Warnings of extreme sado-masochism inclined me to think I wouldn't be much interested in the film of The Piano Teacher, nor in the Elfriede Jelinek novel on which it is based. I now know better about Michael Haneke through The White Ribbon and Amour, of course, and I've only just discovered the truth about the genius of Nobel prizewinner Jelinek.
I was browsing in the unusual little bookshop - I forget its name, but it shares office space with the local monthly magazine of quality - up a side-alley off Lewes High Street*. This shop, unlike the others, nearly always has a book I really want to read, and of course there was the volume of Poulenc's letters ten quid cheaper than I'd paid for it at Travis and Emery. But for some reason I was encouraged to take a sample of Jelinek's style in Wonderful, Wonderful Times, and realised that was the book for me. The gentleman- seller told me it was his daughter's copy; she'd been very low at the time of buying it, and of course soon came to realise that the title meant anything but feelgood.
Die Ausgesperrten (literally The Shut-Out Ones; wouldn't The Dispossessed do?), as its original title has it, soon sucks you into its topsy-turvy world. Advertised as a Clockwork Orange for 1950s Vienna - I can't say as I haven't read Burgess's book nor seen the film either, though it used to be shown regularly at a Kings Cross cinema - its ensemble of characters is a quartet of disaffected teenagers, each of them affected at one remove by their dysfunctional or abusive parents' experiences in the Second World War. There's something of the Dostoyevskyan Napoleon complex about their desire to commit naughty deeds in a bad, bad world. Which they do, sporadically, until the terrible denouement.
More important than any plot line is how you get to know and, for the most part, to sympathise with these wounded as much as wounding young people. And this is the key - Jelinek's unique style, which I'm guessing has been brilliantly rendered into English by translator Michael Hulse. I've never read anything approaching her often ironic authorial omniscience, which sometimes dissects but more often affects to understand her human puppets' motives. And then, just when you truly begin to feel for at least two of the characters, real tragedy strikes. But read it for yourself.
It ought, of course, to be a film, too, though I can't imagine how Haneke's Piano Teacher found an equivalent for the novelistic point of view; now I want to see it. Very close to the spirit of Wonderful, Wonderful Times is Lars von Trier's The Idiots: another sometimes alienating masterpiece which has a truly beating heart. Given that, anything terrible in a book or a film can be borne. Now I've got other Jelinek novels lined up to read. but given that I've also just discovered her equally brilliant fellow Austrian Thomas Bernhard - more on him when I've properly grasped the nettle - a fine balancing act between the two lies ahead.
I'm less convinced by leading Czech author Jáchym Topol's The Devil's Workshop (originally Chladnou zemí, Through a Cold Land). The idea is a very original one: how the need to memorialise sites which saw atrocities in the Second World War can be turned on its head to produce grotesque theme parks. The first half of the book, dealing with the protagonist's postwar upbringing in the fast-fading town of Terezín, is utterly compelling. The second, about which all I'll say is that it takes place in the horrible country of Belarus, is less convincing in its fantasy dystopia. But since it's a short book, I'd say it's well worth your time.
A real-life story of enfants terribles after the war is a strand in the last chapter of Michael Haas's Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis (nb the subliminal 'Hitler sells' black-and-red coloured jackets for both this and The Devil's Workshop). The devilish dead hand of Schoenbergian followers in sweep-away-the-bad-traditions Darmstadt - though, as Poulenc always pointed out, Boulez was a cut above - had a lot to answer for, especially in the world of musical academia, and I grew up feeling its effects.
Anyway, you can hear a trio of thumbs-up on this one when Tom Service quizzes Prof John Deathridge and myself on Radio 3 Music Matters a week this Saturday. I should add that it's in the can already, so I'd better keep stumm on the rest**. Again, a book everyone should read, and in this case certainly not just music-lovers. And what fun it was to be back again in the BBC's old-new Broadcasting House again, and swish past the odd media star, a day before Madge cut the red ribbon to declare the building officially reborn.
*It also doubles as a lending library, which makes it especially charming.
**17/6 Listened to the broadcast on return from Deutschland - the discussion can be found somewhere towards the end of this 'chapter'. I take my hat off to the editing, and reason that perhaps the world doesn't need to know of my desire to hear Hans Gál's comic opera The Sacred Duck (Die heilige Ente).