Say what one will about the Nobel Committee's politics, the world's most enigmatic literary prize is also one of its more powerful, and in the past five years it has used this muscle to lift writers out of obscurity. In 2000, they hoisted dissident Chinese playwright Gao Xingjian onto the world stage; in 2003, it was Hungarian Imre Kertész standing on their dais.
Although critics might argue that the selection of Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek is yet another politically driven choice, a read through her masterwork in fiction, 1989's The Piano Teacher, will convince you otherwise. This is a brave, bold, savage writer, and The Piano Teacher whorls like a tempest in prose. Imagine Tropic of Cancer written from a woman's point of view, and you can begin to grasp the rawness of emotion on display here.
The piano teacher of the book's title is Erica Kohut, a frustrated pianist who lives with her mother in the center of Vienna in the early 1980s. By day she treks to the Vienna Conservatory to spend the remaining tallow of her talent on students. By night, she wanders home lonely, hungry and furtively sexual.
Jelinek narrates Erica's story in a close third-person voice, shifting from one scene to the next in a kind of dreamy haze. In one moment we slog through the drudgery of her present tense life; the next finds us back in Erica's past. Sometimes Jelinek keeps us at an arm's length from Erica's thoughts; other scenes bob in the wake of her consciousness for pages at a time.
The result of this watery flux is that reading Jelinek's prose can feel like having your head forcefully dunked underwater and then held there. Although she does not eschew paragraph breaks quite so fervently as her late countryman Thomas Bernhard, there is a similar feeling of claustrophobia and airlessness. We come up gasping for air in the same way that Erica runs gasping from her staid life to peep shows.
Like other novels about obsessive behavior, The Piano Teacher presents a character whose internal life is in such turmoil that rupture--of any kind--becomes a kind of release. And so the moment Erica arrives home she strips down, spreads her legs and cuts her genitals with a razor. When she encounters a man who craves her sexually, it's only a matter of time before she asks to have this treatment imposed upon her.
As the novel escalates into Erica's love affair with a student, it evolves out of experimental territory into downright shocking stuff, even in an age when porn stars have gone mainstream. Erica is beaten and spanked, asks to be gagged with a rubber hose and, in one culminating scene, is degraded before her mother "like a piece of athletic gear."
What is so powerful about The Piano Teacher is that these scenes do not serve to titillate or needle our prudishness; instead, they reveal a state of mind so used to subjugation that it yearns to make the abuse real, manifest. And Jelinek is such a grindingly persuasive writer that by the end of this exhausting novel, we've been to this harrowing place and back with her.
Other titles by Jelinek available in English include Lust, Wonderful, Wonderful Times and Women As Lovers. There are also plays published in various anthologies.