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The Piano Teacher (Serpent's Tail)It’s all laid out in the first twelve pages and if you don’t like them, better stop right there. If you find them mesmerizing, carry on and know it gets way worse. The Piano Teacher (1983) is a series of developing but inherently stagnant scenes focused on doubled themes, each representing the other. The setting is Vienna, where the seedy underbelly has risen up to permeate and eat out the rest, leaving that most romantic of European cities to be spat and pissed upon in the grave by Elfriede Jelinek’s cold-blooded, satiric narrator (though not a person, certainly a “character” in its own right). Vienna, the city of music! Only the things that have proven their worth will continue to do so in this city. Its buttons are bursting from the fat white paunch of culture, which, like any drowned corpse that is not fished from the water, bloats up more and more.

The other theme which drives the plot is simply this: …Mother worries a lot, for the first thing a proprietor learns, and painfully at that, is: Trust is fine, but control is better. What follows is 280 pages in the gutter of modern Vienna with the singularly wretched trio of mother, daughter and daughter’s lover using this strategy and doing their best to break each other.

By the sound of it, this is actually one of Elfriede Jelinek’s lighter novels. It’s not hard to see why she’s one of the most controversial winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. She’s one hell of a misanthrope and misanthropes are not easy to like.

Erika Kohut is the piano teacher, raised by a control-freak mother to be a concert pianist – this and nothing more. Having failed in her career, she now teaches at the Vienna Conservatory. She has a bedroom at home with neither bed nor lock on its door – she sleeps with her mother. In a way, the relationship between these two overshadows the rest of the novel as it overshadows every moment of Erika’s life and the psychological layers to their interactions are impeccably arranged. Mother wants Erika to be a genius but only to bask in the reflected glory of the prodigy she created and wholeheartedly possesses. Herself a philistine, she conceives of Erika as a pure and exalted artist and thus has raised her child to the very heights of arrogance. Now in her late thirties, Erika is a hopeless case whose willpower has been completely gutted: Outside, something beckons, but she deliberately refuses to take part, so she can boast about not taking part. She desires medals, badges for successful completion of nonparticipation, so she won’t have to be measured, weighed.

Rather than focusing on a battle for freedom as you might expect, The Piano Teacher tells a non-story driven by Erika’s crude, clumsy rebound; using the one thing she has that her mother cannot make use of and therefore strives to beat out of her: her sex. Unfortunately, her warped personality only ensures further catastrophe. Enter Walter Klemmer, stage left:

If only he could get her into a canoe just once. It doesn’t have to be a paddle boat, which must be so hard to handle. It can be a motionless boat. There, on a lake, on a river – that would be Klemmer’s element, his most intrinsic one – he could exert sure control over her, because he feels at home in water. He could conduct and coordinate Erika’s hectic movements. Here, on the keyboard, on the trail of notes, Erika is in her element, and the conductor conducts…

Stylistically, it’s hard to separate Jelinek from proceedings. There is no dialogue as such and even the long sentences have a sense of brevity due to the narrative’s swift and flat rhythm. The Piano Teacher is focused on what for Jelinek are the essentials of human behaviour, and she examines the worst traits with a cold eye. It’s difficult to tell how much of the bile of the story is Erika’s worldview and how much is Jelinek’s. There is some crossover, obviously, as the author also taught at the Conservatory, but… In Erika’s piano class, children are already hacking away at Mozart and Haydn, the advanced pupils are riding roughshod over Brahms and Schumann, covering the forest soil of keyboard literature with their slug slime.

Some call Jelinek a feminist writer but her equal opportunity misanthropy derails any conventional dogma. If the text is more contemptuous of Walter Klemmer, the degree is slight. There is not the smallest role in the story for any halfway decent person. Nameless people flit through the street and social scenes, each verbally derided for their bad-tempered, selfish or animalistic aspects. There is truly not a ray of sunlight to be had in this book.

The main focus of the plot is on Erika’s relationship with one of her rare talented students, the young womanizing dilettante Klemmer. Romantic expectations, both in the characters and for the reader, are played on and immediately shot through the foot. Over and over again. Watching a young man actually give a damn about the piano teacher is quite affecting; it’s part of what gives the fallout of their interaction its terrible edge. Discordance follows swift, but the structure in which Klemmer and Kohut interact is disturbingly harmonious in execution. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a writer trained in classical music would excel at structure. Erika would trade anything for her lost youth, and Klemmer would like to trade his youth for experience. The parallels between them are manifold. Erika’s elitist arrogance is shared by Klemmer (The bond of scorn links the trainer and the trainee). Both are carried away by delusions of the deliverance their love could give the other. Each longs to exercise control over the other, Kohut through the restraint of passion and Klemmer through the exercise of it. Given the chance, each engages in despicable abuse of the other. Jelinek further highlights their similarity by referring to both of them by the initial K. It never seems contrived – Jelinek’s spasms of irritation and blatant contempt for the pair ensure that.

An early scene has Walter racing for home, little knowing the object of his affection is dogging his heels: Erika Kohut hurries through the streets after him. Klemmer, burning with rage over things unfulfilled and anger about things undesired, doesn’t suspect that love, no less, is dashing after him, and at the same speed, to boot…. Interspersed with descriptions of shop windows, the two of them wind and weave through the streets of Vienna, the man trying to cool off, the woman heating up with jealousy. This pursuit ends, Klemmer never having looked back, in Erika’s own neighborhood where he happens to reside, also, with his parents. Parallels that are normally sweet are used in a perfectly diseased fashion between these two flawed and revolting people. The Piano Teacher is certainly a vile and visceral reading experience but is not truly discordant nor haphazard in its design.

Which leads to the Nobel Prize controversy. One of the committee resigned in protest, accusing her work of being “a mass of text shovelled together without artistic structure” as well as “unenjoyable public pornography.” For this book at least, such criticisms appear farfetched. In form, The Piano Teacher is exceptionally well thought out and though the story becomes very explicit at points, it can hardly count as pornography. What scenes there are are uniformly rank and rotting in countenance, blanketed in the author’s scorn. And even if some segment of the population finds that a turn-on, such scenes are only intermittent between many depictions of home life, street life, concerts and characters’ states of mind. Erika Kohut is the focus of the novel and as such everything brought to bear is an addition to her character. For all their contrariness, the psychological passages of The Piano Teacher are pitch-perfect, a flawless exposure of human dichotomy. Erika embodies several opposing traits and desires, such as to make the text’s seemingly gratuitous sadomasochism actually qualify as thematic genius, for such incidents perfectly fit the story Jelinek tells and the titular character.

Literary merit is unquestionable. I’d like to single out Joachim Neugroschel for praise as well – his translation of this frightful book is superb and I am left with a strong desire to read more of his work as well as Jelinek’s. Rarely have I been so impressed.

In short, this is certainly a difficult read (the final quarter particularly so) but more than worth it for those with a strong stomach.

Elfriede Jelinek reflection