Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Piano Teacher

A Novel

by Elfriede Jelinek Translated from German by Joachim Neugroschel

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.” —Elaine Kendall, Los Angeles Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date October 13, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4461-4
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00
  • Imprint Grove Hardcover
  • Page Count 288
  • Publication Date December 01, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-1806-6
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $19.95

About The Book

The English-language debut of the winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature astonishes with biting social commentary and linguistic prowess.

In awarding her the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature, The Swedish Academy praised Elfriede Jelinek “for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clich’s and their subjugating power.” In her most well-known novel, The Piano Teacher, Jelinek creates a shocking, angry, aching portrait of a society stubbornly fabricating its own obsolescence, and of a young woman whom this society has slowly fashioned into a ticking bomb. Set in a late 1980s Vienna rotting under the weight of its oppressive, outmoded cultural ideals (“which, like any drowned corpse that is not fished from the water, bloats up more and more”)—a Vienna mirrored by the heroine’s own repressed dreams—The Piano Teacher marks the English-language debut of a novelist of international significance.

Erika Kohut, piano teacher at the very prestigious, very stuffy Vienna Conservatory, is a quiet woman in her mid thirties devoted to Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, and her domineering mother. The two women’s life together is a seamless tissue of desperate boredom, fueled by television movies, neurotic possessiveness, and hopeless dreams of a concert career whose hour has long since passed. Enter Walter Klemmer—handsome, arrogant, athletic, out to conquer the secret of art and Erika’s affections with all the rancid bravado of youth—and suddenly the dark and dangerous passions roiling under the piano teacher’s subdued exterior explode in a release of sexual perversity and long-buried violence.

Celebrated throughout Europe for the intensity and frankness of her writings, awarded the Heinrich B’ll Prize for her outstanding contribution to German letters, Elfriede Jelinek is one of the most original and controversial writers in Austria today—a writer whose novels cut to the very heart of our deepest fears and desires.

The Piano Teacher was made into an acclaimed film by Michael Haneke in 2001.

Tags Literary


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.” —Elaine Kendall, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“The language is simple yet full of imaginative, often darkly funny metaphors; the view of the world original.” —Charlotte Innes, The New York Times

“Extraordinary linguistic zeal . . . [Jelinek’s] musical flow of voices and countervoices in novels and plays . . . reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.” —Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Nobel Prize address, 2004

“With her facility for metaphor and stylish narrative, Austrian Jelinek bears comparison to Schmidt and Böll at their best. Hers is a powerful debut in English.” —Paul E. Hutchinson, Library Journal

“While this story almost becomes a postfeminist, postmodern tempestuous romance, Jelinek skillfully uses both psychological description and social observations to portray her character and the world in which she lives.” —Booklist

“Brilliant, uncompromising . . . Jelinek gets behind the cream-puff prettiness of Vienna; this novel is not for the weak of heart.” —Publishers Weekly

The Piano Teacher is a brilliant, bitter, wonderful portrait of mother and daughter, artist and lover. Jelinek’s particular European imagination should be valued and enjoyed by American readers.” —John Hawkes

“In my opinion, Elfriede Jelinek is one of the most stimulating, daring, and imaginative writers in present-day Austria. The Piano Teacher confronts the reader with a relentlessly vivid sexual struggle in which dependency and abject self-abasement are strategies to obtain a personal freedom. It’s a dazzling performance that will make the blood run cold.” —Walter Abish

“A brilliant, deadly book.” —Elizabeth Young

“In this superbly intelligent, psychoanalytic tale Jelinek skillfully plays on the dualisms of repression and domination, repulsion and compulsion, through the exquisitely dark central relationship.” —Leeds Guide

“Jelinek’s fragmented style blurs reality and imagination, creating a harsh, expressionistic picture of sexuality.” —Scotland on Sunday

“Her work tends to see power and aggression as the driving forces of relationships, in which men and parents subjugate women. But as an admirer of Bertold Brecht, she sometimes brings to her dramas a touch of vaudeville.” —The Guardian

“Moves impressively across that psychic terrain which is born out of maternal fear, fear of the outside world and of the body and fear of the loss of control.” —The Independent


Winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature
Winner of the Heinrich Böll Prize


The piano teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother. Mama likes calling Erika her little whirlwind, for the child can be an absolute speed demon. She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties. Her mother is old enough to be her grandmother. The baby was born after long and difficult years of marriage. Her father promptly left, passing the torch to his daughter. Erika entered, her father exited. Eventually, Erika learned how to move swiftly. She had to. Now she bursts into the apartment like a swarm of autumn leaves, hoping to get to her room without being seen. But her mother looms before her, confronts her. She puts Erika against the wall, under interrogation — inquisitor and executioner in one, unanimously recognized as Mother by the State and by the Family. She investigates: Why has Erika come home so late? Erika dismissed her last student three hours ago, after heaping him with scorn. You must think I won’t find out where you’ve been, Erika. A child should own up to her mother without being asked. But Mother never believes her because Erika tends to lie.

Mother is waiting. She starts counting to three.

By the count of two, Erika offers an answer that deviates sharply from the truth. Her briefcase, filled with musical scores, is wrenched from her hands—and Mother instantly finds the bitter answer to all questions. Four volumes of Beethoven sonatas indignantly share cramped quarters with an obviously brand-new dress. Mother rails against the purchase. The dress, pierced by a hook, was so seductive at the shop, so soft and colorful. Now it lies there, a droopy rag, pierced by Mother’s glare. The money was earmarked for their savings account. Now it’s been spent prematurely. The dress could have been visible at any time as an entry in the bank book—if you didn’t mind going to the linen closet, where the bank book peeks out from behind a pile of sheets. But today, the bank book went on an outing, a sum was withdrawn, and the result can now be seen. Erika should put this dress on whenever they wonder where the nice money went. Mother screams: You’ve squandered your future! We could have had a new apartment someday, but you couldn’t wait. All you’ve got now is a rag, and it’ll soon be out of fashion. Mother wants everything “someday.” She wants nothing right now—except the child. And she always wants to know where she can reach the child in an emergency, in case Mama is about to have a heart attack. Mother wants to save now in order to enjoy someday. And then Erika goes and buys a dress, of all things! Something more fleeting than a dab of mayonnaise on a sardine sandwich. This dress will soon be totally out of fashion—not even next year, but next month. Money never goes out of fashion.

They are saving to buy a large condominium. The cramped apartment they now rent is so ancient, you might as well just abandon it. When they decide on the condominium, they will be allowed to specify where to put the closets and the partitions. You see, an entirely new construction system is being used. Every aspect is custom-designed, according to your precise wishes. You pay your money and you get your choice. Mother, who has only a tiny pension, gets her choice and Erika pays. In the brand-new state-of-the-art condominium, mother and daughter will each have her own realm, Erika here, Mother there, both realms neatly divided. However, they will have a common living room to meet in. If they wish. But of course they do, because they belong together. Even here, in this dump, which is slowly falling to pieces, Erika already has her own realm, her own roost, which she rules and is ruled in. It is only a provisional realm; Mother can walk in at any time. There is no lock on Erika’s door. A child has no secrets from her mother.

Erika’s living space consists of her own small room, where she can do as she pleases. No one may interfere; this room is her property. Mother’s realm is the rest of the apartment: the housewife, being in charge of everything, keeps house everywhere, and Erika enjoys the fruits of her mother’s labor. Erika has never had to do housework, because dustrags and cleansers ruin a pianist’s hands. During Mother’s rare breathers, she occasionally worries about her vast and varied holdings. You can’t always tell where everything is. Just where is Erika, that fidgety property? Where is she wandering? Is she alone or with someone else? Erika is such a live wire, such a mercurial thing. Why, she may be running around at this very moment, up to no good. Yet every day, the daughter punctually shows up where she belongs: at home. Mother worries a lot, for the first thing a proprietor learns, and painfully at that, is: Trust is fine, but control is better. Her greatest anxiety is to keep her property immovable, tie it down so it won’t run away. That’s why they have the TV set, which prefabricates, packages, and home-delivers lovely images, lovely actions. So Erika is almost always at home. If not, her mother knows where she’s flitting about. Now and then, Erika may attend an evening concert, but she does so less and less. Instead she sits at her piano, pounding away at her long-discarded career as a concert pianist. Or else Erika enjoys performing with congenial colleagues, exuberantly playing chamber music. Her mother can telephone her at such times too. Erika pulls against apron strings, she repeatedly begs her mother not to telephone. But Mother ignores her pleas, for she alone dictates the shalts and shalt-nots. Mother also controls the general demand for her daughter, so that ultimately fewer and fewer people wish to see Erika, or even speak to her. Erika’s vocation is her avocation: the celestial power known as music. Music fills her time completely. Her time has no room for anything else. Nothing offers so much pleasure as a magnificent performance by the finest virtuosi.

Erika visits a café once a month, but her mother knows which café, and she can ring her up there too. Mother makes generous use of this privilege, this homemade structure of security and intimacy.

Time around Erika is slowly turning into a plaster cast. It crumbles the instant her mother strikes it. At such moments, Erika sits there, with remnants of time’s brace around her thin neck. Mother has called her up, making her a laughingstock, and Erika is forced to admit: I have to go home now. Home. If ever you run into Erika on the street, she is usually on her way home.

Mother says: Erika suits me just fine the way she is. Nothing more will come of her. She’s so gifted, she could have easily become a nationally renowned pianist—if only she’d left everything to me, her mother. But Erika ignored her mother’s wishes, and sometimes yielded to other influences. Self-centered male love threatened to interfere with her studies. Superficial things like makeup and clothes reared their ugly heads. And her career ended before it ever got underway. Still, you need some kind of security: the position of piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory. And she didn’t even have to pay her dues by teaching at one of the neighborhood music schools, where so many people grind away their young lives, turning dusty gray, hunchbacked—a swiftly passing throng, barely noticed by the principal.

But that vanity of hers, that wretched vanity. Erika’s vanity is a major problem for her mother, driving thorns into her flesh. Erika’s vanity is the only thing Erika should learn to do without. Better now than later. For in old age, which is just around the corner, vanity is a heavy load to bear. And old age is enough of a burden as it is. Oh, that Erika! Were the great musicians vain? They weren’t. The only thing Erika should give up is her vanity. If necessary, Mother can smooth out the rough edges, so there won’t be anything abrasive in Erika’s character.

That’s why Mother tries to twist the new dress out of Erika’s convulsed fingers. But these fingers are too well trained. Let go, Mother snaps, hand it over! You’ve got to be punished for caring so much about trivial things. Life has punished you by ignoring you, and now your mother will punish you in the same way, ignoring you, even though you dress up and paint your face like a clown. Hand it over!

Erika dashes to the closet. Her dark suspicion has been confirmed several times in the past. Today, something else is missing: the dark gray autumn ensemble. What’s happened?