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What the Swedes Read: Elfriede Jelinek

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Elfriede Jelinek

Daniel Handler
10 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Elfriede Jelinek (2004, Austria)
  • BOOK READ: The Piano Teacher, trans. Joachim Neugroschel

I like sex in a novel. The way I feel about sex in novels is basically how I feel about it in life: it’s inherently interesting, it’s an opportunity for emotional and/or narrative development, and the pleasure’s worth the risk of embarrassment. I like it, and I find it troubling when it’s completely absent from a situation that clearly calls for it.

I get this troubling feeling when I read much recent American realist fiction, which often puffs up with bravery to examine various personal or sociopolitical narratives with searing honesty, and then has people fall into each other’s arms and shut the bedroom door and then there are three asterisks and it’s the next morning. More than one American author has told me they’ve avoided writing sex scenes because what might be exciting to one reader is tedious to another, which is curious reasoning, as the same could be said of any subject at all, as any reader who’s giggled through a bad death scene knows all too well. But, of course, that’s not why they’re not writing sex scenes. They’re not writing them because they’re difficult to write well. To which I say: So’s descriptions of landscapes. But you keep doing that, don’t you? Get back to your desk.

All this is a roundabout way for me to say that Elfriede Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher is full of sex. It was made into a film you might have seen—no, not the Polanski one, that’s The Pianist; no, not Holly Hunter as a mute, that’s The Piano; Isabelle Huppert, yes, that’s the one—that was praised for its quiet tension and control, but the novel runs wild and rampant, spilling sex into every crevice. It’s not a dirty book—it’s filthy. And while this is the opposite of the primness in some recent American fiction, it isn’t exactly the opposite of troubling.

The Piano Teacher contains the most disturbing sex I’ve ever encountered in literature, with the possible exception of some scenes in J.G. Ballard’s Crash.  But while Ballard used sex to illustrate a point of ironic, extremist philosophy – that the collision of bodies and automobiles are one and the same – it wasn’t immediately clear to me what Jelinek was up to.  I’ve encountered literary sex that is meant to titillate, meant to provoke or meant to alienate; I’ve read sex scenes that serve as canvasses for any number of emotional agendas.  But here the sex is everyplace at once, and ends up meaning everything – but only to the novel’s heroine.

The piano teacher in The Piano Teacher is Erika Kohut, who once had a promising future as a great musician but now grimly teaches other young hopefuls.  She lives with her mother, badly, and sneaks off to sit in peep shows, stare at the promotional photographs of pornographic films, and daydream about the sexual hungers and activities of strangers around town.  She fixates on one of her students, the young and handsome Walter Klemmer, and begins to tease him into a frenzy.  She writes him filthy, demanding letters.  She orchestrates elaborate private encounters and then publicly shames him.  She viciously mutilates someone who she sees as getting in their way.  And eventually, horribly, she brings him home to meet mother.

Laid out like that, The Piano Teacher sounds like a fairly standard tale of obsession and repression, and indeed it seems no coincidence that Jelinek sets the novel in Vienna, where Freud’s ideas found root.  But the novel is much more than this, by being much less.  The Piano Teacher resists the temptation of obvious ideology by giving into the temptations of every other bad behavior.  Jelinek gives us every idea in Erika’s head, and yet she remains a cypher; likewise we see every seeming opportunity for escape and redemption – immersion into art, a chance for love – and Erika pursues them ferociously only to have them bring no solace.  After circling each other for a long time, for instance, here’s the consummation scene, if you can call it that:

“Walter Klemmer pulls Erika out of the toilet stall.  He yanks her.  For openers, he presses a long kiss on her mouth; it was long overdue.  He gnaws on her lips, his tongue plumbs her depths.  After endlessly ruinous use, his tongue pulls back and then pronounces Erika’s name several times.  He puts a lot of work into this piece known as Erika.  He reaches under her skirt, knowing that means he is going places.  He goes even farther, he feels that passion has permission.  Passion has carte blanche.  He burrows around in Erika’s innards as if he wanted to take them out, prepare them in a new way…He hears a pained whimper from Erika.  He promptly subsides; he doesn’t want to harm her wantonly before she really gets going.  Klemmer has an illuminating flash: Maybe he can get into the sweater and the blouse by going under the waistband, i.e., from the opposite direction.  First he has to pull the sweater and the blouse out of the skirt.  He spits harder because he’s trying so hard.  He keeps barking Erika’s name (which she knows anyway) into her mouth.” (pg. 176)

Hubba hubba, eh?  The tone, like Klemmer’s hands, is all over the place.  There’s fussy, almost bureaucratic asides – this must be one of the few sex scenes in literature to employ the expression “i.e.” – and unconvincing philosophizing (“Passion has carte blanche”).  The scene is violent – the yanking, the “ruinous use” of the tongue – but there’s awkward, almost comic bumbling with the skirt and the sweater.  And then there’s turns of phrase like “He puts a lot of work into this piece known as Erika” and “He keeps barking Erika’s name (which she knows anyway)” which I can’t quite parse.  They’re so chilly they seem like jokes, but jokes like that give me chills.  It’s a crucial scene in the book, but I don’t have any grasp on what it means aside from the dirty, specific business of what’s described.

I’ve often thought that the best novels feel like allegories but aren’t – the story implies a larger agenda but doesn’t quite give you the crutch of finding one.  Consider Lolita, another sex-infused book that beckons to themes of love and lust, fantasy and reality, innocence and corruption, America and Europe – and yet stubbornly remains a book about a man and a young girl.  The Piano Teacher casts its vision all over the world and finds it filthy – but the vision is Erika’s, and ultimately Jelinek’s.

Before I embarked on this project I assumed that books by Nobel prizewinners would have, if not universal appeal, at least overtures to a wide readership.  But imagining books that everyone could understand now seems as naive as casting a vague Freudian schematic onto a troubled woman in Vienna.  The troubles are hers, not ours.  Jelinek has been praised for giving us a portrait of post-war Europe, but I found nothing so public in The Piano Teacher.  Its rewards are so compelling because the novel’s so private.  Which is maybe why there’s so many privates in it.

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