Review: Young Gerber – Friedrich Torberg

young gerberYoung Gerber is a very welcome English translation of a novel by Austrian writer Freidrich Torberg (1908-1979). It is a substantial book of 350 pages or so but concerns a relatively small period of time and focuses on just one event, the matura, or graduation exam which all grammar school students must pass before they go on to university.

The matura consists of a set of written papers and those who survive those with a “pass” move on to the oral examination.  This takes place before a panel of four professors who present the student with a set of questions of ferocious difficulty and see how he or she deals with them.

Kurt Gerber is an intelligent student but lacks application to his studies.  He is in love with class-mate Lisa, a wealthy young woman with a rich social life – and more interest in the men she meets in expensive hotels while on holiday with her parents than in her fellow-students.

Kurt has managed to form a sort of liaison with Lisa but she always seems to have other men in tow and he finds it difficult to meet her socially.  Also, it is now the start of the final year of school and he must face up to the ordeal of the matura, in which he will be tested in the subject he finds most difficult –  mathematics, as well as difficult questions in Latin, German literature, history and geography.

The book opens at the start of the school year.  The class of students do not yet know who their form teacher is going to be and they debate the possible options.  Suddenly one of the students calls out, “Here comes God Almighty Kupfer!” and their worst fears are realised.  Kupfer was a captain in the war and has all the characteristics of an ex-officer, being militaristic, demanding, intolerant of laziness or inattention and unapproachable. He also has a sadistic streak in him and seems to take pleasure in exposing the failings of his class –

He chose his victim  like a gourmet selecting the tastiest of game; he sought out the choicest parts of the roast and carved up with a relish that was satisfying in itself.  He consumed those who were wholly incapable of achievement, entirely stupid, as side dishes, swallowing them just as they came to hand.

Moreover, Kupfer is a brilliant mathematician, the author of school text-books, and contemptuous of those who don’t share his love for complex formulae and calculations.  This is going to be a tough year for struggling students, particularly those with a streak of rebelliousness of those who have other things on their minds like attractive members of the opposite sex.

Note:  The rest of this review reveals further details of the story which some readers may wish to skip.  To go straight to my conclusion click here.

Friedrich Torberg

Within a few days Professor Kupfer has taken a dislike to Kurt Gurber and is awarding him “unsatisfactory” grades on his test papers.  Kurt is at first bewildered by his poor showing in tests but because of the other distractions in his life doesn’t really settle down to the depth of study and revision required in his final year. He resorts to cheating in class by copying other students’ work, but Kupfer is hyper-vigilant and catches him reading a helpful note from his friend.

When a note is sent home reprimanding Kurt for his poor performance Kurt forges his father’s signature and returns it to school, knowing how important it is to his parents that he succeeds in his final year.   Eventually this forgery and others are discovered and when Kurt’s father hears the full extent of his son’s failures he has a heart attack.  Kurt’s mother to appeals to her son to do better to avoid killing his father – an added burden on Kurt, but one which still does not bring about a change in attitude to his studies.

At Christmas Kurt goes skiing in the Alps with a party of young people including Lisa.  She is a lively and sociable woman who is happy to indulge Kurt in private conversations and occasional kisses but there are too many other young men around and Kurt fails to achieve the intimate relationship with Lisa that he so longs for.  This Alpine episode is beautifully written with vivid descriptions of the pristine ski-slopes, the rickety train journey back to the summits and the aprés-ski events so full of romantic intrigues.

Returning to school, the pressure ratchets up a few notches and God Almighty Kupfer becomes ever more sadistic in his tormenting of Kurt.  The mathematical questions seem horrendously difficult  and Kurt has no idea how to answer them –

The radius of a sphere inscribed in a dodecahedron is fifty-seven centimetres (RGD =57cm).  What does side of the dodecahedron measure?

Show the equations of the asymptotes of the hyperbola 4s-9y squared = 36 , tracing them large  and clear, and calculate their angle with the abscissal axis.

I won’t describe what happens when the examinations come round, but it is a measure of Torberg’s skill as a writer that the description of these crucial few days kept me turning the pages and resenting interruptions.

Torberg’s writing reminded me of other German or Austrian writers of the last century such as Robert Walser, Stefan Zweig and Hans Fallada.  It goes into great detail about the state of mind of Kurt Gerber and we are given a realistic insight into his torments, both academic and romantic.  The book was apparently written in response to a spate of student suicides.  If Torberg has accurately described the intolerable strains placed on the students by the Austrian educational regime of the time, then it is not surprising that many couldn’t bear the pressure.

Pushkin Press can be relied on to publish quality literature and have once again excelled themselves in this fine translation by Anthea Bell who has an impressive list of note-worthy translations and awards to her name.

14 comments to Review: Young Gerber – Friedrich Torberg

  • You certainly have got me interested — the terror of the “make or break” examination is one of those life events that seems tailor-made for excellent fiction.

    A side question. I love the look and feel of Pushkin books and their distinctive format. Alas, I have found in reading them that, if the book is longer than about 200 pages, it is like trying to turn pages in a squarish brick, if you know what I mean. You say this one is 350 pages, so I suspect it is approaching “cube” proportions. Any comments?

  • Tom

    Hi Kevin. Thanks for visiting – I am sorry to have been away for so long – pressures of life etc, particularly during the summer months.

    You make a good point about Pushkin books – yes, I suppose round about page 200 this was getting a little difficult to manage – you have to bend them back to break the spine to be able to get a flattish double spread, which seems a shame. On the other hand they have a very distinctive look and feel and the paper and typography is to a very high standard. Real pocket books perhaps?

    Anyway, this one was first rate and the publicist has just told me that the author was only 22 years old when he wrote it

  • This sounds like one I would like too, Tom. I skipped the middle bit of your review because I’d like to read it, so apologies if you have answered this question within that section – would you say, because of its subject matter that this is called YA (Young Adult) fiction?

  • Tom

    Hi Lisa – thanks for visiting. No, definitely not young adult fiction. I’d say its a very grown-up book dealing with some quite adult themes. It’s quite dark in places. I would think you’d enjoy it

  • German Literature Month is upcoming again this November and this would have been a great choice. maybe it will motivate the one or the other to pick it up.
    What you wrote reminded me a bit of Walser and Musil and others who wrote about colleges. I must honestly say, I didn’t know the author, will have to see what I can find on him.

  • Tom

    Caroline – I’d never heard of him myself! I think this is the only work in translation to English. I must take a look at German Literature Month this time round – I always seem to have trouble synching my reading with this sort of thing

  • I had to do a double take on the title as I thought it was Young Werther but then reread it. Do you think there’s a connection?

  • Hey Tom – great to see you back in the saddle. :)

    Sounds like an interesting read. Going to add it to my list.

  • Thanks for the review, Tom. I’m the opposite of Kevin – to me an exam doesn’t seem a very promising subject for fiction, but it sounds as if the author handles it very well. Interesting about the cube-like nature of the book! I like the cover – looks like a Schiele painting, very striking on that plain background.

  • Tom

    Thanks for visiting Guy. I had the same thought, but I don’t think there is a direct link. Otherthan that Werther also features unrequited love perhaps?

  • Tom

    Hi Susie, thanks for visiting. Love your tractor post! What a great array of colours and styles. Any more books coming up?

  • Tom

    Hi Andrew – thanks for visiting. Glad to read that you’re book is progressing really well

  • Glad you liked the tractors, Tom. The old ones are the best. :)

    I’m working on book No. 5 at the moment, and hope to have the first draft finished by the 15th of this month. It is tentatively scheduled for release in November.

  • Tom

    Susie, Great – I look forward to seeing it.

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