Blesok no. 46, January-February, 2006
Dimensions of Pain
The autobiographical and psychological elements in Elfriede Jelinek’s Piano Teacher (Published in Macedonian by Slovo Publishing)
I am not sure if the name of the Austrian writer, now a Nobel Prize winner, Elfriede Jelinek, strikes a familiar chord to the Macedonian public. However, the very fact that, to a general surprise, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for 2004 is a sufficient incentive to make efforts to acquaint the Macedonian readers with her work.
On a couple of occasions, while reading the reviews to the novel, I realized that the phrase: “autobiographical novel” appears almost like an apposition of the title. At first I understood it as a simple commercial trick used to win over the readers and increase the sale rates of the edition. However, the question remained: Is really the autobiographical component that brought Jelinek’s novel at the top, allowed it to cross the boundaries of the German-language literature and made Jelinek a world-wide known author?
Erika Kouht, a 38 years old piano teacher, lives in her parent’s house together with her mother. Those familiar with Jelinek`s biography know than she is also an academic musician coming from the Vienna school and after graduation 1964 until 1968 also lived in her parents’ house, suffering from a terrible emotional and psychological crisis. The causes underlying such crisis, especially after the death of her father, unknown in her biography, allow for numerous links and analogies between Jelinek and Erika Kouht.
The comparison between them can start at the very basic level, with the beginning letters of their names, continue to a more substantial level, with the music as a professional determination, but perhaps the richest autobiographical connection are the family relations and the dominant position of the mother. In both families the father is missing, thence the mother–daughter relations go over the acceptable border of closeness, passing in the sphere of privacy.
Thus, throughout the novel there are instances of identification and overlapping of the experiences of author’s “I “and the fictive “I” construction of the main character. Hence, Jelinek strengthens the power of self–cognition, embodying and experiencing it through the character of Erika. Although the separately existing and functioning, the two “I”, the author’s and that of the main character, frequently come to be equalized and to operate one through the other.
Erika is under permanent dependence of her mother, starting from the early period of her psychophysical development and continuing throughout adolescence into maturity age. Such continuous dependence prevents her from developing into a mature adult person. At every moment the mother present in Erika’s life, making her a kind of surrogate under the mask of protector. Thus Erika is “safe” that nobody malevolent will ever enter in her life while her mother is beside her.
Quite expectable although very late, Erika starts developing double personality. One personality which is loyal to the mother and another which Erika discovered walking around the streets in Vienna: her sexual identity.
Such “layering” of her personality at a certain point leads to rebellion against the authority of the mother and a desire to escape from the “security of the home”, to experience and discern the sensual element of her own personality.
While living in her parents’ house caused Jelinek mental illness, for Erika it ends with revealing a series of complications and abnormalities in her personality for which is impossible or very late to cope with. The search for her sexual identity and the necessity to face the new “discovery”, regardless how painful it is, reveal the secret or totally undiscovered features in her character. But since the watchful eye of her mother follows her, Erika’s newly discovered nature can not fully develop. Under the shadow of fear, closed within herself, torn between the external world and the physical love to her young student, she recedes back to childhood, this willing to learn the secret of human sexual nature.
Simone de Beauvoir in her essays “The Second Sex” explaining the sadomasochistic abnormalities in young girls says:
“A girl transforms into a woman though violence”. Regardless of the manner in which the young girl becomes aware of her own sexuality, she experiences it like violence, primary to her body and than also to her entire being. Realizing that she would be owned, objectified and mainly passive, causes dissatisfaction and revolt, denial of one’s own nature and even quest for revenge.
Being aware that the awakening of her sexual life can only happen through pain, she tries to resist nature, causing pain to herself. Thus, according some psychoanalysts, masochism is a female feature due to which the woman can adapt to her erotic destiny. According to Freud, the psychoanalysts differentiate between three forms of masochism: the first: linking pain with pleasure; second, accepting women’s erotic dependence and the third is the mechanism of self-punishment. (Bovoar, Drugi pol 2,171)
Erika’s belongs to the third category of cases – self-punishment. By hurting herself, she is simultaneously hurting her master who owns her completely, and that is the mother. At the end of the novel, it seems that the mother loses her role of protestor and possessor, temporarily being replaced by the young lover Walter Klemmer who forced by his teacher starts a short sadomasochistic affair with her.
The fact that the specific, often referred to as pornographic, mad and dark passion discourse of Jelinek sublimates the rebellion against generally accepted logocentrism of the West, is perfectly clear in this masterpiece of Jelinek novelistic work.
Some questions however will remain unanswered: Is Jelinek solely an isolated part of the Austrian avant–garde literature, or will she deservedly lead contemporary Austrian literature.
Translated by the author