The Piano Teacher (Elfriede Jelinek)

4 out of 5 stars

Cut to the Chase:
In 2004, the controversial Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her novels and plays addressing violence against women, sexuality, and politics. I first read her work in 2008. I went on a feminist rant and whined that I wanted to read something gutsy written by a girl. A friend recommended Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, translated from the German. I read the book and then I bought the movie on DVD.

Given the Nobel, I went into both the book and the film expecting to be impressed. (Whether that was a correct or incorrect expectation is a topic for another day.) But after all, a Nobel is a daunting achievement. Well, rest assured, this writer is daunting. She has no mercy. She’s not just gutsy – she’s all guts. And she is decidedly not for everyone, maybe not even for most. If you crave an inspiring, empowering girl-meets-world book – run away. If you want a feel-good movie, run away faster. This is a dark story. If you don’t have an agenda, stick around – it does get interesting.

Greater Detail:
In this story, Erika Kohut is a middle-aged spinster musician who teaches at Vienna’s renowned Conservatory. She lives with her outrageously overbearing mother, who attempts to keep Erika away from men. Although hands-on sexual experience has all but passed Erika by, she is obsessed with the erotic – and the seedier, the better. At night, Erika descends into Vienna’s red light district to witness the smut in a most controlled manner. Meanwhile, her playboy student Walter Klemmer has an eye to make her his next conquest, but Erika is overwhelmed by fear. She seeks to control her fear with the botched suggestion that he beat and abuse her – as if her authorship of his sadism will keep her from being degraded by it.

The novel is a relentless flow, fueled by backstory. Its juxtapositions refuse to just stand side by side and differ. The conflicting forces desire one another – they push away and pull closer at the same time, moving and surging, until the reader is waist high in the combined muck and grandeur of Erika Kohut, a character capable of cutting her own genitals with a razor and then heading out to play Schumann to sublime perfection.

The movie, which is subtitled from the French, does capture this love-hate theme of the novel, but it has a much different texture. True to its episodic medium, instead of flowing, the film hops from shocking scene to shocking scene to skillfully portray a character’s descent into sexually charged madness. As per usual with adaptations, Michael Hameke’s film version misses much of the novel’s subtlety, and alters plot details to suit dramatization, sometimes effectively, but at other times to the detriment of the original story’s intent. For example, in the film, when Erika goes red light, she watches heterosexual pornography movies; in the book, Erika watches live women, baring all – no men. The novel overtly states that while at the peep shows, Erika touches nobody, not even herself. She is there to witness her female nature vicariously, as she stares at the splayed open legs of the performing women. This secondhand view of her own sexuality is as close as Erika comes to self-knowledge: “She has to keep looking. She is off-limits to herself.” Thus, The Piano Teacher as written becomes a study in someone who is emotionally off-target, while the film simply generalizes Erika’s sexual perversion and largely avoids psychological interpretation.

The film also largely avoids cultural interpretation, which is absolutely essential to the novel. Just look at the cover artwork on the hardcover edition: a naked woman sits beside a piano and sheets of music in the middle of a city. She is larger than the city, yet completely enclosed by it. In the novel, cultural cliché is constantly probed for extra meaning, for example: “Klemmer drifts along on his own head waters; he is never in over his head,” and “Now he has to live with the charge that he did not discharge.” The constant wordplay calls attention away from scene, inviting the reader to think of other contexts, and to experience Erika’s drowning in cultural formula.

The issue of patriarchy also colors Erika’s perspective in the novel. Erika’s mother suspects men in general – she desperately needs Erika to remain single, and she herself is glad to be rid of her husband. Yet, Mother also sanctions the patriarchy. Mother indulges a nephew’s degrading games with women, which culminate in his compelling them to kiss his feet. During this: “[Mother] laughs and holds a plate of cookies in her hand. [She] says you’re only young once.” Here we see Mother the man-hater enjoying male dominance. Thus, the ugly details of Erika’s confusion are an echo of a wider societal perversion that pervades her life and her home.

In the film, culture is not held responsible at all. As a matter of fact, culture is opaque: we have a French cast in a Vienna setting, speaking French instead of the German of the original novel. And the closest we come to a comment on societal views of women is when Erika, after we have already seen her indulging in X-rated material, reprimands a student for looking at pornographic magazines. When he apologizes, she demands he define why: “Are you sorry because you’re a pig? Or because your friends are pigs? Or because all women are bitches for making you a pig? Or just because you got caught?” Erika is not necessarily being a hypocrite here; she truly wants to know. This becomes the film’s essential question: Which came first—Erika’s urge to be degraded, or Walter’s ultimate willingness to do it?

When the chastised student refuses to reply, Erika’s frustration is palpable. This issue is much clearer in the novel, for from the start we know that Walter is a “player,” who intends only to have a short sexual affair with Erika, and that he is not in it for eternal love. But in the film, although Walter appears slick, he professes to love Erika, and nothing really counters that.

The novel succeeds because every element of it underlines Erika’s alienation and repression, thus reinforcing character. The juxtaposing themes do more than reflect Erika, they correspond to her: neither she nor they can settle into one clear vision, except as a comment on the muddle and tyranny of high society. Love does not just oppose hate—it combines with it in every relationship, as we see with Erika and Mother, and with Erika and Walter. And the subjugating power of prescriptive social tradition does not just oppose the individual human drive to exert a modicum of control—it creates it, just as Mother both creates and crushes Erika. There is no one thematic edge for a reader to settle on and the effect is collage-like: an overall vividness, but no stark focal point.

The film succeeds for the exact opposite reason: each scene is a stark focal point. Erika’s inhibition gushes out in short scenes of rabid action: she pulls out Mother’s hair; she brings Walter to the brink of sexual pleasure and then humiliates him; she perpetrates a cruel crime on one of her students; and so on.

The French actress Isabelle Huppert as Erika portrays more through silence than most actresses do through dialogue. She sits still through much of the film, subtly indicating her chaotic, passionate inner life with no more than a lip twitch, or a hand moved to her lap. She says more when her face trembles slightly than most people gush out in a paragraph, a talent necessary to portray Erika Kohut, the relentless musical blur who expects, controls, and deplores her own rape.

If you want to see a compelling portrayal of sexual “disorder,” watch the film. If you want to know the complex history and logic behind it, read the book. If you only do one, choose the book. It bluntly denies the idea that any woman is unharmed by the objectification of women in general, and it gives you more dark reasons for this denial than you will want to experience. I didn’t ask for pretty, and I didn’t get it. I wanted to read something gutsy by a girl—Jelinek did deliver that.

Comparisons to Other Authors:
With my limited experience of Austrian and German literature, it’s impossible for me to contrast Jelinek and writers within her own tradition, and an example of a novel with an equally severe focus on such uncomfortable subject matter does not readily come to my mind. But broad comparisons to other feminist portrayals are obvious. Many writers have placed female protagonists in cultural context to enrich characterization or elicit sympathy or comment on politics: think Hardy’s Tess or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, both acted upon by culture and social norm, especially relative to sexuality, to their own detriment. There are also the more defiant portrayals; in Toni Morrison’s Sula, the title character acts against her culture’s norms until she is an outcast, as does Margaret Atwood’s character Zenia in The Robber Bride. However, Jelinek’s Erica Kohut is not simply the victim of her culture, nor is she the rebel who rejects the traditional path completely. Erika Kohut is more complicated: she is culture’s partner in crime: ensnared and complicit, both wounded and aggressive. Readers will grapple with her long after they close this book.

© 2013 Leigh Rastivo

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Posted in Literary Fiction

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