Two Abandoned Nobels

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The Piano Teacher Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek

Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004

Five words from the blurb: Vienna, emotional, self-destruction, intensity, porn

The Piano Teacher is an unrelenting, intense tale of one woman’s self-destruction.

Erika is a piano teacher who lives with her controlling mother. She begins an affair with one of her young students, but he cannot save her from her destructive cycle of self-harm.

I initially loved the gripping, emotionally charged narrative, but I quickly found I needed space to breathe, wishing there were some breaks from the darkness. I then began to find the narrative style, with its capitalised pronouns, irritating:

SHE only has to glance at this scene, and HER face instantly becomes disapproving. SHE considers her feelings unique when she looks at a tree; she sees a wonderful universe in a pinecone.

As the book progressed it became increasingly dark and sexually explicit. I found the scenes of her self-harm uncomfortable to read and her trips to watch pornographic shows held little interest.

I skimmed over several sections and then decided to give up entirely. This book has a grippingly original narrative voice, but it was too harsh for me.

Recommended to those with a strong stomach.


The Tin Drum (Vintage Classics)Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim

The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

Günter Grass won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999

Five words from the blurb: Germany, Nazis, dwarf, scathing, horrors

The Tin Drum is one of those classics that had intimidated me for far too long. Inspired by German Literature month I decided to set my fears aside and give this imposing chunkster a try. Unfortunately, in this case, the intimidation was justified and I failed to finish this complex, multi-layered masterpiece.

The Tin Drum is narrated by Oskar, a dwarf with learning difficulties who calms himself by beating his toy drum. I’d love to be able to tell you what happens, but I’m afraid I can’t:

a) because very little happens
b) I didn’t get that far into the book

The writing was impressive and I loved Oskar’s character, but the book had very little narrative drive. It skipped from one scene to the next and I struggled to see the connection between them.

I crawled at a snail’s pace through the first 100 pages, becomingly increasingly bored. After another difficult 20 pages I decided to abandon it. I’m sure that this book is a masterpiece and everything makes sense in the end, but I don’t think I’m in the right stage of life to appreciate it. I think I’ll give it another try in twenty years.

Have you tried reading either of these books?


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  1. Sandy says:

    I’d given some thought to The Piano Teacher, but overall the really smart (?) award winners don’t sit well with me. I like one out of ten that I try. I’m not sure what that says about me, but I am learning that if there is very little plot I get restless. I have read quite a few dark and disturbing books though, and I am usually OK with them. I feel sick afterwards, but I like it when a book gives me a visceral reaction like that.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, Oh no – I hate books that make me feel sick. I agree that it is nice to read a book that gives a strong reaction, but I prefer shock to sickness.

      I’m with you on the plot thing though – very few authors can get away without a plot in my eyes. Especially if the book is nearly 600 pages long!

  2. LizzySiddal says:


    The Piano Teacher has been sitting for years in my TBR. Sometimes I want to read it and sometimes I don’t. I most definitely do not want to go anywhere near it following your review. You’ve done me a favour, thanks.

    The Tin Drum, however, is a favourite of mine. Yes, it is hard work but well worth the effort. Even after 3 readings, I don’t claim to understand everything that’s going on. One day maybe ….

    1. Jackie says:

      Lizzy, I think I’d perhaps benefit from reading The Tin Drum slowly with a group of other people (or at least a study guide) I can see that it is amazingly well written, but I felt so much was going over my head. I’m sure I’ll fall in love with it at a later stage.

  3. Alex Baugh says:

    I like Jelinek a lot though in a class someone felt she was too pornographic and returned the book to her professor, who was a friend of mine and passed it on to me. I know what you mean about needing a break from the darkness, though.
    Oskar has always been one of my favorite protagonists, but I know the book doesn’t appeal to others. I am that way about Middlemarch. Years ago, I gave up caring that I have never read it. I agree, the beginning of The Tin Drum is tedious.
    Thanks for your honest review.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, I didn’t find it too pornographic (I’m quite tolerant of such things) but the writing style irritated me and I didn’t bond with Erika so didn’t care about her actions. Her voyeurism bored me. :-(

      It is interesting you think the beginning of Tin Drum is tedious. Perhaps I just didn’t read far enough in to it? I’m sure I’ll go back to it one day. Hopefully I’ll enjoy it more second time around.

  4. Caroline says:

    I read both but must admit it was no joy reading Jelinek and I’m not interested in reading her again. It was an experience and the book is an achievement but hard, hard work.
    The Tin Drum however is something else, I really liked it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Carline, I saw your thoughts on Jelinek in your post last week. It is good to know we are not alone – I won’t be trying any of her work again.

      I can see why you like The Tin Drum. I hope I will one day :-)

  5. Steph says:

    I’m sad to hear you had such a difficult time with The Tin Drum. A friend of mine (the one who recommended One Hundred Years of Solitude), really loves that book so I bought it on her recommendation… but I have let it sit on my shelves for a few years now. I keep meaning to try it, but like you, I’ve been intimidated! I think I’m better able to deal with lack of plot in novels than you do, so hopefully I will have a better experience with it when I do try it!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I haven’t read One Hundred Years of Solitide (it is on my shelf, but continuing to intimidate me!) so I’m afraid I can’t compare the two, but I suspect that you’ll enjoy The Tin Drum. It is a very long book, but if you put the effort in (and don’t mind having no plot) then I’m sure you’ll be OK.

  6. Jeane says:

    I read the Tin Drum as a teen- seems so long ago. I remember being fascinated by the narrator’s different perspective, and a lot of the events were beyond me the ending a complete confusion but I made it through nonetheless. I wonder now if I’ll ever read it again. I’ve picked up a few other books by Bunter Grass and never made it into another one.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeane, I think I’d have had even less patience with it as a teen so congratulations on completing it! Sorry you haven’t made it to the end of any of his other books I wonder if I should try another (shorter!) book written by Grass?

  7. Laura says:

    Once upon a time, I was trying to read Nobel winners just as I’ve done with the Booker and Orange prizes. I abandoned that pursuit, and The Piano Teacher was one of the contributing factors. My god, I hated that book. I absolutely could not finish it. And then I found more and more of my Nobel reads were less than satisfying. I decided they were, in general, “hard work,” and became a chore unless I was really up for it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Laura, I’m still planning to try all the Nobel winners, but I’m not too worried about completing the books. I know I have a love/hate relationship with the Nobels and so just want to experience the writing and have a vague idea of the plot. If I happen to come across a book I love (eg The Fifth Child, Independent People) then that makes it worthwhile. If they are too much hard work (eg Soul Mountain) then I’m happy to abandon them.

  8. I haven’t read these two books, but good for you on abandoning them! There are so many good books out there and we can’t all like the same ones anyway.

    I decided not to finish a Dutch novel today, as I wasn’t into it yet after 100 pages.

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, The more you abandon, the easier it gets :-)

  9. Stephanie says:

    I do want to read The Piano Teacher at some point, but the reviews seem to be very mixed.

    1. Jackie says:

      Stephanie, Yes – there aren’t going to be many people down the middle on this one. You’re either going to love it or hate it!

  10. stujallen says:

    I ve not read the piano teacher but am a huge fan of Grass he is one of my all time favourite writers but can understand your view point on tin drum and the snail bit is funny I ve his from diary of a snail soon ,all the best stu

    1. Jackie says:

      Stu, Do you think I’d have more luck with a different Günter Grass novel? If so, which do you recommend?

  11. Tony says:

    I’ll probably end up reading both at some point (I have ‘Die Blechtrommel’ sitting behind me), but I have heard similar things about these books. I’d imagine that Grass’ book is probably more my style, but you never know ;)

    1. Jackie says:

      Tony, Good luck with both books – I hope you have more success than me :-)

  12. Both are books I’d probably have a stab at one day if I happen to have a copy though I’m not particularly drawn to them.

    By the way, The Piano Teacher sounds far more disturbing than Perfume – don’t be afraid to give Perfume a try, I think you’d be ok with it!

    1. Jackie says:

      Liz, Thanks for letting me know that Perfume isn’t as disturbing as The Piano Teacher. I’ll ensure I get to it sometime soon.

  13. A few years ago the adaptation of The Piano Teacher was a big hit, but just watching the trailer put me off the movie and book. I’m glad I did because I got annoyed with the caps just from that one paragraph…

  14. Kinna says:

    I tried reading the Tin Drum a while back and found I simply could not! Like you said, not much happens. Most of all, I was not taken by the central character, nothing compelling there to engage me nor to propel the story forward. I keep thinking that I might try again but I should resign myself to not reading Gunter Grass.

  15. Mome Rath says:

    I’m still getting caught up on all the old posts I missed while I was traveling, and I see that you did take a stab at The Tin Drum. I still haven’t read it yet, but thanks for the warning that it starts off slow.
    Earlier this year I did find another German Nobel-prize winning author with a novel I absolutely loved. Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks may be long, but it is a very well told story of the decline of a German merchant family in the late 1800s.


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