The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (translated by Joachim Neugroschel)
The piano teacher, Erika Kohut, has given her life to Art, to music, to her instrument. SHE is special and different and above everyone else who will never understand Art the way SHE does.
The piano teacher is growing older without ever having lived, but SHE is proud of this. SHE is proud of having kept herself apart. Because SHE is unlike anyone else who has ever lived. Her mother has told her so since the day SHE was born.
The piano teacher will one day be a grand piano star—only needing to devote more time to her Art and be less frivolous with money. Care less about material things or her appearance. Attracting a man will ruin everything.
But the piano teacher has a turbid inner life. The piano teacher has long repressed longings. SHE, ever the commander, yearns to be commanded. An extraordinary sort of ruler SHE would gladly obey.
Mother Kohut has made sure the most important person in her life—in the universe—her daughter knows what’s important. She keeps her most precious possession on a tight lead indeed. If she is late, Mother rings the Conservatory where the woman works. Sometimes she rings simply because she feels like it.
Mother wants to know her only child’s every step and thought and …not desire. Her child doesn’t have desires, Mother has made sure of that from a very young age. Keeping her inside practising piano and violin when the other children were running and playing outdoors, honing their bodies. But what did a one-day world famous pianist need with fresh air? She only needed her hands to work properly.
And once the child had grown into an adult they would share a bed so Mother could be sure her finest work wasn’t focusing on the flesh. Only on Art. Always on Art. And certainly not on that new student Walter Klemmer. What an impudent young man. Men were only trouble.
Walter Klemmer knows who he is and what he is about. Young—his life ahead of him, he wants experience. All sorts. He knows that he’s more intelligent than his, quite intelligent indeed, piano teacher (though she’s more than a decade his senior). And once the decision has been taken that he’s in love with her. Well, emotional love can have only one result, no?
Yes, Walter Klemmer will show this woman the way. This closed woman. He will save her from herself. He will open up the world of fleshly desires to her and then drop her, because what else would he do? He is here for experiences. He has his life before him! He is athletic and his athleticism lets him know he’s alive!
Walter Klemmer knows who he is and what he is about and when humans do not react the way he expects he becomes something else entirely.
The Piano Teacher was originally published in 1983 in German. It was adapted into a film in 2001. The film stays quite true to the book so there are no big surprises, plot-wise. The novel is third person omniscient, though, so we get to know the thoughts of Erika, her mother and Walter Klemmer, whereas, in the film, the viewer is with Erika. As they should be, it’s called The Piano Teacher not The Piano Teacher, Her Mother and the Deluded Misogynist.
Knowing the other characters’ motivations and thoughts puts a different light on things. And, for me, it cleared up a question I had about the end. We also see more of Erika’s upbringing, a sort of explanation of how she became the person she is and how she’s also always had certain inclinations.
I’ll be writing another post about similarities and differences later, though, as this is a review of the novel.
Jelinek’s use of language is poetic even when she’s talking about acts that are quite far from poetry. She also captures ambiguity of feeling very well.
It’s one of those books where you wouldn’t want to share oxygen with even one of the characters, but they’re interesting to read about.
I would recommend this both to people who’ve seen the film and to people who haven’t. If you haven’t seen the adaptation, read the book first (always my recommendation). It will spoil the plot, but will explain a great deal.
The Piano Teacher is a must for any sadomasochistic bookshelf. 5/5