Elfriede Jelinek: The Piano Teacher

November 28, 2009

posted and written by caroline picard

The Terror of Piano Teachers

This book is amazing. Totally twisted and dark and psychological. While I’m not sure what the category would mean, exactly, it felt like a “post-feminist story”–meaning that while there is heightened awareness of gender issues (particularly women striving for independence) there is a larger, more general sympathy towards the emotional landscape of the human mind. Jelinek captures perversion as it grows out of suffering psyches. Her portrayal of the inner workings of characters’ minds is brutally honest and, I think, fair. It was that even handed narration which, despite the self-inflicted tragedy/meanness (what seems a result of old societal expectations and values) gave me a sense of hope.

At any rate, the story is as follows: a daughter lives with a mother who is obsessed with protecting her daughter from the world of men. The mother is needy, herself, and as narcissistic as she is protective/coddling. Meantime, the daughter is a piano teacher and, in that way, is entrenched in the white-male cannon of classical music (though it’s never explicitly called as such). She loves that tradition as much as she is enslaved by it. The daughter vies for her independence in small acts of rebellion; she goes to peep shows after work, or public parks to watch people have sex; she has an affair with a student, and in some way tries to assert her own, albeit repressed, power by asking for domination. Which just blows up.

It reminded me of a friend of mine who posted a note on Craigs list, announcing that she could give piano lessons. She was a piano teacher. A man replied asking if she could also whip him. She agreed, so long as she could bring her two male friends. She also increased her hourly fee. He never replied.

Another time, a few weeks ago, I met a young American man who grew up in Germany. He happened to be wearing a beret and wore dark eyeliner on, in an apparent attempt at Halloween. He started talking about a piano teacher he’d had who was especially strict and as I was still reading the Jelenick book, I mentioned it. I described the plot in great detail, as it was blowing my mind at the time and I was thrilled to have a chance to talk about it. The young man got up abruptly and went outside without any further explanation. (We were in a group of people). Something about the look in his face made me think the book  more true, somehow, though afterwards I can’t say why.

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