Trust is fine, but control is better

Dear Elfriede,

Your novel The Piano Teacher, tr. Joachim Neugroschel (1988. Die Klavierspielerin, 1983) is vile and uncompromising: it dwells on the grotesque, crossed by an undercurrent of violence that, by striping everything of fineries and superficial niceties, almost acts as a cleansing element.

The novel centres around Erika Kohut (Erika K.), a piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory. Since her father left the family, when she was a child, Erika has been pressed by her mother to achieve fame and money as a concert pianist. Despite the neighbours’ scepticism, ‘Mother’ sees her daughter as some kind of Wunderkind, and controls her every move: Erika cannot have any boyfriends nor any distractions, she must dedicate her life solely to her so-called career. “Mother wants to utilize the child’s life herself.”

By this point we already know that this cannot go well. Now in her late thirties, and despite her arrogance, Erika’s dreams of fame have given way to a boring job as a piano teacher. She takes her frustration out on her students, intimidating them; and she deludes herself that her great talent goes unrecognized by the ignorant mob. She still lives with her domineering mother, and they even sleep on the same bed.

Theirs is a violent relationship, permeated by power struggles: ‘Mother’ keeps her daughter’s earnings, hoping to buy a larger home; she both bullies Erika, undermining her self-confidence, and feeds her delusions, proclaiming her as an exceptional pianist. “Tonight, when they’re watching TV, she’ll give Erika the silent treatment. And if Mother does break the silence, she’ll tell Erika that everything Mother does is motivated by Love. Mother will declare her love for Erika, which should excuse any possible mistakes that Mother might make.”

Mother discourages Erika from dating men, from having friends and trusting other people, and even from making herself presentable. It is a claustrophobic environment, and any possible deviation on the part of the daughter is repressed: Erika cannot even purchase a new dress without being reprimanded. She has to do everything on the quiet, behind her mother’s back. Often enough, Erika beats her mother and screams at her, but, in the end, her bursts of violence turn into incestuous attempts at making peace. ”They are enclosed together in a bell jar (…) The jar can be lifted only if an outsider grabs the glass knob on top and pulls it up. Erika is an insect encased in amber, timeless, ageless. She has no history, and she doesn’t make a fuss. This insect has long since lost its ability to creep and crawl.”

Erika’s latent violence and need for control over her own life goes beyond spending money on clothes she will keep hidden and never wear: our protagonist’s rebellion turns against itself, and she frequently performs self-mutilation, cutting her body with a treasured razor blade she takes everywhere: “The blade smiles like a bridegroom at a bride”. Erika also finds solace in nurturing violent fantasies and engaging in a series of brutalizing voyeuristic pursuits: she watches strippers and live-sex performances in peep shows, goes to sadomasochistic movies, and even spies on a couple having sex in the park.

When one of her young students, Walter Klemmer, becomes intent on seducing her, Erika’s drive toward self-destruction spirals out of control. In a twisted, darkly humorous way, they are the perfect match: both are elitist, arrogant, and delusional; both are referred to as ‘K’ (a Kafkaesque nod, perhaps?); and each yearns to exert control over the other. As expected, Erika and Klemmer quickly develop a mutual obsession.

When we think the plot couldn’t get any more bizarre, it goes even further in its depiction of human degradation and perversity. Seeking control in the relationship, Erika writes a letter to Klemmer, telling him exactly what he must do to physically and sexually dominate her: she goes in detail over a series of sadomasochistic acts that she commands him to perform on her. Following a twisted logic of her own, Erika longs to make him at once her slave and her master; she both wants him to follow her rules and hopes that he will love her enough not to do so. To make matters worse, Klemmer is disgusted and uncomfortable to be told what to do – as well as longing for it. He at once obeys and subverts Erika’s pleas, raping and beating her in her own apartment, while ‘Mother’ is screaming, locked in the other room.

Yes, my friend, this is a wild ride. And it will be left unresolved. In fact, this was the highlight of the book for me: that it couldn’t care less with what we think, and even less with any of our attempts to put it in a wider context or theorize about it.

It is true that one could read the book in many ways: as a psychological exploration of a dysfunctional mother and daughter relationship; as a portrait of a woman made a monster out of being bound by a repressive society; a tale about trauma as something that eludes language and can only be expressed through self-harm; a twisted, demented Bildungsroman; an exploration of violence as a complex act of resistance, assertion of power, and submission; and a satire of the power struggles that underlie social interactions (mother and daughter; student and teacher; captor and captive; victim and executioner; man and woman). However hard we try, though, the book will elude our attempts at pigeonholing it. It will only make another satire out of them.

I particularly enjoyed the writing style: coarse, fragmented, unapologetic – revelling in hyperboles, ugly language, absurdism, and disgusting images. The story is told in a detached way by a third-person narrator that sounds as demented as the characters he is describing: it sounds both perverse and childlike. The narrative point-of-view switches sometimes from one sentence to the next, shifting between Erika, her mother and Klemmer. I like the narrator’s voice: both tragic and darkly humorous, satiric and full of scorn.

The descriptions make the story very physical: you are intent not only on disgusting the reader by tackling every taboo imaginable in Western society – you are also intent on implicating us in the narrative. Much like Erika, we are the voyeurs here, and you are striping us of any polite excuse. If, outraged, we throw the book on the wall, screaming: This is garbage! – we will be doing exactly what you want us to do in the end. After all, this may well be just another power struggle: and you are the one managing the sharp instrument; the one inflicting the cut.

Yours truly,


Giovanni Segantini. The Punishment of Lust, also called The Punishment of Luxury, 1891.

“Every day, a piece of music, a short story, or a poem dies because its existence is no longer justified in our time. And things that were once considered immortal have become mortal again, no one knows them anymore. Even though they deserve to survive.” ― Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher
“Art and order, the relatives that refuse to relate.” ― Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher
“Vice is basically the love of failure.” ― Elfriede JelinekThe Piano Teacher
“The mob not only grabs hold of art without being entitled to do so, but it also enters the artist. It takes up residence inside the artist and smashes a few holes in the wall, windows to the outer world: The mob wants to be seen.” ― Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher
For the first thing a proprietor learns, and painfully at that, is: Trust is fine, but control is better. ― Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher

About the book

  • Serpent’s Tail, tr. Joachim Neugroschel, 2016, 290 p. Goodreads
  • First published 1983
  • Original title: Die Klavierspielerin
  • My rating: 4 stars
  • The book was made into a movie, directed by Michael Haneke (2001, IMDb)
  • I read this book for my bookclub & for  Backpack Through Europe Summer Reading Challenge

2 thoughts on “Trust is fine, but control is better

  1. It’s a very violent, hard-hitting book, that’s for sure, with no easy explanations. I still haven’t seen the film though, and am curious whether they have tried to either explain or sanitize the storyline.


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