The Postmodern Destruction of Boundaries: The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
“Erika seeks a pain that will end in death.”
Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher can be described, in one word, as extreme. Having heard about the film and finding my way to the source material, I read the novel over winter break, then watched the movie.
The novel follows Erika Kohut, a middle aged piano teacher at a prestigious school of music in Vienna. Severely emotionally and sexually repressed, Erika lives with her tyrannical mother as she spends her time teaching, attending chamber concerts, and exercising her voyeuristic inclinations by watching pornographic films and paying for peep shows. Erika enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with a 17 year old piano student, Walter Klemmer, which results in disasters of epic proportions. Through a third person omniscient narration, readers are privy to characters’ pasts and their present thoughts that attempt to validate their immoral behavior. In the cynical postmodern tradition post-Lolita and preceding Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, The Piano Teacher does not offer solutions for people who destructively succumb to their warped desires. Instead, Jelinek graphically depicts the ramifications of a dangerous mind borne out of a crippling parental despotism.
Erika possesses desires that cannot be separated or regarded singularly. To Erika, the pleasure one feels when hearing a Baroque piano sonata is distinctly erotic; in turn, the pain she promotes in her sex life is compared to the strains felt when playing piano for hours on end. Erika didactically tells a student that “Bach rebuilds gothic cathedrals whenever his music is played” before feeling “the tingling between her legs, something felt only by the chosen by and for art when [she] talk[s] about art.” She exploits Walter’s adolescent crush on her, as Jelinek comments on the perversions manifested in Erika feeling constantly inadequate in the eyes of her mother. Yet, her mother is an individual she worships despite the emotional abuse. “Erika would much prefer to creep into her mother and rock gently in the warm fluid of her womb,” than initially explore her attraction to Walter. It is fitting that Erika and Walter’s first physical encounter takes place in a bathroom as a blatant metaphor for their bilious indulgence.
The Piano Teacher was a critical success when it was published in 1983. It went on to become a lauded film in 2001 starring Isabelle Huppert, who won several awards for her portrayal as Erika (considered one of the greatest performances by an actress so far in the 21st century). In 2004, Jelinek was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, honored for her “musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power” (Nobelprize.org).
It is with tepidness that I recommend The Piano Teacher to fellow readers. An unforgettable reading experience, albeit harrowing, it is a fascinating case study in the extremities of physical and mental boundaries, and the calamities that arise when two partners are not on the same agreements of consent. Jelinek devastatingly illustrates in hyperbolic intensity the danger that can arise when one does not know his or her own limits. Its fusion of the carnal with the artistic is seen in many works, but Jelinek explores the unfortunate situation when art is no longer a solace. “Sometimes, of course, art creates the suffering in the first place.”