The Piano Teacher – Elfriede Jelinek (trans. Joachim Neugroschel)

I really don’t know where to start with this book, it has exhausted me and rendered me somewhat speechless.  Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek is one of those writers few have heard of, yet she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004 for her “musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.”

This story is so physical it is tiring to read and really quite disturbing in places.  Erika Kohut, the eponymous musician, teaches at the Vienna Conservertoire by day.  She is in her late 30’s, socially repressed, icy and a failed concert pianist.  During her lessons she enforces the rigours of classical musical technique, extolling the virtues of Schubert, Brahms and Beethoven to her slovenly and bored pupils.   By night she trawls the seedier side of Viennese peep shows and triple X cinemas, spies on couples having sex in parks, indulges in violent sexual fantasy and self harms to a distressing extent.  What makes this side of Erika all the more disturbing is the dispassionate way she goes about the darker part of her life.

The story is told by an unnamed narrator.  It is told as an onlooker, reporting the facts in a detached manner.  This stream of consciousness narrative style makes Erika come across as icier than we know, and sometimes makes the narration seem a little naive and childlike.  This is quite interesting because despite Erika’s age, she still lives at home and her mother treats her like an infant.  Their relationship is strange and claustrophobic to say the least.  It is Love/hate in the truest sense of the saying; Erika runs to her mother when things go wrong, yet on a couple of occasions they get into cat fights, scratch and tear each others hair, a punishment for the sorts of misdemeanors a teenager would get into trouble for.

When Erika becomes involved with a student 10 years her junior, her behaviour spirals out of control, sinking her ever deeper into depravity and towards self-destruction.  It can’t possibly end well, but slightly irritatingly the book comes to a sudden halt leaving everything unresolved.

I found this a really tough book to read.  It does say some interesting things about socially acceptable norms, gender stereotypes and the objectification of women but the oddness of the narrative style, the disturbing self harm and the sadomasochistic obsessions make for difficult reading.  But Erika is a lonely woman, trying to find herself and part of me felt sorry for her, I wanted her to find help – but how predictable and dull would that be?

I read this book as part of German Lit Month

Thank you to An Englishman in Berlin for suggesting this book.

24 thoughts on “The Piano Teacher – Elfriede Jelinek (trans. Joachim Neugroschel)”

  1. fascinating review. This is one of my very favourite books, and one of the few that has remained in my top 10 since I first read it, as I remember not long after Jelinek won the Booker. It’s probably worth outlining briefly what I loved so much. First is the language – this is one of teh very few cases where I’ve found a very stylised narrator works consistently over a novel’s length (other than Kundera, the other that springs to mind is Marie Darrieussecq in Breathing Underwater/Mal de Mer). There is a relentlessness to it that drives the narrative on, that builds in layers in the reader’s mind, drilling itself inside you until you have no choice but to share Erika’s pain. The setting is also perfect – the claustrophobia of the flat is wonderfully conveyed (the relentless pounding of the language again working to create a throbbing in the reader’s temples that truly conveys its prison-like nature – rather like Polanski’s Repulsion on the page), but Vienna by night is truly remarkable and you’re right, the icy, dispassionate way she haunts its streets sucking what cold light she can from the neon and video is what really makes it – this is Harry Lime cranked up to eleven. The portrayal of sex as a numbing mechanism (an unsuccessful one) is equally icily handled and incisive.

    The portrayal of mutually parasitic relationships is quite brilliant. I can see exactly what the Nobel committee meant. Jelinek’s language gives voice to each character’s pain, each winding itself around the other voices in an attempt to assert itself by smothering the validity of every other pain. This is a battle of egos fought through physical anguish and psychological manipulation that spills readily, almost clumsily into physical violence – these are characters for whom any division of mind and body, inner and outer life have long since eroded so that self-loathing oozes ad flows freely inside and between the characters.

    Tony, do give it a try, and blame me if you don’t like it!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment Dan – I read a lot of your comments on the Guardian books blog, so I’m chuffed you have graced my humble blog with your thoughts! Your enthusiasm for The Piano Teacher comes through in what you’ve written. I think the memory of this book will stay with me for some time too, but I can’t say I would rank it amongst my favourites! Relentless is an apt description; I did feel the pain and claustrophobia, but I was quite disturbed by the whole experience which is probably why I won’t forget it. I do appreciate the writing and what must have gone into creating this work for it to have such an emotional affect on the reader. I’m glad I’ve read it and have enjoyed discussing it in the comments.

    2. Something I missed entirely when I wrote my review ( was the significance of the title. I’ve just read Murray Bail’s new novel, The Voyage, about an Australian inventor of a new piano mechanism who goes to Vienna the *city of music* to try to market his piano, but they are too conservative to countenance it. (That summary is too banal, don’t be misled, it’s a brilliant book and exquisitely clever as all Murray Bail’s books are).
      Anyway, now I recognise the resonances in Jelenik’s title: Erika is a *piano teacher* in Vienna, the *city of music*. This is why *music* is used as a weapon, because (if you accept Bail’s suggestion that Vienna is wedded to its C19th musical traditions and hasn’t/won’t move on into the 21st century) music – and the piano in particular – represents the way Jelenik’s society is hidebound by tradition and has to maintain its elegant Viennese waltzes and the Mozartmania to keep its identity (and the tourist dollars). They don’t want anyone remembering that Vienna nurtured Hitler and enthusiastically supported his regime and ambitions!
      So, the ‘respectable’ piano teacher, in the sort of job that respectable women can have in a respectable society, feels the frustration of living in a city that stagnates in the prestige of its 19th century cultural achievements. The cultural past is a fortress which repels any change – which for Erika/Jelenik, includes feminism. But Erika seeks out and easily finds the underbelly of that society, the discordant notes that shatter the harmonies of the waltzes and the sonata principle which underlies the careful structure of a symphony.

  2. Interesting review! I saw the movie version of this book a few years back but haven’t read the book. Sorry to know that you found the book tough to read. I liked what notesfromberlin said about Elfriede Jelinek – that after winning the Nobel prize she started publishing her books free on her blog. She seems to be an interesting person and I would love to read more about her.

    1. Thanks Vishy. If I get an opportunity to see the film I will watch it, although from what I’ve read it isn’t a patch on the book. She is definitely interesting and this piece of writing is so different to anything I’ve read before.

    1. I read your review of it the other day and realised it wasn’t a favourite of yours Jackie! It is tough and you’re right all those SHEs made me feel like I was being shouted at!

  3. Apologies….

    I found it a tough read too, but fascinating the way she puts her sentences together, and the way she treats her characters. As you can imagine, it caused quite a stir when she won the Nobel Prize for Lit (which she didnt bother going to pick up herself, but accepted via video from her house in the middle of the mountains in Austria)

    What’s nice though, is that after she won the Prize – at which point a writer can publish anything they want and actually start making money – she started publishing her next novel Envy, along with other stuff, chapter by chapter, on her website, for free! Probably a great frustration to publishers, but showing that she sticks to her feminist, environmentalist, anti-capitalist values! Check it out if you have the energy (is in German, mostly):

    1. Really no need to apologise Madhvi! It’s good to read outside your comfort zone sometimes and I’m glad I read it and appreciate your recommendation. It is a remarkable piece of work even if I found it disturbing and hard to read. Your comments about her work after the Nobel Prize are interesting and I had no idea about that.

  4. I can’t say I enjoyed it and I found it disturbing too but I was also amazed how well it is written. The voice is quite unique but stays te same all through the novel. It must haven been really hard to write.

  5. I can’t say I enjoyed it and found it disturbing as well but I was also amazed how well it is written. That was a hard book to write, not only to read and the voice is very unique.
    There is a movie as well.

    1. I’ve heard about the film, but reports I’ve read say it is nothing on the book. It is a very brave book to have written and I admire her for it, but I really couldn’t read something like this very often…

  6. Another great review! Not sure it’s one for me, but I’m interested in the way the story is told. Do you think it’s a good way of telling a difficult story?

    1. Thanks! I think that sort of stream-of-consciousness detached narration lends itself well to this book because Erika is so detached from reality, so it mirrors her behaviour in a sense. If the narration were first person, you might find out more about Erika herself and her motives and it would be an easier story to follow, but you wouldn’t get that confusion and almost cacophony of character’s voices blending together adding to the intensity and imitating Erika’s state of mind. So, yes, maybe?

  7. Yes, that’s kind-of how I felt too. A tough read, but interesting because I’d never read anything like it before. I look forward to seeing what Tony makes of it!

  8. Another Austrian nutcase – definitely something in the water 😉
    I actually like the sound of this now, but then I am a glutton for punishment (the more obscure and difficult the better!).

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