The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
High art collides head-on with S&M in The Piano Teacher, by 2004 Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek – a Jekyll and Hyde for the age of hardcore pornography. Erika Kohut, the main character and eponymous ivory tinkler, is a middle-aged teacher at the Vienna Conservatoire. A socially repressed ice-queen and failed concert pianist, by day she enforces the rigours of classical technique and enlightens her pupils on the finer points of Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms. By night she trawls the seedy porno joints of Vienna, spies on couples having sex in public parks, self-harms and indulges in violent sexual fantasies.
Heard this one before? For anyone who has read, say, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray or American Psycho, the basic outline of this story will be pretty familiar. On the outside the picture of bourgeois respectability, like Humbert Humbert, Erika Kohut’s austere facade conceals a cesspool of rotting monsters. Suffocated by her own high-cultural propriety – as well as her tyrannical mother, with whom she has been engaged in a life-long, love/hate power-struggle – she is secretly consumed by loathing for the complacent, repressed social mores of which she appears to be the epitomy. As in the novels mentioned above, The Piano Teacher plots the course of Kohut’s destructive alter-ego as it spirals out of control.
Erika has until now managed to limit herself to her night-time prowls, wild cat-fights with her mother and clandestine trysts with a razor blade (the scenes involving self-harm are some of the most disturbing in this self-consciously shocking novel). However, her violent fantasies come to a head when she meets and is seduced by her pupil Walter Klemmer, a dashing young would-be ladies’ man. In him Kohut’s frenzied and lurid desires find the vent they have for so long lacked. Young Klemmer is drawn ever deeper into the disturbing world of her sexual imagination, forcing both characters to confront the clash between their social personas and primal, repressed desires.
While the central trope breaks little ground, one senses that Jelinek’s use of a Jekyll/Hyde character may be a deliberate ploy, adapting a male persona to address the contemporary social and sexual expectations and pressures placed on women. The contrast with Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho – written seven years later but adapting the same literary archetype – highlights aspects of Jelinke’s critique of the female condition. Whereas Patrick Bateman directs his anger outwards against the world around him, Erika Kohut’s rage is time and again directed against her own physicality, the female sexuality degraded and objectified by male pornographic imagery. Whereas Bateman’s nihilistic despair is a product of excessive freedom – a parody of the unbridled capitalism of the 1980s Wall Street boom – Kohut’s narrative is defined by ever-building claustrophobia and constraint.
This constraint is rendered stylistically by Jelinek’s use of stream of consciousness, flitting between the voices of Kohut, her mother (often as imagined by Kohut herself), and Klemmer. The contrast between these interior voices ties in with the novel’s larger themes. Kohut’s icey monologue is rendered in short, stunted sentences, a grammatical constraint that pulls against the surreal imagery of her thoughts to heighten the novel’s broodingly claustrophobic mood. In direct contrast, Klemmer’s monologue reads as Lawrentian pastiche, the spiralling clauses of his lengthy sentences reflecting his heightened sense of his own sexual power.
While The Piano Teacher is a difficult novel to enjoy in a conventional sense – definitely not recommended for pre-bedtime escapism! – it has some provocative and often profound things to say about the distinction between what society designates ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, the arbitrariness and absurdity of borgeoise social mores, and the destructive nature of gender stereotypes. While the self-consciously sinister tone of the narrative initially feels hammed up and formulaic – the Brothers Grimm meets domestic misery memoir – as the novel goes on it begins to display the multiple levels on which it operates. Ultimately The Piano Teacher emerges as a sophisticated and deathly black parody that undercuts the sanctity of every cultural form it touches.