This month on the Ark Audio Book Club we discussed the Nobel Prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek’s disturbing 1983 novel of repression desire and violence, The Piano Teacher. The novel tells the story of Erika Kohut, a talented one-time concert pianist in Vienna who, due to a couple of key performance failures (although arguably the cause of these run deeper), has been relegated to a career as a piano teacher for elite students. Erika is in a codependent abusive relationship with her Mother, with whom she lives and shares a bed. Her Mother tries to control as much of Erika’s life as possible; from the clothes she buys and the hours she is allowed to be out of the house, to the complete prohibition on romantic relationships with men. But Erika sneaks out behind her mothers back to engage in acts of pornographic voyeurism, secretly harbouring sadomasochistic desires that, while they wouldn’t make the Marquis de Sade blush, are certainly enough for him to give Erika the time of day. Things begin to escalate as Erika becomes infatuated with one her students, the reasonably talented but ultimately basic (to use contemporary parlance) fuckboy Walter Klemmer. Walters own warped sexuality, albeit warped by patriarchal normativity, suddenly presents Erika with the possibility of making her fantasies part of the all too horrendous reality she had always thought herself above. In the end though, Erika has to deal with the actual pain of the pain she has, until now, only desired.
This book is fantastic in a way that belies its title as a Nobel Prize winner. There is nothing platitudinous about the depiction of the human condition here; no pearls of wisdom about the causes of our monstrosity to one another, and nothing florid or formalistic about the writing. That said, to the extent that it can be known by me, Jelinek’s writing is superb. One notable technique is the use of repeated phrases, and variations on them appear throughout a number sections of the novel between passages of plot development. These staggered repetitions simultaneously mimic the kind of formal musical devices one would find in the kind of late romantic music favoured by the protagonist, while at the same time, when rendered as prose, remind you of each characters encroaching psychopathy. At the very least, this is the case with Joachim Neugroschel’s (the same translator as Bataille’s Story of the Eye) elegant English translation. And so, while the question of its accuracy eludes me, I can claim emphatically that this book called The Piano Teacher (rather than Die Klavierspielerin) is excellently written. Just from the opening paragraph alone we can feel the weight, pain and yearning to control the chaos of some sort of unexpressed, generations-long tragedy.
The Piano Teacher, Erika Kohut, burst like whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother. Mama likes calling Erika her little whirlwind, for the child can be an absolute speed demon. She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties. Her mother is old enough to be her grandmother. The baby was born after long and difficult years of marriage. Her Father promptly left, passing the torch to his daughter. Erika entered, her father exited. Eventually, Erika learned how to move swiftly. She had to.
In this tiny section of text, we find some kind of intensive movement in the present. We begin with urgency, which serves as a springboard for us to experience the infantilization of Erika by her mother before we are confronted with something far more stark, and by the end of the fourth sentence, we already know something is terribly amiss. “She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties.” Furthermore, after we hear of the scale of the generation gap between mother and daughter, we are transported back in time to Erika’s birth, an event preceded by “long and difficult years of marriage” and followed by the abrupt and permanent departure and of her father. This primes us for the revelation that there is something about the circumstances of Erika’s upbringing that has damaged her. Now, the image of the piano teacher as a whirlwind is less a charming picture of quaint artistic flurry and, instead, a defense mechanism. A method of survival honed by years of abuse with no end in sight. In these few lines, Jelinek has prepared us sufficiently for the violence of the interaction between mother and daughter to come in the novel’s opening scene. Of course, sufficient here is intended only to mean that we can now comprehend the scene to come, but our comprehension seems only to exacerbate the horror of what happens next.
Moreover, the economy and richness of Jelinek’s writing achieves even more in this paragraph as we are also (and cheers to Sheri for introducing this idea to me) subtly given clues as to the position of the third person narrator. This opening image of the whirlwind is right. Throughout the novel, the narrator is a close third person, yet whom exactly the narrator is close to has a tendency to shift. Mostly it rests on Erika’s ear and stares upon the surface of her unconscious. But the centrifugal force of the legacy of violence and abuse drag others into our focus. On occasion we find ourselves at the side of the mother and, later on, as he is dragged into the toxic atmosphere surrounding this familial pair, Walter also becomes the subject the narrators musing. And as he is dragged closer in and his proximity to the whirlwind begins to change him, repetition begins to play a more prominent role in the sections concerning him too.
This is the aesthetic as religion; the piano as a means of self-flagellation.
Instead of engaging in reductive dead end psychologising, this novel attempts a much deeper diagnosis of it characters as being the most symptom laden exemplars of a crumbling romanticism which always operated poorly with the realities of bodied existence, but is more out of place still in the solidified state of modernity. The composers Erika most admires are romantics, Schubert and Schumann. She has time for some more modern repertoire too but there are no names mentioned more contemporary than Schörenberg. It is as if Erika is trapped in a mindset of late romantic, early modernist aesthetic theory. A mindset more proper to someone of her mother’s generation, but that still finds a fit in the conservative world of the Conservatoire. This mindset places the aesthetic achievement above any kind of bodily experience. The sublime, as defined by particular aesthetic traditions, is prized above the quotidian to a fault. The daily needs of life and the body are tolerated but, to the extent that such objection can be sustained without harming the pursuit of musical perfection, they are looked down upon.
Erika’s whole mission in life is to transcend the everyday nature of human existence and live towards the production of the sublime. When we meet her she is already living with the shame of her failure to ascend to the level of ‘renowned concert pianist’ and has already been relegated to the level of ‘piano teacher and occasional performer’. It was her body that was to blame for her failed attempt to reach the next level She lacked in the discipline to retain focus and resist nerves. She finds her sexuality to be a similar disappointing feature of existence, referring to her genitals as a rot between her legs. There is an antihumanism here and not the fun kind with the terrifying potential of robots in the future, but the kind that has to lead to things like gruesome public executions for blasphemy, to female castration, to forced celibacy, to menstruating women being banished to a tent outside the village. This is the aesthetic as religion; the piano as a means of self-flagellation.
Unfortunately, works by female authors are often subject to biographical speculation as if this were to add some kind of validity to what is being presented or excuse for dismissal. And while apparently, this is Jelinek’s most autobiographical work, the only way I wish to highlight the effect this has had on the story is in the chilling details, particularly in the Conservatoire. This is where we can feel Jelinek drawing on her experience in such places to provide the most succinct illustration of the plain flaws with this romantic worldview in the way that it has become a matter of course for students to vomit profusely before performance exams. But, because the suffering engendered by their ideology is right before their eyes, it has been rendered invisible to this community.
If you wish to finish this review relatively spoiler-free I’d recommend skipping these next two paragraphs. But, I think that any review that does not to some extent engage with questions relating to gender power dynamics would be somewhat amiss. So, I am going to talk about the section following from the moment [spoiler and more to come] Erika gives Klemmer the letter. Barricaded in her room, which does not have a bed as that is in Mother’s room, Erika gives Klemmer a letter earnestly detailing the various degradations, abuses and acts of violence she would like him to visit upon her as their relationship becomes sexual. This scene is less the 50 Shade-style glib contract negotiation and more an exposure of the only way Erika can imagine receiving affection. The problem is that Klemmer is so stunted by the implicit misogyny of his society that reading the letter alone traumatizes him. Klemmer, as a ladies man for whom both physical challenges and academic achievement present little in the way of obstacles, is somewhat lacking in a sophisticated theory of mind; Meaning, that he can’t quite understand the reality of other people who might experience the world in a similar register to him. But this gap helps get stuff done, and the normative structures that surround him congratulate him for it. But they also impart to him the values of a kind of romantic ideology. This is to say, when it comes to the question of sexuality, he can only conceptualize a relationship in which he is involved as one in which he, as a man, desires women, and the women he desires, desire to be desired by him. He is the subject and she, whoever she is, is the object. Against this structure of meaning-making, Erika’s letter, which expresses desires that involve him but are not his own, is a traumatic rupture to his worldview. This sends him into a rage which culminates in his performance of nearly all of the points on Erika’s list but as an act of pure non-consensual violence rather than some very complicated sex.
It is not the realization of Erika’s fantasies that destroys them, it is that Walter appropriates them to reassert his position as subject and force her to become his object.
It is here that I must (again) take issue with Žižek’s Lacanian reading of Michael Haneke’s faithful film adaptation of the novel. In the scene in which Klemmer assaults and rapes Erika, Žižek claims that what is happening is Erika’s fantasy is becoming real and as such being robbed of its fantasmatic quality, which is an even more traumatic violation that what is actually happening. Her desire is being destroyed by becoming real. But this analysis reeks of a kind of normative sexuality engaged in good old fashion kink-shaming to cover up for its own “romantic” hang-ups. It is not the realization of Erika’s fantasies that destroys them, it is that Walter appropriates them to reassert his position as subject and force her to become his object. He has taken her complex, and perhaps destructive, desire for pain and removed her desire from these acts, and replacing it with his own desire to inflict the pain. It is not some notion of the real which has violated Erika; first, it was her mother and then it was Walter, both of whom are products of the symbolic.
To close, this book is exquisite but painful. There are sections in which I grimaced and many in which I was made to feel sullied and oppressed by these characters’ way of seeing the world; that the kind of classic antihumanism, which has done so much damage to so many, made so many lives so ugly in the name of creating beauty. But there were also so many more passages in which I marveled at the world and psyche that was being revealed to me by a true master of the art form. This is a novel about the limitations of beauty as the measure of value. Despite all the arguments and the depictions of horror produced in its name, this novel cannot help but serve as a demonstration that one cannot set the value of beauty anywhere near zero.
Click the link to listen to the Ark Audio Book Club discussion of The Piano Teacher, or search ark audio on iTurnes.