Wednesday, June 29, 2016

the last book I read

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek.

Erika Kohut is the piano teacher of the book's title, tutoring and mentoring a group of students at the Vienna Conservatory. After a hard day bashing the ivories she heads home to the apartment she shares with her mother, and later in the evening to the bed she shares with her mother. Yes, there's something a bit rum going on here, as we discover in the opening pages where Erika buys herself a nice dress and goes home and has a proper knock-down hair-pulling fist-fight with Mother about profligate spending and having improper thoughts about men.

So we can see that Mother is controlling Erika's life to a slightly unhealthy degree. We learn that there was a Father, for a while, but he got packed off to a mental asylum (which was probably a relief, to be honest) and subsequently died (ditto, I shouldn't wonder). We also learn that one of Erika's outlets for asserting some degree of control over her own actions and her own body is self-harm, some of it of a disturbingly sexual nature. She also roams the streets of Vienna seeking out sex shows to watch, though she seems to derive little pleasure from watching, instead just sitting there primly with her handbag and haughtily ignoring the more usual raincoat-clad clientele.

Erika has a new student, Walter Klemmer, who takes a fancy to her despite the gap in their ages (Erika is in in her late thirties). Erika isn't used to male attention, although she has occasionally "known" men, hem hem, in the past. So things take a while to come to the boil, but when they do, and Erika and Walter have a charged encounter in the toilets at the Conservatory, her wilder repressed desires are unleashed, and she writes Walter a letter detailing all the stuff she'd like him to do to her, most of it eye-wateringly slappy and bondage-y. She also increases the riskiness of her voyeuristic behaviour by hanging out in a local park and watching people having sex in the bushes.

Walter is a bit taken aback by all this, to be honest, as he was really after something a bit more vanilla and just fancied a bit of older woman. After a couple of further unsatisfactory encounters, Walter decides to get what he originally wanted by going to Erika's apartment, locking Mother in the bedroom, and beating and raping Erika in the living room.

Erika goes to the Conservatory the next day armed with a knife and some vague idea of stabbing Walter, but, after watching him laughing and flirting with some female students for a while, she instead stabs herself in the shoulder and returns home. We're invited to infer that Erika will just return home and resume her more repressed existence, once she's put some Savlon and a plaster on that shoulder wound, anyway.

So it's the basic boy meets girl, girl unveils brutal and deranged sex manifesto, girl loses boy, boy rapes girl, girl stabs herself kind of story we've all heard a thousand times before. Not exactly a laugh-a-minute, as you can imagine, though it has a sort of savage energy that propels you along. As with some earlier books in this series it's hard to find a "way in" to any of the characters, since they're all damaged and disturbed to various degrees. It's quite bracing to read something so wilfully spiky and clearly uninterested in giving the reader an easy time, though - in that respect I was reminded a bit of Notice which also contains some queasy scenes of sexual violence.

The Piano Teacher is probably best known for its 2001 film adaptation featuring a much-garlanded performance from Isabelle Huppert as Erika. I haven't seen it, but it sounds like a pretty faithful rendering of the book. Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004, not without some controversy, with one of the judges resigning and issuing a statement describing Jelinek's work as "whining, unenjoyable public pornography", which is probably a bit harsh. Links to other Nobel laureates can be found here.

The Piano Teacher also pops up on various lists of "best foreign novels", including (at number 40) this one. Of the 100 novels I've listed there I've read, if my counting is correct, thirteen. Other list-nerdery: although Jelinek is Austrian, this book doesn't yield anything to add to the foreign-language list here since "Austrian" isn't a language except as a dialect of German, which I've already bagged.

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