November/December 2011

What the
Swedes Read

A Reader Makes His Way Through
One Book By Each Nobel Laureate

by Daniel Handler
  • LAUREATE: Elfriede Jelinek (2004, Austria)
  • BOOK READ: The Piano Teacher, trans. Joachim Neugroschel

I like sex in a novel. The way I feel about sex in novels is basically how I feel about it in life: it’s inherently interesting, it’s an opportunity for emotional and/or narrative development, and the pleasure’s worth the risk of embarrassment. I like it, and I find it troubling when it’s completely absent from a situation that clearly calls for it.

I get this troubling feeling when I read much recent American realist fiction, which often puffs up with bravery to examine various personal or sociopolitical narratives with searing honesty, and then has people fall into each other’s arms and shut the bedroom door and then there are three asterisks and it’s the next morning. More than one American author has told me they’ve avoided writing sex scenes because what might be exciting to one reader is tedious to another, which is curious reasoning, as the same could be said of any subject at all, as any reader who’s giggled through a bad death scene knows all too well. But, of course, that’s not why they’re not writing sex scenes. They’re not writing them because they’re difficult to write well. To which I say: So’s descriptions of landscapes. But you keep doing that, don’t you? Get back to your desk.

All this is a roundabout way for me to say that Elfriede Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher is full of sex. It was made into a film you might have seen—no, not the Polanski one, that’s The Pianist; no, not Holly Hunter as a mute, that’s The Piano; Isabelle Huppert, yes, that’s the one—that was praised for its quiet tension and control, but the novel runs wild and rampant, spilling sex into every crevice. It’s not a dirty book—it’s filthy. And while this is the opposite of the primness in some recent American fiction, it isn’t exactly the opposite of troubling.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Daniel Handler writes books under his own name and as Lemony Snicket.

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