A Disturbing but Rewarding Detour to Austria

Well, I am again failing to respect the logic of my map. The Nobel Prize group on Goodreads was reading The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek this month, and I decided to add this trip to Austria to my journey. This book proves that human nature can be plenty disturbing even if you don’t resort to proportions like those involved in the Holocaust. Here is the Goodreads summary, and my review follows it:

From Goodreads: “The Piano Teacher, the most famous novel of Elfriede Jelinek, who was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature, is a shocking, searing, aching portrait of a woman bound between a repressive society and her darkest desires. Erika Kohut is a piano teacher at the prestigious and formal Vienna Conservatory, who still lives with her domineering and possessive mother. Her life appears to be a seamless tissue of boredom, but Erika, a quiet thirty-eight-year-old, secretly visits Turkish peep shows at night to watch live sex shows and sadomasochistic films. Meanwhile, a handsome, self-absorbed, seventeen-year-old student has become enamored with Erika and sets out to seduce her. She resists him at first, but then the dark passions roiling under the piano teacher’s subdued exterior explode in a release of sexual perversity, suppressed violence, and human degradation. Celebrated throughout Europe for the intensity and frankness of her writings and awarded the Heinrich Bö ll Prize for her outstanding contribution to German letters, Elfriede Jelinek is one of the most original and controversial writers in the world today. The Piano Teacher was made into a film, released in the United States in 2001, was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes.”

And my review: The Piano TeacherThe Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a bizarre combination of beautiful, compelling, and incredibly disturbing. To say that the relationships in this book are unhealthy is a profound understatement. Yet the author captures her characters and their worlds with evocative prose that carries you along, and keeps you looking, wide-eyed, horrified at what you see. To give a basic summary: Erika is a middle aged piano teacher in Vienna whose mother has pushed her all her life to be a star. The mother has tightly controlled every detail of Erika’s life, or so the mother believes. The result is a very repressed and grandiose personality in what otherwise might have been a fairly talented normal girl. Erika’s father has been taken off to a mental institution and is largely out of the picture, but he is definitely the least toxic member of the family. As we get to know Erika, we learn that secretly she has become a voyeur, lurking at peep shows or in the bushes of a public park when she tells her mother she is attending chamber music concerts. She also slices away at her own flesh in front of mirrors behind closed doors. When Keller, one of her male students, develops an interest in her, the relationship plays out in unpleasant of ways which make a monster of an otherwise simply self-involved young man.

To give you a taste of the author’s style, at least in translation, here is a selection: “It’s no use, Erika is stronger. She winds around Mother like ivy around an old house, but this Mother is definitely not a cozy old house. Erika sucks and gnaws on this big body as if she wanted to crawl back in and hide inside it. Erika confesses her love to her mother and Mother gasps out the opposite, namely that she too loves her child, but her child should stop immediately! Now! Mother cannot defend herself against this tempest of emotions, but she feels flattered. She suddenly feels courted. It is a premise of love that we feel validated because someone else makes us a top priority. Erika sinks her teeth into Mother.

Or this: “Erika’s will shall be the lamb that nestles down with the lion of maternal will. This gesture of humility will prevent the maternal will from shredding the soft, unformed filial will and munching on its bloody limbs.

To say that I liked this book would be odd, but reading it was a riveting experience. I think if the content were something other than mutual psychic destruction, I would be giving it a 5. I’m definitely interested in reading more of Elfriede Jelinek‘s work.

About Beth Parks Aronson

I am Director of the Lamar University Psychology Clinic and run the clinical track of the Applied Psychology Masters Program. Previously, I was a psychologist in private practice in Jenkintown, PA where I specialized in anxiety disorders and working with people living with chronic and life-threatening illnesses. I am a little addicted to good literature. Ok, a lot addicted.
This entry was posted in 1001 Books, Around the World 2012, Nobel and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A Disturbing but Rewarding Detour to Austria

  1. Pragya says:

    Uh oh, that is seriously disturbing. I have heard great things about the book, but I guess I will have to find the proper mood to read that kind of stuff.

  2. Pingback: The Piano Teacher – Elfriede Jelinek | 1001 Books to Read Before You Die

  3. Pingback: Faces in the Water – Janet Frame | 1001 Books to Read Before You Die

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