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World fiction reading challenge #6: The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek

Yes, I know; this is neither the sixth month of the year, nor the sixth book I’ve read for this year’s reading challenge. In fact, the challenge has not been going very well. I got bogged down in Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red back in March, so gave up on it and moved onto Mariama Bâ’s So Long a Letter, which I read a month late (see here). Then I got bogged down again, but this time in Javier Marías’ Fever and Spear… And that threw me off my schedule completely – so much so that I’ve only just read June’s book, The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, in September…

I know the story from Michael Haneke’s excellent 2001 film adaptation, and reading the novel on which a great film is based is always a hostage to fortune. Typically, books are better than the films made of them, but when the film itself is so good… Happily, the novel proved to be noticeably different to the film; unhappily, it proved a less satisfying read than the film is a viewing experience.

Erika Kohut is a piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory. She lives with her mother, a controlling, shrewish woman. But Erika’s prim and proper demeanour hides a secret – in the evenings, she sneaks about the city, visiting peep shows and spying on prostitutes going about their business. She buys expensive clothing, which makes her mother furious as they’re supposed to be saving for a bigger and more modern apartment, but never wears it.

And then one of Erika’s students, Walter Klemmer, finds himself attracted to his teacher, and sets about seducing her. But she responds by telling him exactly how he is to woo her – it involves bondage and humiliation – but he’s not so sure he can cope with her demands. He wants to be in control, he must be in control.

The Piano Teacher was first published in 1986 in Austria, as Die Klavierspielerin, and first published in English in 1988. The edition I read, published in 2010 by Serpent’s Tail, appears to use the original Weidenfeld & Nicolson translation from 1988, which means a lot of it has been translated into idiomatic American English. It doesn’t feel right. I’ve come across this before, when a novel translated into English uses American vernacular when it’s quite clearly not set in the US nor has American characters. There must be other ways to signal that the original was written in the demotic without resorting to clichés that only apply in the US and which often date quickly.

None of this is helped by Jelinek’s propensity to jump from metaphor to metaphor within a single paragraph. It feels like a lack of control over her material, yet in all other respects Jelinek’s prose is so tightly-written and brusque that it’s plain control is one of her chief strengths. Other elements of her style I found less problematic – dialogue, for example, is not always indicated by speech marks, and is sometimes only reported. The narrative remains tightly-focused on its three main characters – Erika, her mother, and Walter – and makes for a claustrophobic read. None of the central trio are at all sympathetic. The mother is quite horrible, Walter is the embodiment of youthful male arrogance, and even Erika herself feels damaged.

The Piano Teacher is not a comfortable read, just as Haneke’s film is not comfortable viewing. It’s a book that’s easier to admire than to like. I didn’t take to it as I did to Szabó’s The Door (see here), but I do think I’d like to read more Jelinek.

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