Young 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.
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.