Tag Archives: Nobel Prize in Literature

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.