Sean Meriwether's Reviews > The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
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really liked it
bookshelves: book-becomes-movie, european-authors

** spoiler alert ** Some authors might be content with a story about the seduction of a teacher by her student, but this is the author who brought us Wonderful, Wonderful Times . It can't be that simple.

The title character, Erika Kohut, was once an aspiring concert pianist who ended her career after one failed performance. In her late thirties she is relegated to teaching piano and giving lectures, neither of which she enjoys. She lives a half-life with painful experiences in her past, nothing in the future. Her co-dependent relationship with her suffocating mother, with whom she shares her marital bed, is both comforting in its predictability and explosively antagonistic. Erika buys vivid dresses that she won’t wear; her mother attacks her for wasting their money. These disagreements escalate into verbal and physical conflict and speak volumes of their shared oppression of sexual desire. The mother’s violently possessive love has taught the daughter that love comes with pain; Erika has learned to be a masochist. Erika rebukes her students harshly, intentionally hurts people on the trains by "accidently" hitting them with her instruments, fills the pockets of her teenage rival’s jacket with shards of glass to maim her. The frustrated woman haunts peepshows and parks in search of sexual stimulation, but only as a voyeur. She is estranged from her body. Erika cuts herself to watch the blood seep out like a secret, peers into her orifices for answer, but finds nothing. She is numb.

Her student, Walter Klemmer (referred to by his last name, while the teacher is always Erika, exhibiting their power arrangement), is all of 18. He is a handsome know-it-all who decides to seduce his older teacher to gain sexual experience that can be used on younger, more suitable girls. The harder he tries with Erika, the further she pulls away; he becomes determined to have her even as he grows disgusted with her reluctance. They grow obsessed with each other, circling to the increasingly frantic music of their own creation. In a moment of weakness she reveals her sexual fantasies to him, of being devoured, bound, and beaten (replicating her mother’s love with a man). Klemmer believes she is making fun of him; his manhood questioned when he can’t get an erection with her. Neither of them are giving or getting any pleasure. The tension escalates into a physical attack. The boy, frantic to get rid of his lust and end their relationship forces himself on her and rapes "the woman" (she has lost her identity). He hits then kisses her to give her the pleasure she demanded, or at least take his own. Erika feels nothing but pain. The story ends realistically, but inconclusively, with Erika reverting to self-harm instead of attacking the man who raped her.

The novel is challenging to read, upsetting.The dynamic between the three characters is tense and often violent, sometimes confusing. Erika's unfilled fantasies of being eclipsed by a man's desire, a fantasy which she has scripted for herself, is painful and heartbreaking.

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Reading Progress

April 29, 2019 – Shelved
April 29, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
April 29, 2019 – Shelved as: book-becomes-movie
February 3, 2020 – Started Reading
March 13, 2020 – Shelved as: european-authors
March 13, 2020 – Finished Reading

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