Friday, 7 June 2013

Book Review: Young Gerber by Friedrich Torberg
One sadistic teacher can ruin the school career and the life of many people. Very few children will have the resilience and courage of Matilda, not to mention her telekinetic power. However, older students aren’t immune against pressure and torments from teachers. Hermann Hesse knew a thing or two to tell about it in Beneath the Wheel (Unterm Rad: 1906) and so did Robert Musil in The Confusions of Young Törless (Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törleß: 1906). The novel about school life that I picked for today’s review is Young Gerber by Friedrich Torberg.

The Austro-Czech journalist and writer Friedrich Torberg was born in Vienna, Austria-Hungaria, in September 1908. In 1930 he published his first and most successful novel Young Gerber (Der Schüler Gerber) based on his own experiences in school. As a Jew he had to flee from Prague in 1938 and go into exile. He made his way to the USA and became an American citizen in 1945. In 1951 Friedrich Torberg returned to Vienna, Austria, where he worked as a journalist and became the much praised translator of Ephraim Kishon’s satirical novels into German. His later literary work includes Tante Jolesch or the Decline of the West in Anecdotes (Die Tante Jolesch oder Der Untergang des Abendlandes in Anekdoten: 1975) and its sequel. Friedrich Torberg died in Vienna, Austria, in November 1979. 

Young Gerber is the story of 18-year-old Kurt Gerber who is in his final year at the Gymnasium, an eight-year grammar school preparing for university. Until today it’s a tough year because it ends with the Matura (Abitur in Germany) which is the graduation exam consisting of a set of written exams and then, if they are passed, oral exams before the panel of class teachers and a representative of the school authorities. To pass the Matura means to qualify for university. In the 1920s, when the vast majority of people finished compulsory education at the age of 14, the Matura also was a guarantee for a better job, especially in the public service. 

Kurt Gerber is highly intelligent, but a poor and rebellious student. He doesn’t see a point in studying hard and doesn’t understand why everybody makes such a fuss about passing the Matura. When his father suggests that he changes school because during the summer a teacher threatened to give Kurt hell and make him fail, he doesn’t take it seriously. During the following months Artur Kupfer, nicknamed Almighty God Kupfer, makes his students and Kurt Gerber in particular feel his authority as a teacher of Maths and Descriptive Geometry who authored the standard text-books and who has been a captain in World War I. Behind the mask of correctness and lawfulness he delights in tormenting his students and breaking them. At the beginning Kurt Gerber still takes things easy, but then the pressure rises because his father has a serious heart attack after finding out that he forged his signature twice. Along with troubles in school Kurt Gerber also has to deal with his feelings for former class mate Lisa Berwald who plays with his love keeping him at a distance most of the time and kindling his hopes on other occasions. Until the end the young man is torn between complying with the demands of Professor Kupfer to spare his father the shame of seeing his son fail the Matura and revolting against the terror of Almighty God Kupfer and following his own heart. 

Being titled Young Gerber the novel makes think of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther, but this is a mere coincidence limited to the English edition. Literally translated the German title would be something like Student Gerber. Student Gerber is the very formal and official wording that refers to the young man as a member of the student body rather than as an individual. It’s similar to military address as in Private Ryan and pretty old-fashioned though still in use today. The entire novel is written in the idiom of its time that still has a touch of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy broken up only in 1918. Passages of stream-of-consciousness and of traditional third person narrative alternate. Especially towards the end Friedrich Torberg also intersperses the text with mathematics constructing equations of life with great symbolic power. 

Some may think that Young Gerber is just another coming-of-age novel, but there’s much more to it than that. It’s a story about the abuse of authority having its root in the desire to be somebody and to be feared at least when there’s no hope to find love. Friedrich Torberg shows the effects of such abuse on the soul of Kurt Gerber whose power of resistance against Almighty God Kupfer shrinks constantly until he slips into hopelessness and despair in the end. It’s an impressive read of universal truth and thus highly recommendable.

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