Excerpts from The Piano Teacher
Excerpts selected by the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy.
(Pages 3–5 and 120–121)
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 But today, the bank book went on an outing, a sum was withdrawn, and the result can now be seen.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 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 pushes things from one end of the music studio to the other and then back again. She looks pointedly at the clock, she emits an invisible signal from her lofty mast, showing how tired she is after her hard day’s work, during which art was dilettantishly abused in order to satisfy parental ambitions.
Klemmer stands there, gazing at her.
Erika doesn’t want a silence to develop, so she utters a platitude. Art is platitudinous for Erika because she lives off art. How much easier it is for the artist, says the woman, to hurl feelings or passions out of himself. When an artist resorts to dramatic devices, which you so greatly esteem, Klemmer, he is simply utilizing bogus methods while neglecting authentic ones. She talks to prevent the eruption of silence. I, as a teacher, favor undramatic art – Schumann, for instance. Drama is always easier! Feelings and passions are always merely a substitute, a surrogate for spirituality. The teacher yearns for an earthquake, for a roaring, raging tempest to pounce upon her. That wild Klemmer is so angry that he almost drills his head into the wall. The clarinet class next door, which he, the owner of a second instrument, has been frequenting twice a week, would certainly be astonished if Klemmer’s angry head suddenly emerged from the wall, next to Beethoven’s death mask. Oh, that Erika, that Erika. She doesn’t sense that he is actually talking about her, and naturally about himself as well! He is connecting Erika and himself in a sensual context, ejecting the spirit, that enemy of the senses, that primal foe of the flesh. She thinks he is referring to Schubert, but he really means himself, just as he always means himself whenever he speaks.
He suddenly ventures to adopt a familiar tone with Erika; using a formal tone, she advises him to remain objective! Her mouth puckers, willy-nilly, into a wrinkly rosette; she cannot control it. She controls what the mouth says, but she cannot control the way it presents itself to the outside world. She gets goosebumps all over.
Klemmer is frightened; blissfully grunting, he wallows in the warm tub of his words and thoughts. He pounces upon the piano, enjoying himself. In a tempo that exceeds the speed limit, he plays a longer phrase that he happened to learn by heart. He wants to demonstrate something with the phrase; he wonders what. Erika Kohut is happy about this slight diversion; she throws herself against the student, in order to stop the express train before it really gets going. You’re playing much too fast and also much too loud, Herr Klemmer, and you’re merely proving that the absence of the spiritual in an interpretation can cause terrible lacunae.
The man catapults backward into a chair. He stands, steaming, like a racehorse that has brought home a lot of victories. In order to be rewarded for victories and to prevent defeats, he demands expensive treatment and tender loving care, at the very least like a silver service for twelve.
Erika wants to go home. Erika wants to go home. Erika wants to go home. She offers some good advice: Simply walk around Vienna and breathe deeply. Then play Schubert, but this time correctly!
Original title: Die Klavierspielerin
Translation by Joachim Neugroschel
Copyright © 1983 by Rowohlt Verlag GmbH
Translation copyright © 1988 by Wheatland Corporation
Published by Serpent’s Tail, 1999
Their work and discoveries range from how cells adapt to changes in levels of oxygen to our ability to fight global poverty.
See them all presented here.