One Book, One Country — Austria

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (1983)


I thought about making that my entire review, but if you want to read caustic reviews, I’m on Goodreads. This inventory is about how books fit into a reading project, and is admittedly rather drier.

I picked The Piano Teacher because the author was a Nobel Prize winner. Although there are several notable authors who were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, I’ve tried to pick books where the author was born and preferable lived a good portion of their life within the modern boundaries of the country. My first feeling about The Piano Teacher was that I had no idea why this was Nobel Prize winning writing. I still think that the translation may fail to capture something in the original German prose. I felt like it could have been powerful and intimate, but instead I was left on the outside as an observer who wasn’t all that interested. This could easily have been a translation issue. But a Nobel committee member resigned from the academy when Jelinek was chosen, calling her work “whining, unenjoyable public pornography”. I find I can’t disagree with that assessment, so I’m left to wonder whether the work also contains something deeper.

If there’s one thing that a book from every country does not subscribe to, it’s The Death of the Author. Obviously, the background of the author is the defining criteria for selection. Many lists of books “from” every country include books written about the country by a traveler or a colonist. I doubled down on this in assessing Jelinek. Her book is almost not worth considering apart from her life. On its own, it’s a disturbing story about a piano teacher who lives with her mother in a grotesquely enmeshed fashion. They sleep in the same bed, her mother controls what clothes she wears outside the house, they use physical and sexual violence against one another, and her mother endlessly chides her for messing up a piano audition that could have made her a concert pianist. She seeks out deviant sexual situations. So it’s the least surprising thing in the world that Jelinek herself had a mother who planned, then pushed her into a musical career starting in childhood, that apparently didn’t germinate into an adult occupation, and that she suffers from clinical anxiety. Without her life story, the book seems merely perversely imaginative; but with it, there’s an undercurrent of dark fantasy.

It’s also hard to reconcile her personal politics as a feminist with this book. She appears to believe that relationships are often about power and violence and this story makes those dynamics explicit, but I’m not sure what there was beyond that. The final events went so far over the top for me that it almost became like dark humor, like American Psycho maybe, only I’m not convinced that was intentional.

If this has anything to do with Austria, I can’t say what.

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