The piano teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a 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 to move swiftly. She had to. Now she bursts into the apartment like a swarm of autumn leaves, hoping to get to her room without being seen. But her mother looms before her, confronts her. She puts Erika against the wall, under interrogation—inquisitor and executioner in one, unanimously recognized as Mother by the State and by the Family. She investigates: Why has Erika come home so late? Erika dismissed her last student three hours ago, after heaping him with scorn. You must think I won’t find out where you’ve been, Erika. A child should own up to her mother without being asked. But mother never believes her because Erika tends to lie. Mother is waiting. She is counting to three.
How is that for an opening paragraph?
The Piano Teacher is written by Nobel prize-winning author Elfriede Jelinek. I saw the movie version of this book several years ago and was blown away; it’s actually one of my favorite movies. So when I read this novel, I already knew what to expect in terms of tone and controversial subject matter.
Set in Austria, the book is about Erika Kohut, a thirty-something piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory who still lives at home with her mother. The two have an emotionally abusive–yet entirely dependent–relationship with each other; Erika’s mother was always extremely strict with her, cultivating her musical talents and encouraging Erika’s sense of superiority to everyone else. For purely selfish reasons, she also raises Erika to have an extreme distrust in men. It’s a love-hate relationship that is often painful to read.
But Erika is not a complete victim of her mother’s manipulations. She, too, has a cruel streak and frequently lashes out in violence towards her mother. Thinking herself above all others, she is cold towards her students, criticizing them harshly and regularly. She even looks down upon people in public, committing random malicious acts as she pleases.
The true scandal in Erika’s life lies in her secret outings. Though her mother tracks her every move, Erika manages to find ways to get away and visit red light districts and seedy parks where couples go to have sex. On these outings, Erika pays for peepshows or secretly goes to observe couples engaging in sexual acts.
All of this cold detachment from life changes once one of her students, Klemmer, begins to romantically pursue her. Naturally, she refuses him at first, encouraged in no small part by her mother. When she finally decides enter into a relationship with Klemmer, she does so only on strict conditions that have alarming consequences.
Erika is not a likeable person my any stretch of the imagination, but the reader can’t help but feel utterly devastated for her. She is a woman who has lived her life in a state of perpetual repression: in her mid-thirties, she doesn’t even have her own room; she shares a bed with her mother. There is no joy in her life. She buys clothes that she adores, but never wears them. She experiences sex only from afar. Even her career is a goal post that keeps moving further away; greatness was expected of her–and she expected greatness of herself–but instead finds herself teaching.
I adored this book. Jelinek’s writing caught my attention immediately, and her style is mesmerizing. All of the passages about music are positively lyrical, even though music is often used as a weapon. A lot of the book is also written in third person omniscient, which adds to the overall sense of detachment that Erika experiences on a day-to-day basis. As the characters all embodied significant elements of cruelty, the writing is appropriately tense; that Jelinek was able to sustain that level of stress and anxiety throughout the book astounds me. I also love that she goes off on lusciously-written tangents; it’s usually annoying when authors get off track, but it’s such a pleasure when Jelinek does it.
I highly recommend The Piano Teacher, though I do want to caution that it contains psychologically disturbing scenes, self-harming, and violent sexual imagery.
These are some of my favorite passages from the book.
The Piano Teacher was originally published in 1988. I read the 2002 Serpent’s Tail edition.