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Vienna: The Underside of <i> Gemutlichkeit</i>

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $18.95 280 pages)

If your Vienna is a meld of Sachertorte, prancing Lippizaners, pristine ski slopes and Strauss waltzes, kiss all those visions goodby when you open “The Piano Teacher.” Elfriede Jelinek, who won the coveted Heinrich Boll Prize for her contribution to German literature, has written a corrosive novel of contemporary Viennese life, showing the festering underside of Gemutlichkeit ; a netherworld of masochism, oppression, and violence in which no romantic illusions can survive the first chapter.

Heavily symbolic and bleakly realistic, “The Piano Teacher” turns its female protagonist, Erika Kobut, into an extended metaphor for a doomed society.

An instructor at Vienna’s venerable Music Conservatory, Erika at 36 lives in a cramped, decaying flat with a mother old enough to be her grandmother. By now her dreams of a career on the concert stage have shriveled into the dreary routine of giving lessons to bored adolescents forced to study music for no better reason than the fact that they’re in Vienna, where music had evolved into a state religion. To ignore it is to be a heretic, and so Erika’s students sullenly go through the motions, impatient for the day when they can abandon the pretense forever.

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For Erika, dominated since birth by her fiercely demanding and pathologically possessive mother, that day of liberation will never arrive. The only concessions Erika has gained are her armchair and a closet full of gaudy dresses she will never wear. Mother and daughter share a bed, not out of poverty, devotion or even loneliness, but because a woman with a bed of her own might be tempted to test its potential. Eventually, a bed might lead to an apartment, to freedom, and to marriage, and then where would Erika’s mother be?

To all intents and purposes, Erika is a prisoner, furloughed only to teach her classes; her return calculated to the split second; her absences monitored by telephone. From time to time, her pent-up rage erupts in ugly scenes of assault and battery, mother and daughter flailing at one another and tearing out clumps of hair, then making up with TV and bonbons.

Few Outlets

Despite the constant surveillance, Erika has managed a few outlets for her frustration. In her rare moments of solitude, she slices into her flesh with a razor blade, sometimes varying the torment by attaching clothespins to her body and sticking herself with pins. Often, she lies to her mother about a late pupil or a changed hour, and goes off alone to a squalid porno parlor patronized by foreign laborers, where she pays her admission to a tiny cubicle and watches the nude women exhibit themselves. Other nights, she wanders through Vienna’s park with binoculars, spying on prostitutes and their clients. Graphic and unnerving, these episodes are calculated to demonstrate and underscore the parallels between Erika’s carefully preserved and wholly artificial air of propriety and the equally false charm and decorum of Vienna itself.

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This degrading cycle is broken when one of Erika’s students, a conceited self-styled bon vivant named Walter Klemmer, becomes obsessed with his prim teacher; his interest fueled by her apparent unavailability. Confronted by an actual male presence, Erika’s precarious mental balance tips into psychosis, and her covert sexual practices finally become uncontrollable, driving the novel to a violent and scarifying climax.

Though not for the faint-hearted or the squeamish, “The Piano Teacher” is compelling fiction, ensnaring the reader with the intensity of the author’s vision and the bitter irony she uses to present her view of the city. The prose is disarmingly colloquial, the work of a gifted translator who has carefully preserved the stylistic nuances of the original German and the black humor inherent in Erika’s bizarre encounters.

Passionately political under its dense mantle of sexual imagery, the novel shares the dark world view long common to Eastern European literature and now increasingly evident in books from ostensibly more fortunate countries, insistently calling our attention to the discrepancy between the Vienna of our fantasies and the one in which Jelinek lives.


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