Friday, July 31, 2009

5: The Piano Teacher

Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher

Elfriede Jelinek was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004 and the Piano Teacher, first published in 1983, is one of her best works. The titular character is Erika Kohut, a piano teacher at the famed Vienna Conservatory, who, despite being in her thirties, lives with her mother and lets her mother control all aspects of her life, except when she spends money on clothing that her mother will never allow her to wear and when she trolls the seedy underbelly of Vienna nightlife. Erika spirals out of control as an affair with one of her students, dilettante Walter Klemmer, down a road of self-destruction and a perverse version of freedom.

I liked this novel because it was powerful and it made me think. The writing is very vivid; it pulls the reader into the book, into Erika’s mind, in a brusque, unapologetic way. Perhaps there are other novels like this, but I haven’t ever read anything like this. Everything reads so strongly and yet is simple and ingenuous.

The relationship between Erika and her mother is a sort relic of the degenerate Old World, the world that consists of the facets of Europe that I think Humbert Humbert escaped from. It was never the toy-coloured Swiss villages that drove H.H. from Europe; I believe it was the sense of saturation of potential and tendency towards decline, for which state H.H. (lecherously) found remedy in the form of an uncouth, unschooled, unread America girl, full of youth and potential to improve. For fuller details of what I think of H.H., see the second comment to my post on the 100 books that I read.

Erica’s mother lives through Erika; she is completely invested in Erika and treats Erika’s life as her own. It’s something like a cycle where parents live through their children, who, in turn, live through their own children. In Erika’s case, Erika’s mother doesn’t want Erika to have children; she wants Erika to stay with her and only with her forever. It breaks the cycle, but not in a good way.

Erika both hates and loves her mother. She hates being controlled by her mother and rebels through small actions like buying dresses to which she lays ownership only by the fact that she alone can wear them, even though her mother may sell them without telling Erika, destroy them, give them away, or throw them away. But Erika is dependent on her mother also. When Klemmer stays late talking to her, hoping to spark a romance, all she can think of is going home and watching television with her mother. Erika doesn’t want to change; she’s in her mid-thirties and she’s past the point of being able to be free of her mother.

Halfway through the book, I was aware that there cannot be a happy ending for Erika. She’s not going to be the heroine of a Blockbuster romance and stand up for herself. She’s not going to build her own life. She cannot have a healthy, loving relationship with anyone. All that’s left for Erika to do within the confines of her life is to disintegrate and crumble slowly. And it’s clear that she wants nothing better than to crumble.

As I was reading, this one particular line jumped out at me: “he is afraid of the piano teacher’s inner worlds, which haven’t been ventilated for such a long time”. It’s true; Erika’s inner worlds – her feelings, her fantasies, her dreams – have not been ventilated. She has had no one to share them with because she conceals them from her mother, who has too much of her life already. And those things have festered and twisted in the isolation and when she finally tries to bring them to fruition, they could only result in self-destruction.


On a separate note, I’ve decided to no longer call my blurbs “reviews” because they’re not exactly reviews. I mean, I do discuss books and what I thought of them and whether or not I’d recommend them, but I don’t think that my purpose in writing these blurbs is to criticize or praise writers. I’m interested in what these books make me think of and what impact they have on my way of thinking. Also, I’m reading quite a few books, like the Piano Teacher, which are wonderful books that I highly recommend but not exactly popular; I know because I had quite a bit of trouble locating a copy of this book to read. Certainly, the likes of Jelinek and N√©mirovsky don’t need my advertising, but sometimes when someone explains to me their personal connection with a certain book, it makes the book become more real to me and provides impetus to get around to reading the book. The act of reading, for me, is like bringing myself into the author’s world and to know that someone else, real not fictional, has been there before is kind of comforting.

So. Read Elfriede Jelinek.


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