The Piano Teacher
Elfreide Jelinek, 1983
Wow, no summertime beach-reading, this. Brilliant straight through, highly demanding, horrible to contemplate, and extremely rewarding, this is a novel that will stick with me. The kind of book that makes me want to learn German just so I can read it untranslated.
The writing reminds me of Henry James in its psychological density (and willingness to spend pages of packed prose on it), and of Virginia Woolf in its evocation of states of mind across broad distances in text. It's also something of a narrative tour de force...
There's a "trick" in the narrative style that boggles the mind (well, my mind) at first, then pays the reader back when he or she slows down enough to grasp the rhythm. Jelinek seemingly writes from many characters' perspectives at once. In mid-sentence, I'll realize that this isn't the voice of character A after all, but what B is imagining A to be thinking about her. Or wait, maybe it's how A wants B to imagine A thinking about her. Or is this all just what C thinks of the dynamic between A and B? Ultimately, it's all those things at once - not a mystery to be unravelled, but a web of interconnections drawn from multiple angles. Desires and needs and imaginations overlap and fold in on themselves. I can't say that the prose style is effortless in this regard, but neither is it laborious - it's taut and considered, and moves at a controlled pace. (I can't help but think that such twists would be more streamlined in German, though I know very little of the language, really.)
The characters are all self-conscious in the extreme. Every attempt at communication is so fraught with anxiety and problems that it's no wonder each character spends so much time inside his or her own head, imagining the gaze of everyone else. In particular, the protagonist Erika Kohut has a real desperation in her need for human connection and has absolutely no skills with which to accomplish it.
The drama of frustration and disconnectedness spreads out to encompass the landscape of Vienna too, and in a beautiful, organic way. I have a fondness for stories that investigate urban spaces and urbanism in general, and Jelinek does a marvellous job of it in this novel - the "diseased" relationships in the book are clearly slivers of larger social dynamics.
So it's fitting that music is such an important part of the milieu. They are cultural artiacts of Vienna, of course. They provide opportunity to speak about descent into madness (Schumann), the anxiety of influence (Beethoven, Schoenberg), the culture of interpretation, the expression of emotional states in sound, the calcified roles of teacher and student, etc. For the most part, it's music for solo piano that's under the lens here - no interaction with fellow musicians required. To some degree, I think Jelinek is commenting on modern fallout from the romantic ideal of the Artist: one who lives aloof from society, in a cottage with his piano and his muse, a tortured genius who isn't understood by contemporaries.
Really great stuff here - I know I'll be reading it again in the future, and I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks great novels aren't being written any more.
May 08, 2008
The Piano Teacher