Skipping a Lesson

Reissued work by Austrian novelist fails to explore historical context


Friedrich Torberg worked as a journalist in Prague and Vienna and fled in 1938 after the Anschluss. Like so many Jewish émigré writers, he travelled around western Europe until he managed to get to New York, invited by the Pen Club as one of “Ten Outstanding German Writers”. He returned to Austria in 1951, and died in Vienna in 1979.

'Young Gerber', Torberg’s first novel, written when he was only 21, has now been translated by Anthea Bell in a handsome new paperback edition.

Its two central themes are school and sex, the pressures of exams and the frustrations of young love. Kurt Gerber faces the dreaded Matura, the oral and written exams that will decide his and his friends’ fate. To stand any hope of getting a job in the professions, they must pass.

The obstacle in their way, the sadistic maths teacher Artur Kupfer, delights in making schoolchildren miserable. “He chose his victim,” Torberg writes, “like a gourmet selecting the tastiest of game”. Gerber is his main target.

The book moves between Gerber’s battles with Kupfer and his love for the beautiful Lisa. Strikingly, there is no sense of a Europe on the eve of Nazism, and thus the novel, assured as it is for such a young man, is more intriguing for what is left out.

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