Clearly I’m late to the party on this one. The Piano Teacher was published in 1983 as Die Klaviersplierein, and Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004. Don’t blame me, please, I was only seven when she accepted the award via video.
The Piano Teacher is a brilliant and unrelenting portrait of character. The text weaves in and out of the consciousness of anyone who happens to enter the scene, denying readers a godlike view of the novels world in favor of a selectively omniscient one. Jelinek’s characters rail against each other internally as they continue to co-exist peaceably enough.
There are essentially three characters at play. Most prominently is the piano teacher herself, Erika Kohut, who is quite unfortunately, from her perspective, in her late thirties and teaching conservatory students in Vienna. She, or more accurately her mother through her, had dreamed of being a world-renowned pianist. Those that can’t do….
Mrs. Kohut, Erika’s mother and roommate, tries to keep a stranglehold on her daughter’s life and activities. She has groomed Erika for more or less the exact existence in which they live. Her current obsession is saving money, via Erika’s work, for the two of them to purchase a customized condominium — one in which Erika may even be allowed her own bed.
Erika’s acceptance of her mother’s rule is the central confusion of the novel. Every conflict revolves around some (mis)understanding of Erika’s lifestyle.
Which is not to say nothing Erika does is without her mother’s approval. By night she will occasionally wander the seedier sides of Vienna. On one such excursion she visits a peep show beneath a bridge and pays to watch, just watch, as women on the other side of a pane of glass strip atop a rotating platform; on another she hides amongst bushes to watch a couple have sex in a clearing.
The third character in the novel is Walter Klemmer, a student of Erika’s at the conservatory. Klemmer is obsessed with his teacher, and he is thoroughly convinced that he’ll be able to win her as a sexual partner, use her to his satisfaction, and leave her behind. When he begins to make open advances towards her, Erika becomes convinced that she will be able to do the same to him.
The only person who understands what is really going on is the reader, though she likely has no idea how an affair entered into on such terms can play out. The drama lies in the contrast between the character’s intentions, hidden from the characters themselves, until it is briefly, and violently, thrust into the real world. And at the end of the day, hardly anything changes.
Jelinek’s novel is sharply observant, and her narrator’s flexibility elevates the most mundane interactions to rich explorations of the human psyche. Plus, the book is funny as hell. Give it a read.