The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

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The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A hard-hitting, dense look at destructive relationships.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: November 2010
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846687372

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Erika is a single woman in her thirties, who, despite the best efforts of her mother, did not succeed as a concert musician, but instead works as a teacher at the Vienna Conservatory. I say best efforts, I mean outright pressure. Erika and her mother make for an unusual relationship - the older relying on the glory, company and complete obedience of the younger, the daughter sharing a bed with her mother even at this stage of her life. All this is until a young student at the school decides he will be a younger lover for Erika, and forces his will into the household. But who, should such a relationship actually form, is going to be the power-maker?

I say Erika is a single woman, and the book title declares she is a piano teacher. But it also starts by saying she is a hurricane, a fly in amber, a meadow flower, a caravan, and even a weary dolphin. It gets to the point where you find relief in the narrator saying something as reassuring as the fork is a fork. The knife is a knife. There is a quite noticeable style to this book, one with heavy metaphors, and a richness that you may well find slipping into the Pseuds' Corner hyperbole that some music writing bears.

The music element of the story here is not subject to such flaws. It concentrates on music lightly, and where it does, it focuses on the effect of music, whether played well or badly, by pupil or adored teacher. The prime concern then is the relationships here, and with a forensically artistic approach we see the formulating aspects of all the characters, and the effect the unusual people have when combining.

Erika is not a typical woman in her thirties. She's not solely under the thumb of her mother, as regards her time-keeping, her whereabouts and her wardrobe, for she does manage to escape, if only to the sex shops and to the dogging areas of the Prater park. Her sex life is a very vicarious one. The younger drive of Walter is a nice contrast, although he's not exactly Mills and Boon material either.

The combination of finely-formed psychologies and characters prove this book to be a metaphor itself, one that takes a slightly OTT look at the very nature of heterosexual couples. There's a power struggle in forming any such partnership, Jelinek says, and the way she shows it with such a heightened sensibility means this masculine-styled questioning of femininity and more sits high in the reasons why she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It isn't by any means a book for all tastes. The visual way we see Erika finding pleasure, from sexual approaches we can only think of as dirty, to self-harming, adds to the content being a bit hard for some stomachs. The style too is one to catch the unwary with its density. Looking back from a distance, not a lot seems to happen in the first hundred pages, before boy and woman start to combine. But as a noted work from a noted author, and the source to an enjoyable Michael Haneke film from 2001, this is not to be dismissed. It takes the reader to rarefied places that probably (hopefully?) don't exist in their private lives, with lessons for many about sexual politics, personal power and many different relationships.

I must thank Serpent's Tail's kind people for my rereleased issue.

This is probably a better place to start reading Jelinek than Greed. For a similarly bleak look at sexual relationships, try The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. You might also appreciate Tomorrow There Will be Apricots by Jessica Soffer.

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