Monday, May 2, 2011

The Piano Teacher

So. The Piano Teacher was not AT ALL what I expected. What I thought was going to a teacher/pupil love affair story turned into something much darker, much stranger than I ever imagined.

Erika Kohut is a piano teacher in her mid-30s. She’s drab, maybe frumpy, exacting and particular. She has no friends, she has no life besides music. She was trained to be a successful concert pianist, but was never much more than mediocre and so became an instructor at a conservatory in Vienna. From the outside, she is a picture of respectability. But after work, she roams the seedy districts, visits peep shows, and engages in a variety of other voyeuristic activities.

Erika lives at home with her creepy, domineering mother with whom she often has hair-pulling fist fights over what time she came home and what dress she bought. Did I mention Erika is approaching 40? And that she and her mother sleep in the same bed, despite the fact that Erika has her own room? Mrs. Kohut has always believed her daughter was the best – or at least did everything she could to convince Erika of it – and has constantly been disappointed with her daughter’s inability to realize her full potential. She wants to keep her daughter all to herself.

And then along comes Walter Kelmmer, a handsome, blonde engineering student who is also a talented pianist and taking lessons with Erika. Walter sees a challenge in Erika and begins to pursue her. He thought he bargained for a woman who was just waiting for someone like him to come along and help her loosen up, I suppose. He didn’t want anyone to know of his affection for his teacher for fear it might hurt his reputation with the other ladies – especially those his own age. But he had no idea what he was in for.

Erika catches on that Walter is interested, and while at first it sort of serves as a joke between her and her mother, she eventually begins to see the possibilities. In a moment of jealousy, she puts shattered glass in the pocket of someone she thinks Walter is also interested in (another student). Because, you know, that’s what normal people do, right? After a good start in a bathroom, the “relationship” gets on a strange trajectory when Erika writes Walter a letter detailing all the, ah, peculiarities she has been saving up for.

Walter reads the letter and keeps asking, “Are you serious?” But oh yes, she is – she shows him the box of accoutrements.

I don't want to give the rest away, because I was pretty surprised by the ending, and by what lead up to the ending. I didn't see any of that coming. Nor had I seen Erika's box coming. Nor, I suppose, had I seen The Piano Teacher coming.

The novel to me to revolved around power – who had the power. Mrs. Kohut wants to maintain absolute power over her daughter, but isn’t able to. As the authority figure in the relationship, one would typically conclude that Erika has the power in her “relationship” with Walter. As the male, Walter feels he has the power. Erika believes that by allowing Walter to believe he is in the power position, it will really be her. She tries to set the rules of the relationship with her letter, giving him the physical power but on her terms. And Walter does what she asks, but of course it doesn’t turn out to be what she wanted. Walter knew that would be the case, and of course with that knowledge, and with his act, he felt that he was in control. And with her final act, Erika has put herself back in control. Sort of.

Something about the text was a bit odd, with its drawn out and sometimes awkward metaphors; at times I wasn’t sure if that was the fault of the translation or the original text. Things like that can get extremely annoying and distracting, but I didn’t find it so in this case. The descriptions are lengthy, though there wasn’t a point where I wanted Jelinek to get on with it, and despite the graphic depictions of everything, I never found myself rolling my eyes. In 1988, the New York Times reviewer saw Erika’s violent fantasies as having been concocted by the author just for the shock value. I didn’t get that at all. Nothing seemed out of place, and I never thought to myself that something seemed contrived to get a reaction, in the way that American Psycho did.
What struck me, at least for the first two-thirds or so of the book was how little happened, without it seeming like nothing was happening. The bathroom scene isn’t until more than half-way through, and it isn’t until the last 50 pages that any action really gets going. It reminded me of real life - the fact that the overarching story of ourselves and the events that make up those stories are really few and far between. That the majority of our lives are mundane and average. Perhaps that's why I didn't feel that the long descriptions or the lack of action for most of the novel was out of place. It felt like reality.

I’m still not sure what to think about The Piano Teacher – as in I’m not sure if I liked it or not. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it, but I found myself not wanting to put it down, which should say something. I was surprised by the ending; I was surprised by lead up to the ending; I was surprised by Erika, which again is saying something. The novel was made into a film in the last decade, which won a number of international awards. I don’t think that I want to see this novel visually, though. Reading it was enough for me.

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