The Piano Teacher * Elfriede Jelinek

When you think your parents were controlling, think again. When you think your life as a single middle-aged woman is bad, think again. If you think that you did not live your life to the fullest, think again.
Meet Erika Kohut, an Austrian Piano Teacher at the Vienna Conservatory, a Bach and Shubert enthusiast, multi-talented and with a secret face that she unravels in this beautifully written book.

I started reading the book and I had to stop a few times to think it over. I could see so much of myself in this woman and so much of my over-protective mother in hers. But I left the nest when I grew up – as normal people do – Erika remained attached to her mother’s apron late into her thirties, leaving her mother as the rule maker, the punishment giver, the only person in her life. Her mother’s control was so great that she could not even buy new clothes without her mother’s disapproval and scorn, and there would be no man in Erika’s life to separate the two.

Erika studying the small items she stole or bought secretly
Erika studying the small items she stole or bought secretly
Erika was trained from a young age to be a concerto pianist. She would practice hours on end and the proud mother would leave the windows of the country house open so that the ignorant neighbors would hear her offspring’s delightful music. She pushed her only child forward, ambitious beyond end, blind to any faults or desires.
When Erika fails to perform during a major concert, her mother takes her away and pushes her towards a teaching position, harnessing all her earnings so that they could buy a bigger apartment in the future for the two of them. They spend days talking about how the new place would look, the minute details of arrangements are discussed thoroughly. They spend the minimum on daily items and any purchase that Erika makes for herself is frowned upon as it does not contribute towards their goal.

Erika is a disturbed woman. She is frustrated sexually and she cannot find an outlet for her frustration other than going to seedy peep shows or watching strangers copulating in the local park. Because she is so attached to her mother, they even share the same bed and she cannot move under the covers unless her mother would find out and punish her.

Trust is fine but control is better.

She feels the passing of time and while she knows that she is getting older, she cannot help but be envious of the young girls living their lives. She feels deeply and she hates profusely. She is rotting from the inside out and her initially mean actions (like randomly kicking people in a crowded bus) turn into worse as she breaks a porcelain thumb and puts the splinters into a colorful jacket she admired on a student that sported a mini-skirt.
She wants what other people have because she cannot have them. She used to steal them and then throw them away so her mother would not find out. If she cannot steal what she desires, like a beautiful sweater another girl was wearing, she would shadow her target until she will find out something nasty about her – like for example this girl was getting the money for the sweater by prostituting herself to older men. Once she has the dirt on the target, she will do anything possible to destroy it. She got the girl kicked out of school and with medium level education her entire life was destroyed.

All changes when Walt Klemmer falls in love with her. He sees her wrinkles as experience, and the secrecy of a possible relationship turns him on. The student-teacher relationship, while not forbidden in university circles, is frowned upon when the woman is almost ten years older than her suitor.
She does not love him back but she is flattered by his attentions. She starts wearing makeup and nicer clothes – but as she has not done this before, she does not know how to match one with the other and Klemmer notices that she looked like “a painted cow”. He idolizes her. He wants to change her, wants to take her away from her mother, wants to benefit from her experience and advance on a professional level by stepping up the ladder she will provide for him.
She stays up at night and muses over a possible relationship. She imagines him married to her and moving to a new house together with her mother. But the age gap is too much to handle, so she rebukes him, refuses to meet him, to touch him or otherwise acknowledge him.
Frustrated and angry, he approaches her in the female toilet and … (in my opinion).. attacks her in the stalls.
tumblr_md10pgOwyG1r2dnhnThe scene is seedy, borderline dirty – as they fight for relationship, they fight for dominance. She does not want to give up but she does want to be conquered. She wants to make him fight for her, wants to dictate how as well.

The fight for control is powerful – she masturbates him from the distance and then refuses to allow him to finish, walking out when he pleads for her to do so.
She then proceeds to give him a letter of her wants and needs and hopes that him reading the letter would move him away from her in repulsion. He does not read the letter but follows Erika home and intrudes on the “duo” of women just before they had dinner.
The mother is angry – she sees the net she cast over her daughter slipping as this new man she knew nothing about comes in and demands her precious daughter’s time.
Erika goes into her room but her mother tries to stop them yelling that this is her house and he is not welcomed. The mother beats at their door and Walter pushes a massive desk against it to stop her from coming in – as the door had no lock.
In here, instead of consuming their relationship, she forces him to read her letter. He reads it and then reads it aloud as he is shocked beyond belief by what he reads… She wants to be his slave and He, her master. She wants to be gagged and beaten, wants to be tied up and left like that in front of her mother, wants to experience pain and no release, wants him to yell at her and tell her she’s no good.

I was shocked. I kept on reading like Walter was – trying to get a sense of this woman who wanted punishment instead of a loving relationship. Was it because deep-down she knew she wasn’t worthy of her mother’s constant praise? Did she want someone else to dominate her like her mother did but in a more sexual manner? Did she think that a love between a man and a woman came at this cost?

Her world is truly stark and Gothic, it’s a world of maximalist and dramatic choices — yes or no, on top or on the bottom, bright or dark. She craves the most violent contrasts and cannot stand living in the zones of shades of grey. She understands only super- or subordination in the purest of forms.

Walter walks away and she releases her pent-up desire to be loved on her mother… (very disturbing scene if you ask me).
200_sThe book ends dramatically with Walter paying her another visit in the middle of the night and beating her while her mother was listening locked in her own room (the mother had locks on her door when she wanted to sulk away from her daughter).
She takes a knife and visits Klemmer at his school and sees the radiant boy he is and then uses the knife on herself. She stabs herself in the shoulder and then walks off to her mother again…

The Piano Teacher Movie

From the success of the book stemmed a fantastic movie, brilliantly acted by Isabelle Huppert.

Full Movie can be watched below:

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