Book Review: Smells Like Teen Spirit?
Young Gerber, Friedrich Torberg’s classic novel of sadism in Austrian schools, is now available in English for the first time
Young Gerber is an 18-year-old facing the archaic school-leaving oral interrogation known as the Matura.
At some point in our lives, we’ve all experienced the fear of academic failure, staring blankly into examination notebooks or being struck dumb when asked a difficult question in the classroom. This fear – and the paralysis and crippling self-doubt it can induce – has reduced many students to tears and shattered many youthful dreams.
The Matura – Abitur in Germany – taken during one’s last year in secondary school was precisely the kind of examination that instilled incapacitating fear in students. To a large degree, one’s performance on the exam determined, even more than today, whether you would go on to greater things in life. Those who failed, ended up living an ignominious lower middle-class existence.
In Friedrich Torberg’s Young Gerber (Der Schüler Gerber), the protagonist, Kurt Gerber, and his classmates at Gymnasium XVI – an elite co-educational school presumably somewhere in Vienna – are in their final academic year, which culminates with the Matura. Already a source of great stress, it becomes an occasion of daily torment when they are assigned the school’s most feared teacher: Artur Kupfer.
"Known among the students as God Almighty, Kupfer on account of the infallibility to which he often and emphatically laid claim" – this fellow is the worst kind of teacher: aloof, arrogant, proud, petty and vindictive, and all too willing to destroy students who do not please him. And Kurt Gerber, for various reasons, is at the top of his list.
Inspired by real events
Young Gerber, published in 1930, was inspired by real-life events in the winter of 1929 when 10 students in Vienna committed suicide in the same week. Although Torberg (born in 1908 and whose real name was Kantor) attended the German Realgymnasium in Prague, which "still used antiquated educational methods dating from the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy," he must have heard about the tragedy. And it is quite likely that he himself experienced many of the sadistic and demoralising events described in this novel.
Torberg transmits the fear and frustrations felt by the students – primarily Kurt – so ably, that the story is irresistible. There are vivid descriptions and powerful metaphors, so that sadistic perversions (academic and otherwise) crawl over your skin. In one scene, Kupfer derives "warm enjoyment" simply from barking out the order for his students to sit down: "He had caressed [this command] in advance with his palate and tongue and lips, like a man sucking the last fibres of fruit off a peach stone before spitting it out."
Elsewhere, Torberg describes with almost culinary delight how Kupfer lords over his charges: "He chose his victims like a gourmet selecting the tastiest of game; he sought out the choicest parts of the roast, and carved it up with a relish that was satisfying in itself. He consumed those who were wholly incapable of achievements, entirely stupid, as side dishes, swallowing them just as they came to hand."
Many students try in vain to please Kupfer, to get on his good side. But he has no good side. He helps no one. Some students end up "lowering themselves to grovel mindlessly, doglike, licking up the saliva dripping from the victor’s slavering jaws, or tried to resist the inevitable with hands raised in pleading, writhing and whimpering beneath the knee weighing down on their chests."
Even those who should justly earn a "pass" or "satisfactory" by dint of hard work and scholastic abilities, are at risk of receiving a damning "unsatisfactory" if Kupfer has been challenged. And, as a precaution, Kupfer also made sure to sow envy and spread resentment among the students, thereby "ensuring that they did not form a united front against him." He is, to put it bluntly, a bastard of a teacher.
School as pogrom
Early in the novel, we learn that Kupfer’s main goal is to destroy Kurt. He resents Kurt’s apparent sense of entitlement – due to his widely acknowledged brilliance – and despises his long history of pranks and inattention in class. But Kupfer was not about to look the other way and looked forward to dealing with Kurt "like a child looking forward to a new toy; he was going to ruin him."
Kupfer succeeds. As the novel progresses, the reader sees Kurt become more and more insecure, with wild mood swings and increasing self-doubt. There are long and rambling sections in which Kurt talks about standing up to Kupfer and about eventually becoming an adult and having a life in which no one will care about the Matura. But then, his thoughts return frantically to the reality that he must pass the Matura!
The despair and fear among the students are palpable. One day, Kurt arrives late to class and finds "most of them are whispering formulae to themselves with their eyes closed, in tones of urgency, each on his or her own, and yet all bound together. The formulae are like magic spells – like prayers." It reminds Kurt of a story about a pogrom in a synagogue, where the congregation had sat in fear and anxiety, while waiting for their sentence from a military officer.
Torberg’s imagery is very powerful. But the author does other interesting things in this 349-page novel, for example, frequently switching out of (and back into) the omniscient narrator’s voice, providing long, interior stream-of-consciousness monologues and rapid-fire glimpses into the feelings of his characters, as William Faulkner had done the year before in the U.S. with The Sound and the Fury. And, as a whole, it works well.
In addition to torment at the hands of a sadistic teacher, Kurt faces the "ultimate torment of unfulfillment" in his adolescent love for the beautiful Lisa. We learn at the beginning of the novel that Lisa has dropped out of school and taken a job. But Kurt continues to love her with "wild, ambitious love, which in its purity put something of a strain on her." And therein lies the problem: Lisa wants more. She is sexually experienced and promiscuous, and doesn’t know how to react to Gerber’s adolescent love.
And so, sadly, loving each other but in entirely different ways, "they both […] shrank from a relationship […] and loved at cross-purposes without knowing it." As Kurt slowly says goodbye to the idea of Lisa, the dark feelings around him grow. "It was not hopelessness that surrounded him, nor the despair of unrequited love; it was the fear of being loved, but not in the way he wanted."
Struggling with the pain of love lost, crushed under Kupfer’s classroom challenges and terrified of the impending Matura, Kurt steadily loses confidence in everything. He has increasingly disjointed thoughts about life, mathematics, love, failure and death. We watch him descend into greater and more turgid whirlpools of despair. And while there are sections where Torberg verges on self-parody, his story achieves the goal of any good work of fiction: It entertained, intrigued and captivated this reader for days.
by Friedrich Torberg
(Translated by Althea Bell)
Pushkin Press, 2012
Order online at: "Young Gerber" (Friedrich Torberg)