One book to match all those shades of grey – The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

What really made me pick this book is the great divide between those who love it and those who hate it to bone. A couple of friends bashed it with a one-star, and instead of running away from it, I wished for it during our Christmas party exchange gift. I was given Pamuk and Muller books, so I took the time to hunt for Jelinek and luckily, I found her.

I mentioned months ago that I’ve already watched the film adaptation of this, and that’s another reason I want to read this. I was both haunted and disturbed by that piano teacher. You see this middle-aged pianist coming home with a new dress, and then her mom scolds her for buying something that she doesn’t need, and then the two pull each other’s hair.

The novel begins with the same scene, and if you imagine by that alone that this is a ferocious battle between an overbearing mother and a repressed daughter, then you better keep your guard up for there is more to come. And with the ridiculous popularity of that trilogy that deals with BDSM, I am prompted to do my official write-up on this.

They sit facing each other. Salvation through love is nigh, but the rock sealing the tomb is too heavy. Klemmer’s no angel, and women are no angels either. Roll away the rock. Erika is harsh toward Walter Klemmer when it comes to her wishes, which she had written down for him. She has no wishes other than those in the letter. Why waste words? Klemmer asks. At least, he’s not beating her.

What are Erika’s wishes? What is in that letter? What made her write that letter? What is Klemmer’s reaction to that letter? Let’s answer the questions one by one, but first, let me give you some background about our piano teacher.

Erika Kohut once dreamed of being a concert pianist but instead, ended up teaching piano at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory. She started playing at a young age, where her mother kept a vigilant watch of her daily practice, and those afternoons where she was forced to play sadly composes her childhood memories. It has been instilled in her that she will become a successful and popular pianist and that she will be revered by all the socialites in Austria if she keeps at it. Her mother never allowed room for failure, so Erika, as a child, sat in front of her piano while wishing she were someplace else.

Erika is technically brilliant. The rigid training that she had when she was a child helped her ears and fingers control the sound of ivories and turn them into wonderful music. However, one recital led to her fate as a piano teacher instead of a world class performer. Now, she belittles all her students for their lack of talent and secretly desires to destroy anyone who is better than her.

She still lives with her mother, and one cannot help wondering what’s keeping the two together. The opening scene and the latter parts of the novel would make the reader think that it’s not healthy for the two to live in one house. They would be better off without each other, but the truth is, they have become slaves of each other.

Let’s take a quick tour of who Erika is when she’s not on her piano teacher mode. She’s a discreet voyeur. She goes to peep shows and watches hardcore porn. She revels in observing women’s facial reactions while they are performing in front of men. She likes to smell wads of tissue used by men who just finished masturbating.

Erika’s routine is composed of being a ruthless master to her students, being a tightly guarded slave to her mother, and being a kinky woman clad in a professor’s clothes. Then Walter Klemmer, an engineering student who has great talent for the piano, signs up under her and falls in love.

Klemmer wants a relationship with Erika, but Erika controls him. She shows her dark side to him by telling him how he should make love to her through a letter. Okay, I’ve been referring a lot to that letter, but I wouldn’t want to take away from you the intensity that I felt when I read it. It’s filled with all the perversity of Erika’s sexual desires, and after finishing that long letter, I was still hyperventilating and fighting off the ringing in my ears.

5 star - it was amazingThis is too disturbing and too complex to be labeled as porn. I have to admit that Jelinek does not write smoothly. In fact, there are a number of phrases that feel too terse and a bit clumsy. But her writing is not to be devoured on the surface for they are meant to hit you at the core. You wait for them to accumulate until they brew and spill over. By that, the reader should be convinced that this is an artistic psychological study. Yes, it is bleak and harrowing, and one cannot help thinking if Erika will ever be able to recover from the damage that she suffered (yes, one could surprisingly sympathize with our nearly deranged pianist), for isn’t the absence of an inner life something that is too destructive for any person?

Finally, how can this be porn if it is only slightly about sexual perversion and mutilation? Ultimately, it is about the adverse effects of control and dominance (both their lack and abundance), the relationships that Erika has with her mother, her students, and Klemmer, and the edges that separate the mind from sanity to madness.

The Piano Teacher obviously talks about music, but it is not the beautiful music of our great composers that we hear. Rather, we hear the dissonant chords struck from the deep, dank recesses of our desires, and in listening to these unbearable melodies, one gains additional insight on how bizarre the human psyche can become.

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