Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. Februar 2006

5.2. Innovation and Reproduction in Austrian Literature and Film
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Donald G. Daviau (University of California/Wien)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Toxic Parental Music in Grillparzer, Roth, and Jelinek

Pamela Saur (Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas)


Innovation and reproduction are dominant forces in the culture of Austria, where history, tradition, and authority loom large, providing powerful models to follow, reinterpret, or rebel against. Contrast between traditional, establishment art and rebellious, innovative or experimental art is easy to see in comparing waltzes and atonal music, Baroque and Hundertwasser architecture, or Biedermeier and Wiener Werkstätte decorative styles, but literature and drama often, even typically, combine tradition and revolt and portray negative as well as positive aspects of society. Franz Grillparzer is sometimes regarded as the founding father of classical Austrian literature; and yet, one of his best known works, "Der arme Spielmann," (1848) portrays a failure, victimized by Austrian social and artistic ideals - with music a major testing ground of life - and anticipates Freud’s analysis of mental illness and its origins in parent/child interactions. Joseph Roth is an establishment figure in his role as the chronicler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its fall, but his major "Imperial" novel, Radetzkymarsch (1932) centers on an inadequate, maladjusted protagonist psychologically harmed by the demanding expectations of his father and role model of his grandfather, "the hero of Solferino," who saved the Emperor’s life in battle. To Carl Joseph, parental authority represents the enormously intimidating ideals and demands of the Empire itself and its military, as does the patriotic march of the novel’s title.(1) The celebrated 1983 novel, Die Klavierspielerin by Elfriede Jelinek, also portrays an individual victimized by destructive parental authority, this time the pair is female, a daughter and mother; here again, music is a proving ground, and the cost of failure is devastatingly high. Jelinek, a political radical and "shock"artist, has nevertheless acquired the status of an established, even an establishment writer. A commercial success who has won numerous Austrian literary prizes and seen her plays performed at the prestigious Burgtheater in Vienna for years, Jelinek also won the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature. Just as the other two works were representative of their historical and literary time periods, Jelinek’s novel suits an era influenced by feminism and creative freedom accepting of blunt psychological and sociological/political honesty, deviant sexuality, and brutal "shock" effects; this novel graphically presents a mother and daughter enmeshed in a sadomasochistic relationship and a piano teacher daughter prone to bizarre sadistic, voyeuristic, and masochistic behavior, including self-mutilation. Just as "Der arme Spielmann" was somewhat autobiographical, the novel, Jelinek’s novel is based on her own upbringing, as she has acknowledged in numerous interviews. According to Allyson Fiddler, "Jelinek’s novel is based fairly closely on her own experiences and on her perception of her relationship with her mother. Jelinek’s musical upbringing and her long hours of practicing under the eagle eye of her zealous, over-protective mother are a part of her past to which she frequently alludes"(139).

Each of these three very influential Austrian texts is innovative and original, but they all produce and reproduce the image of an Austria in which societal and parental authority can be harsh and oppressive, and culture, including music, the pride and glory of Austrian identity, can be toxic and destructive. Each features a severely maladjusted individual, significantly damaged psychologically by demanding parents; in each of the three life stories, childhood recitals, instead of demonstrating academic or musical achievements to proud parents, bring failure and humiliation that the individuals can never transcend as long as they live. While the three characters have three different patterns of relationships to the opposite sex, all of them display pathological behavior in this area of adult life, and all three are incapable of embarking on marriage or parenthood.

Neither Grillparzer himself nor literary history initially bestowed a high status onto his peculiar story, "Der arme Spielmann," his last work and the only one set in the Vienna of his own times, but this slow start was compensated for by a subsequent outpouring of critical attention. (Bernd, 1-8) Readers and critics have been fascinated by the withdrawn, humble protagonist. They have debated his character and role in literary history as an artist figure (Cook, 334), outsider (Bahr, 306), romantic (Mahlendorf, 118), anti-hero or decadent aesthete (Thompson, 92-94), saint, Christ figure, (Lindsey, 286) or holy fool (Ritter, 347), analyzed his unique blend of failure and fulfillment, compared him to the story’s narrator and to Grillparzer himself, analyzed his unfulfilled love relationship, discussed verbal and musical art in the story, speculated about the story’s sources, and analyzed the influence of the story on Franz Kafka, who wrote in a letter, that the story shamed him " wie wenn ich sie selbst geschrieben hätte"(Qtd. in Politzer, 56)! In light of all these intriguing critical problems, it is understandable that many critics have glossed over the relationship of Jakob the fiddler and his father.

Incredibly, following intense family pressure on young Jakob because of his inadequate musical and academic performance, his father condemns him unmercifully for stumbling over a single word at a school recitation. He never speaks to him again and uses his power to reduce his son to a life of humiliation, isolation, and poverty. This paternal rejection, based on failure to live up to Vienna’s cultural ideals, is highly significant to Jakob’s’ life story and psychological development, but Grillparzer deflects attention from it; these events are discussed by Jakob in a fairly matter-of-fact tone, even with comments justifying his own abuse. The reader’s attention is drawn forward in the narrative to later events and other topics that push the abuse into the background. Ironically, readers may tend to avoid emphasizing Jakob’s father’s cruelty either by focusing on Jakob’s weakness and inadequacy, that is, his portion of responsibility for his failures, or on his successes, which show him triumphing over his father; both emphases shift blame from the father. Walter Silz, for example, does both. He asserts that Jakob, like Grillparzer himself, displayed "timidity and shrinking from life" and had problems with "art, women, faith and inward peace," and "society"(73-74). At the same time, he calls Jakob "one of life’s victors," praising his "selflessness, which comes close to saintliness" and his "heroism,...for he loses his life in rescue-work during the flood."(75). Moreover, in this view, Jakob triumphs over his father and brothers not only by outliving them, but in his superiority to them. According to Silz, "They treated him without mercy and with contempt and yet in human worth they could not hold a candle to him"(76). Many critics have followed Grillparzer’s lead in downplaying the father’s abuse. However, if Grillparzer had chosen to concentrate bluntly and unflinchingly on the extreme nature and destructive effects of the parental mistreatment described, the story could have been a shocking portrayal of parent-child pathology, perhaps nearing the league of Jelinek’s extremely shocking Klavierspielerin.

The narrator learns about his father’s rejection when he asks Jakob about his background. Jakob begins by stating, correctly, that the narrator has undoubtedly heard of a certain statesman, then says that he is his father, to his guest’s astonishment. This introduction to the father distances the reader and may subtly mute the reader’s sympathy for Jakob because of the awe and respect the narrator has for the father’s status. Jakob goes on to tell of his suffering over his brothers tormenting him because he was a slow learner, and making him hate music, which he once loved: "So hatten sie mir die Musik, die jetzt die Freude und zugleich der Stab meines Lebens ist, geradezu verhaßt gemacht"(159). He continues, "Mein Vater, aufs äußerste unzufrieden, schalt mich häufig und drohte.... Endlich gab eine öffentliche Schulprüfung, der man, um ihn zu begütigen, meinem Vater beizuwohnen beredet hatte, den Ausschlag." After Jakob’s disastrous recital, his father rebuffs him. Jakob recalls, "Als ich, der Gewohnheit nach, hinging, meinem Vater die Hand zu küssen, steiß er mich zurück, erhob sich, machte der Versammlung eine kurze Verbeugung und ging"(160). Thereafter, his father never speaks another word to him, issuing orders to him only through his servants. Telling this, Jakob assures his listener, "Übrigens war mein Vater ein guter Mann. Nur heftig und ehrgeizig." The day after the recital, Jakob is told that his studies are at an end. His comment shows that he has internalized his father’s condemnation of him: "Ich ershrak heftig, weil ich wußte, wie bitter es meinem Vater kränken mußte." Crying and repeating the failed verse miserably to himself, he knows, "... mein Vater nahm aber nie einen Entschluß zurück"(160). His father finds him a humble position as a scribe and allows him to live as a lonely outcast in his house; later he is turned out altogether. Jakob ends up as a begging street musician living in part of a rented room marked off by a chalk line; the line suggests that even this tiny area may be more of the world than he deserves to occupy.

As mentioned, critics frequently downplay the father’s cruelty. Joseph P. Stern uses extraordinary understatement in calling the father "a somewhat intimidating high official"(66). Bruce Thompson glosses over the father’s culpability in saying of Jakob, "Dull and painstakingly slow at his lessons, he becomes estranged from his father"(90). John M. Ellis praises Jakob for his masochistic attachment to his father, calling him "so generous in his estimate of other people that he even thinks well of his father... He is even sure that his father meant well"(662). George C. Schoolfield also praises Jakob’s saintliness and acceptance of his situation, calling his life a "parable of faith and humbleness"(64). He sees in the father/son relationship an abstraction, "the question of the validity of the inner or imaginative world as opposed to the real and practical world (that of the Spielmann’s father and brothers)"(63).

In "The Poor Fiddler: The Terror of Rejection," Ursula Mahlendorf does bring out the psychological effects of the father’s cruelty. She cites details providing evidence that Jakob has internalized his father’s viewpoint, and states, "From his story, we do not know when his ego was crushed so permanently that he can only live by his father’s commands, we only know that it was"(121). She also draws parallels with Grillparzer’s own parents. His mother screamed at him and became violent during his piano lessons; his father was unsociable and cold. According to Mahlendorf, "The psychic havoc these parents wrought can be appreciated from their children’s lives. Grillparzer himself never married. His second brother was severely mentally ill. His third brother, in his younger days a promising musician, spent his life as a hypochondriacal, dissatisfied minor official and in many ways resembled the fiddler. His youngest brother, gifted and musical like the others, drowned himself at age seventeen"(131).

Jakob the Poor Fiddler has much in common with another famous literary son-figure crushed by extremely weighty parental expectations, Carl Joseph von Trotta in Roth’s Radetzyymarsch. Both stories have relevance to Austrian history. Ehrhard Bahr has said of Jakob’s father, "Als autoritärer Vaterfigur übt er durch Verhinderung, Unterdrückung und Verbot auf den armen Spielmann einen ähnlichen Einfluß... wie das System Metternich auf seine Bürger"(307). In Roth’s novel, much longer and with a much broader scope, the historical aspect is more overt and more highly developed. In Radetzkymarsch the relationship between the protagonist, Carl Joseph von Trotta, and his father, the district commissioner, is historically as well as psychologically significant. As Sidney Rosenfeld has commented, "By determining on a military career for Carl Joseph, the district commissioner Trotta had intended to carry on the Austrian tradition that... his own father had gloriously represented. In the story of their relationship, Roth united the two major themes of his novel, the decline of a prototypical Austrian family and the collapse of the monarchy"(52). Carl Joseph’s father, the district commissioner, is a formal, distant, unemotional and very masculine parent. Rosenfeld notes that he "punctiliously fulfills the family mission of service to the monarchy... Despite his utter lack of imagination, in his loyalty to the crown Trotta embodies the very ideal of Habsburg officialdom"(48). Although a civil servant rather than a military officer, he embodies great patriotic devotion and pride in his service to the Empire and Emperor; consequently, his behavior toward his son, a lieutenant in the Imperial army, is very much like that of a superior military officer. He has some affection for his son, but always keeps his emotions severely restrained.

The recital presented in this novel is not a decisive turning point as it is in the other two works, but it is a salient passage, and a concise nutshell portrayal of the father-son relationship. The reader learns that the methodical father has set aside three hours for his son, age fifteen, who has reported home from school for summer vacation, and he spends the time giving Carl Joseph an interview that is part lecture, part oral examination on his studies, along with a few cold personal remarks. As he approaches, Carl Joseph adjusts his Sunday uniform; when his father arrives he clicks his heels. Soon after the interview begins, the father asserts that his son’s horseriding has been "eine Schande." This passage follows,"So lautlos das Wort ‘Schande’ auch ausgesprochen war, es webte noch durch den Raum. Carl Joseph wußte, daß nach einer strengen Kritik seines Vaters eine Pause einzuhalten war. Man hatte das Urteil in seiner ganzen Bedeutung aufzunehmen, zu verarbeiten, sich einzuprägen, dem Herzen und dem Gehirn einzuverleiben" (42). The father’s role as a representative of Austrian culture is suggested when he next lectures his son on the "die Bedeutung Grillparzers,"and recommends Stifter and von Saar as "‘leichte Lektüre’ für Ferientage." He then questions the lad on "miliärische Themen...." (44), and concludes by demonstrating his power over the boy by suddenly demanding a word-for-word definition of the word subordination, correcting each minor error of wording in the son’s nearly perfect recitation. After Carl Joseph is dismissed from this painful interview, the local band begins to play, and the son’s thoughts reveal how thoroughly he has internalized the values his father represents. He thinks proudly that the band is playing outside his residence because his father, the district commissioner "der in diesem Städtchen keinen geringeren vertrat als Seine Majestät den Kaiser. Carl Joseph... nahm das Spiel der Militärkapelle wie eine Huldigung entgegen. Er fühlte sich ein wenig den Habsburgern verwandt, deren Macht sein Vater hier repräsentierte und verteidigte, und für die er einmal selbst ausziehen sollte, in den Krieg und in den Tod."... Am besten starb man für ihn bei Militärmusik, am leichtesten beim Radetzkymarsch"(44-45). As John Pizer comments, "the musical composition that gave Roth’s novel its title constitutes its most consistent temporal signifier. From the moment of its first performance at the novel’s outset, its consistent rhythm suggests continuity in the empire"(14).

As Carl Joseph’s life story unfolds, it is clear that it is marked by a deep sense of inadequacy and by failure to live up to the ideals instilled in him by his father and by the memory of his heroic grandfather. His father, sometimes with direct help from the Emperor, has to save him from a series of scrapes resulting from his tastes for gambling, drinking, and tawdry love affairs. Carl Joseph’s own version of his grandfather’s "saving the Emperor" is the pathetic act of removing a picture of Emperor Franz Joseph, in a fly-specked frame, from a bordello wall. His friend, Dr. Demant, sees him take the picture and says, "‘Ich hab nur an Ihren Großvater gedacht!’ ‘Ich bin sein Enkel’ sagte Carl Joseph. ‘Ich hab keine Gelegenheit, ihm das Leben zu retten; leider’"(134)!

When Carl Joseph’s involvement with the wife of Dr. Demant, his only friend, causes a scandal, then duel that brings about his friend’s death, his father writes him a letter telling him how the incident should be regarded by an Imperial officer. The formal, impersonal letter ignores the facts of the matter and emphasizes the appearance of honor. He writes: "Du bist Offizier, mein Sohn, und der Enkel des Helden von Solferino. Du wirst es zu tragen wissen, daß Du unfreiwillig und schuldlos an dem tragischen Ereignis beteiligt bist. Gewiß tut es Dir auch leid, das Regiment zu verlassen, aber in jedem Regiment, im ganzen Bereich der Armee, dienst Du unserem Kaiser"(198).When Carl Joseph is involved in another scrape, and does not defend himself when attacked by a creditor, his father helps him again, but his sense of honor is deeply wounded. Roth explains the father’s viewpoint thus, "Nach der Vorstellungen jener verschollenen... Epoche war ein Offizer der Kaiser- und Königlichen Armee, der einen Angreifer seiner Ehre scheinbar deshalb nicht getötet hatte, weil er ihm Geld schuldig war,... eine Schande für seinen Erzeuger, für die Armee und für die Monarchie"(467-68).

In addition to his personal failings and inadequacy as a horseman, soldier, friend, and son, Carl Joseph also is inadequate to carry on the family name by marrying and having his own family. He tells himself with melancholy satisfaction, "Mit mir wird alles begraben. Ich bin der letzte Trotta"(272)! For a time, he even withdraws from military service and seeks a new identity, trying to live the life of the Slovenian peasants of his ancestors before the family’s rise to noble status. When he decides to leave the army, he is greatly pained over the necessity to inform his father. The father visits his son in a very moving scene; both are touched, but unable to express their affection to each other.

Carl Joseph strikes out to form his own identity, although his move away from the world of his father and grandfather is regressive, toward his ancestors. He romanticizes rural life, asking himself, "Der Pflug gehört in meine Hand und nicht der Säbel"(364)? He loves the name of his ancestral village, Sipolje, and is charmed by his Slavic servant, Onufrij; however, he cannot speak the language well and is incapable of any genuine understanding of Onufrij as a person. His brief idyllic withdrawal to the countryside is also artificial in that he is installed in a rural home and occupation by a friend who is a Count. He experiences a brief and shallow fulfillment, as expressed in these thoughts: "Ausgelöscht war die große Welt. Ausgelöscht waren die Jahre beim Militär.... Man lebte, wie der Großvater, der Held von Solferino, und wie der Urgroßvater.. und vielleicht wie die namenlosen, unbekannten Ahnen, die Bauern von Sipolje." (545) The passage shows Carl Joseph’s confusion; he knows that his grandfather had humble rural origins and was eventually disillusioned in the Empire over the false presentation of his heroic deed in schoolbooks, but in his attempt to identify with these aspects of his identity, he still refers to him as the Hero of Solferino. Unable to live up to the Trotta family’s tradition of military heroism, Carl Joseph’s escape is not in the direction of any authentic, independent identity, but only in likening himself to different aspects of his grandfather’s personality.

When Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated and the chain of events leading to World War I occurs, Carl Joseph returns to service, and dies in battle, trying to fetch water for his Slavic troops. Roth creates an aura of ambiguity around the death, leaving some doubt as to whether it should be regarded as heroic, or as Carl Joseph’s achievement of harmony with his ancestors. As he dies, Carl Joseph hears a blessing spoken by his men in their language, but he does not understand the words and is unable to express anything himself. Perhaps Roth means for the reader to recall the words of Carl Joseph’s friend, the Jewish doctor, Dr. Demant, who also harbors a sense of inferiority in regard to his pious grandfather. The doctor expresses his theory that the two melancholy friends demonstrate diminished vitality in their respective family lines. He says, "Unsere Großväter haben uns nicht viel Kraft hinterlassen, wenig Kraft zum Leben, es reicht gerade noch, um unsinnig zu sterben"(178). The ambiguity of Carl Joseph’s apparently heroic death reminds one of the death of Jakob the fiddler; he also died saving others, namely children in a flood, but followed his life-saving efforts with an action some have called ridiculous, catching the cold that caused his death, not by saving people, but trying to save "Steuerbücher und die paar Gulden Papiergeld"(185). Joseph P. Stern says, "even his death is that of a fool"(67). Ursula Mahlendorf comments, "The fiddler contained death all along. In his regressed and autistic state, the fiddler was death in life all along"(132).

Jakob and Carl Joseph find death by moving toward water; perhaps they are cousins of Kafka’s Georg Benda in "Das Urteil," (1935) who drowns himself (as did Grillparzer’s youngest brother) because his father orders him - - it seems quite probable too, that there may be a suicidal element to Jakob’s and Carl Joseph’s running toward water and into death. Georg’s suicide, in fact, also has some elements of a recital: it is a performance, seeking parental approval from parents who are either deceased or absent and hostile, and put on, in vain, before a larger audience that is too far away to see it.. Not only does Georg cry out his love for his parents as he jumps, before an unseeing public of "unendlicher Verkehr," (68) but his dramatic deed is not only an act of ultimate filial obedience, but an athletic show. "Er schwang sich über, als der ausgezeichnete Turner, der er in seinem Jugendjahren zum Stolz seiner Eltern war"(67).

Anne L. Critchfield has also noted various parallels, including numerous striking textual details, between Kafka’s father/son pairs and Jelinek’s mother and daughter in Die Klavierspielerin. Using the term "dominant dyads,"she says that both authors present "the parent-child dyad as a reflection of the socialization process"(171). Kafka’s father/son texts, including his famous letter to his own father, concern "the problematic relationship of a weak, psychologically wounded, neurotic son with his strong, domineering, successful father"(172). Kafka’s and Jelinek’s oppressive parent figures, in large part based on their own troubled relationships with their parents, do not allow their children to mature and take on adult roles. Kafka’s parent-figures also represent religious as well as secular and familial authority. As Critchfield states, "For Kafka, the concept of the law also carries with it religious connotations. The foreboding and righteous order of the Old Testament God was yet another permutation of the rule of the family patriarch"(173). Religious authority is not a salient aspect of our three parental figures, although Judaism, through Dr. Demant’s story, is associated with parental authority in Radetzkymarsch.

In Jelinek’s novel, a failed musical recitation of a daughter, Erika Kohut, before her ambitious mother, turns out to be a turning point in the daughter’s life. The scene is reminiscent of Jakob’s experience: "Dann versagt Erika einmal bei einem wichtigen Abschlußkkonzert der Musikakademie völlig, sie versagt vor den versammelten Angehörigen ihrer Konkurrenten und vor ihrer einzelt angetretenen Mutter, die ihr letztes Geld für ihre Konzerttoilette ausgegeben hat. Nachher wird Erika von ihrer Mutter geohrfeigt... Unter Schimpf taumelte Erika vom Podium, unter Schande... Auch ihre Lehrerin,.. rügt Erika auf das Heftigste"(36). In terms of career, Erika can never recover: "Eine große Chance ist nicht genützt worden und kommt nie wieder zurück.... . Was bleibt übrig, als in das Lehrfach überzuwechseln. Ein harter Schritt für eine Meisterpianisten." (36) The daughter’s failure and mother’s scorn work to tighten the mother’s control and keep the daughter in child-like intimacy and subservience. The mother blames Erika’s failure on "fremde Einflüsse: eingebildete männliche Liebe drohte mit Ablenkung vom Studium, Äußerlichkeiten wie Schminke und Kleidung reckten die häßlichen Häupter, und die Karriere endet, bevor sie sich noch richtig anläßt"(11).

When the novel opens, Erika is nearing forty, still sleeping with her mother in the bed she had shared with her father, now an institutionalized mental patient. Erika has her own room, but no lock on the door. She has rebelled by buying a new dress, and tries to sneak it in unobserved. "Doch da steht schon die Mama groß davor und stellt Erika....Inquisitor und Erschießungskommando in einer Person, in Staat und Familie einstimmig als Mutter anerkannt" (7). Soon the two women are fighting over the new dress, and another Erika finds missing. Erika berates her mother, calls her names, attacks her and pulls her hair. After the outburst, she cries and apologizes, and the pair reconciles. "Alles, was Erika gegen die Mutter unternimmt, tut ihr sehr schnell leid, weil sie ihre Mutti liebhat, die sie seit frühesten Kindheit kennt"(13). The mother’s opposition to her daughter ever marrying is mentioned, "Die Mutter wünscht nicht, Brautmutter zu werden. Sie will eine normale Mutter bleiben.. " (16). Her concept of being a "normal" mother is of course highly abnormal. In her case, she is not representing the values of the institutions of "state and family" mentioned above; "state and family" are sanctioning her authority as parent and not preventing her from carrying it out in an abnormal, abusive manner.

The pathological scene at the beginning of the novel is one of many, some between the two women, some involving Erika’s voyeuristic tours of seedy parts of town; she visits peep-shows and watches couples having sex on the ground in the Prater park; these low-class, vulgar "shows" contrast with the elite cultural events, concerts, she tells her mother she is attending when she sneaks out, as well as with the dull, mind-numbing bourgeois television shows she and her mother watch together in the evening. In the second half of the book Erika becomes involved in a demeaning sexual relationship with one of her students, Walter Klemperer, and writes him a letter, a masochistic manifesto in which she details the treatment she desires from him. He refuses, and rapes her in her apartment, an incident to which ten pages are devoted.

The last scene of the book has Erika follow Walter and see him flirt with a younger woman, then wound herself superficially with the knife she had brought along to attack him before making her way home to her home and mother. She does not die as do Jakob and Carl Joseph; the reader can only speculate on whether she will become a victim of her own violent and risk-taking tendencies, possibly become better adjusted and develop healthier relationships with people, or become a Nobel-Prize winning author like her creator. This relatively uneventful, open end reflects this book’s greater realism, both in the nineteenth-century sense of focusing on everyday people and events, and in the late twentieth-century sense of bluntly portraying formerly taboo subjects. Unlike Grillparzer and Roth, Jelinek does not downplay or make sense of familial and psychological pathology by granting her protagonist a transcendent end in heroic self-sacrifice.

Erika’s mother is not a distinguished Austrian official as were Jakob’s and Carl Joseph’s fathers, and she is not wealthy or influential; in fact, she is financially dependent on her daughter’s salary as a music teacher. Although Austrian society would not sanction her efforts to prevent her daughter from marrying and having children, this mother does represent Austrian authority and tradition somewhat, as does the job she pushes her into daughter and manages, yet scorns. At times, Erika’s resentment toward her mother and her situation turns toward Austrian culture as well. Every year, Erika has more foreign piano students, drawn to Vienna’s musical reputation. She thinks bitterly, "Wien, Stadt der Musik! Nur was sich bisher bewährt hat, wird sich in dieser Stadt hinkünftig bewähren. Die Knöpfe platzen ihr vom weißen fetten Bauch der Kultur, die, wie jede Wasserleiche, die man nicht herausfischt, jedes Jahr noch aufgeblähter wird."(18). Erika also strikes out at Austrian culture on the subway where she intentionally inflicts pain on the other passengers by kicking and jabbing them.She takes grim satisfaction in hurting a passenger in Austrian garb, thinking "Sie schändet die österreichische Natrionaltrachte" (21). To her the quaint Heuriger wine gardens beloved by tourists represent, "Land der Alkoholiker. Stadt der Musik. Poebel"(27). Erika Swales has traced the larger societal motifs in the novel that go beyond the private mother-daughter relationship; noting repeated references to mechanization, conveyor belts, and repetition, to society and the music industry as marketplaces. She points out, "The deadly monotony of the Kohut life links with the utterly fixed order of the surrounding world. Here the text covers, in varying degrees, the span of Viennese society. At the top end, there is the cultural system... The Prater scene captures the dreary routine of family outings, the patterns of mental and physical violence within the hierarchical structure"(442).

Critics have offered various opinions on the weight readers should accord psychological, socioeconomic and autobiographical aspects of the novel and its mother-daughter relationship, along with the psychological and social roles of music, as well as its importance as an economic commodity. Allyson Fiddler points out that both Erika and Walter Kemperer "despise those musicians who are mediocre and who are less than fully committed to their art"(143). Fiddler also comments that Jelinek attacks music in this novel, "questioning its wider function within society." She asserts that the novel is "a kind of anti-Künstlerroman. Jelinek’s cynicism refuses the possibility of having a female genius as protagonist - Erika is after all just a piano ‘player’ - and points a satirical finger at the pursuit of musical excellence for material ends"(143).

In her discussion of political and economic implications of Erika’s story, Linda DeMeritt cites a series of incidents that differentiate Erika "from the despised lower classes, primarily by means of her musical pursuits. Art serves as the pedestal from which she can look down at common people. Furthermore, art for Erika is a matter of mind and technique, not body or feeling... Ironically, this very distancing or elevation led to Erika’s professional downfall. For her debut she chose a piece so esoteric that her audience rejects it" (112-113). Thus, the novel shows how both mother and daughter are involved in the social class system and in the connections between culture and economic exchange. The novel undoubtedly attacks some aspects of Austrian society, including dehumanisation and commodification of individuals, economic and social inequality, and limited opportunities for women. DeMeritt argues that most commentators have focused on the psychological aspect of the mother-daughter relationship, adding, "Jelinek herself states that these figures do not represent societal prototypes as did her earlier protagonists"(111), although DeMeritt also says that Jelinek has encouraged socio-economic interpretations. Just as it is difficult to equate Erika’s mother’s pathological role with Austrian society, however, it is also difficult to consider her patriarchal. DeMeritt says that feminist critics have objected to the book because in it, "one woman emotionally cripples and physically abuses another"(111). In view of the fact that even the author has expressed some ambivalence about the political import of this book in which psychological pathology is so hard to ignore, it seems reasonable to look in other texts for more direct expressions of the development of Jelinek’s political views and to permit oneself here to focus on the literal details of the mother-daughter interactions and their psychological consequences in Erika’s life.

Returning to the three failed recitals, they all rather obviously suggest that parental and societal expectations can be oppressive and harmful and that a young person’s entire fate should not rest on a single performance that can never be attempted again.Kafka’s Georg Benda demonstrated the futility of trying to do so. In the three life stories at hand, however, it seems unlikely that the three struggling young people would have achieved and maintained success or parental approval if they had passed these three crucial tests; everyone’s life has many tests, and demanding parents do not cease being demanding. For Jakob and Erika the recitals were disastrous turning points, if perhaps exaggerated to a kafkaesque level of nightmare impact. In Carl Joseph’s case the recital, while a severe trial in which the parent figure is interrogator as well as audience, did not signify a change in his father’s relationship to him; although cold and harsh, the district commissioner actually continued to lend assistance to his son’s military career, if not necessarily to his psychological well-being or capacity for responsible adulthood. The three fictional life stories, all prominent enough that they could be called Austrian classics, represent different situations and eras, and strikingly different literary traditions, but they all emphasize harmful, toxic effects of parental and societal pressure, in the context of Austrian culture, within which music is so dominant a force.

© Pamela Saur (Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas)


(1) Critics have often pointed out that the novel is not a glorification of Habsburg ideals, but a mixed or ironic presentation of them; such complexities of meaning have recently been explored by Margarete Landwehr in "Modernist Aesthetics in Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch: The Crisis of Meaning and the Role of the Reader," German Quarterly 76 (Fall 2003): 398-410.


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Bernd, Clifford A. "From Neglect to Controversy: Introducing a Volume of Criticism on Der arme Spielmann ." New Directions : 1-8.

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5.2. Innovation and Reproduction in Austrian Literature and Film

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For quotation purposes:
Pamela Saur (Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas): Toxic Parental Music in Grillparzer, Roth, and Jelinek. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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