Monday, September 29, 2014

Book 158, Austria: Elfriede Jelinek’s "The Piano Teacher"

Kind of tricky to track down this book – the National Library had only one English-language copy in stock, and it was checked out. (Oddly enough, the Mandarin and Malay translations were still available.)

Had to go down to my old stomping grounds of NTU to check out the copies they had on reserve there as compulsory syllabus readings, in between Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice and WG Sebald’s... something or other.

And damn. Now I know why the censor-happy National Library won’t keep multiple copies in stock. Never mind that this is a work by a Nobel Prize Laureate, the greatest Austrian writer of her generation; a work made into a landmark critically acclaimed work of Franco-Austrian cinema.

The truth is, this book is sick, in the best way possible. Oh, the perspective’s technically third person, but it goes under your skin… It begins with a portrait of the twisted relationship between the 36-ish-year-old piano teacher Erika Kohut and her Mother; they live together in a tiny flat and the Mother refuses Erika any luxuries whatsoever, flying into a rage when she spends money on a dress to make herself look pretty, pretty girls are sluts, etc., all she wants to do is keep Erika as her tool to earn enough money for her old age so they can live together in a bigger condo, and all this good-for-nothing daughter does is waste her pay on frivolities…

So we hate the mother, and we’re rooting for Erika, and even more so when we learn that Erika was groomed to be a great concert pianist from her girlhood, her mother and her grandmother consumed by dreams of fame and success that brought them to Vienna, the city of music. But somehow Erika screwed up a critical recital and has had to live her life as an angry repressed spinster piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory…

…and it turns out she’s kind of an awful person as well, deliberately kicking or pinching people in crowded trolleybuses, stalking through the Turkish district to look at girlie peepshows or Prater fairgrounds to catch couples doing it in the grass (there’s some horrible things said about Turks and Yugoslavs in the process; hope that’s the character speaking and not the author)…

… and there’s a young, blond, athlete of a piano student named Walter Klemmer, and he’s hot for her, and she’s hot for him, but he’s asserting his god-given male entitlement and worship of his own 7-inch cock on the world, flirting with every young girl, and she won’t do with that, and so she hurts other people, she hurts herself especially, she hurts her mother too, and she hurts Klemmer, in a series of psycho nonconsensual BDSM sequences in the conservatory toilets, broom closets and her mother’s sacred bedroom…

In a way, it’s a feminist’s nightmare: a woman writing about women who are hysterical, steely in public but desiring domination and punishment in private, women who are wildly weak. Women like the heroines of Greek tragedies. Xiao bitches, as Singaporeans would say.

And it is written so damn well. Aiyah, I’ll just leave it at that. Wonder how on earth I can learn from this prose style. (Rather pleased that NTU students are reading it… how does it change their lives?)

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Representative quote: Erika holds Walter Klemmer at arm's length. She pulls out his dick, which he has already slated for deployment. It only needs the finishing touch, for it is already prepared. Relieved that Erika has taken over this difficult task, Klemmer tries to push his tach down all the way. Now Erika has to resist him with her entire weight so she can remain upright. She holds Klemmer's genital at arm's length while he fumbles about randomly in her vagina. She lets him know that is he doens't stop, she'll leave. She softly repeats her threat several times, because her suddenly superior will has a hard time getting through to him and his rutting fury. His mind seems fogbound with angry intentions. He hesitates. Wondering whether he's misunderstood something. Neither in the history of music nor anywhere else is the suitor simply barred from events. This woman has not a spark of submission. Erika starts kneading the red root between her fingers. She demands a privilege, but refuses to grant it to the man. He must go no further with her.

Next book: Imre Kertész's Fateless, from Hungary.

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