Inspired partly by its author’s own experience of his final school-leaving examination, which he passed only at the second attempt, and partly by the suicides of no less than ten school students in a single week in the winter of 1929, Young Gerber is a timeless tale of classroom angst, and an undisputed classic of Austrian literature.
Pushkin Collection editions feature a spare, elegant series style and superior, durable components. The Collection is typeset in Monotype Baskerville, litho-printed on Munken Premium White Paper and notch-bound by the independently owned printer TJ International in Padstow. The covers, with French flaps, are printed on Colorplan Pristine White Paper. Both paper and cover board are acid-free and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified.
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By Friedrich Torberg, Anthea Bell
Steerforth PressCopyright © 1958 Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Vienna
All rights reserved.
God Almighty Kupfer
It was a mild, late-summer morning, and the classroom door was open. Amidst all the noise, no one noticed when young Gerber came in. He went to his desk in the back row, sat down and looked at the scene before him at his leisure. It was just the same as on any other day at school. And Kurt Gerber, in line with the habit he had acquired from much reading of seeing everything that went on around him as if he remembered it, as if it were an account of something already in the past, registered it as almost a recapitulation of previous events.
The students in their last year at High School XVI had assembled in their classroom. They were sitting or standing around in groups, their conversations were loud, excited and incessant, even headlong; they had so much to tell each other after two summer months, their final long school holidays. For the last time they knew, with familiar certainty, that the end of those months meant the beginning of a new school year, but they also knew for the first time, and with an intriguing sense of novelty, that it would be their last.
Their last school year! Those four words had always had a magical aura — they were about to enter the world of reality, and the face and behaviour of every one of the thirty-two eighth-year students reflected that fact. Between 28th June and 1st September they had visibly been adjusting to adulthood, and now, in high spirits, they acted as if they already had this last year behind them. As if there were not another ten months still ahead of them, ten more months of being the school students they had been for the last seven years. Except that everything would carry the extra significance of being for the last time: preparing for exams, taking them, making mistakes, skipping lessons, homework, entries in the register, work marked from Very Good to Unsatisfactory. All that, thought Kurt, looking at the eighth-year students as they cheerfully talked, would be as it had always been since their first year. And not so very much had changed about themselves either, although Körner sported a moustache, and Sittig was kissing the hands of the Reinhard sisters who had just come in (they hadn't grown any prettier in all that time). They would all behave badly, and less frequently well, just as they did before, and they would quake with fear of the exams and laugh at their teachers' jokes. However, if Rimmel hooted with shrill merriment as he was doing now when Schleich recited the latest double entendres in a song about a randy landlady, and if it wasn't a teacher's joke he was laughing at, then first he would get his face slapped, and second he would have a black mark entered against him in the register — which in the eighth class, just before the final examination, was a far more serious matter than before. I'd happily give you a black mark myself, you toady, thought Kurt Gerber. Well, there we are. And now let the school year begin ...
Kurt Gerber looked around. None of the chattering groups particularly attracted him.
Where was Lisa Berwald?
When he got home, he had found a picture postcard from Italy sending him her warm good wishes. "I'm afraid I don't know where you are spending the summer," she wrote, "or I might have looked in there myself. Well, see you when we're back home again." He wanted to know whether she would really have visited him on holiday, or if those were only empty words, like just about everything she said to him and did. But Lisa Berwald wasn't here yet.
So who to talk to? It was simplest to join the group on his left by the window. Kaulich was there, with Gerald, Schleich and Blank.
After loud greetings the conversation was soon in full flow. Soon Hobbelmann, who had obviously just arrived, joined them.
"Hello, Scheri! I have news for you!" (Scheri was Kurt's nickname. It had started out "Geri" with a hard "g" sound, short for Gerber, and then, Heaven knows why, had become Scheri, with a soft initial sound.) "Who do you think is going to be our class teacher?"
Hobbelmann looked around. "None of the rest of you, either? Go on, then, have a guess!"
"Seelig?" asked Kurt.
"Unless you're going to say you don't know either — who is it?"
"God Almighty Kupfer."
Kurt jumped. His head shot forward. He felt the blood rising to his face. Next moment he had seized the startled Hobbelmann and was shaking him. "What did you say? Who?"
Everyone knew that although Professor Kupfer had never taught Kurt Gerber, he did not like him- but the effect of this sudden explosion was so funny that everyone burst out laughing. That brought Kurt to his senses. He let go of the gasping Hobbelmann, struck the top of the desk in front of him and cried, with comically exaggerated emotion, "Then all my wishes are finally granted!"
And his account of a meeting with Kupfer during the summer holidays came pouring out. The Professor stalked past him three times, ignoring him, and even when he came upon Kurt in the forest, and they were on their own, he did not return his civil greeting but said only, in a sharp tone of voice, "It appears that you have recovered very well from the seventh-year examinations," and walked on before Kurt could say anything — "I could have hit the conceited fool". And later, when by chance Kupfer was introduced to Kurt Gerber's father, and his first words were: "Oh ... Gerber? The father of that lad going up into the eighth year? Well, your son would have nothing to laugh about in my form. I know how to bring slackers like that into line!" there had been an argument. His father wanted him to change to a different school, but Kurt had persuaded him that, after all, it was far from certain that Kupfer was really going to be his class teacher — and now there he was, God Almighty Kupfer.
Silence reigned for a while. Then there was a buzz of voices.
"I heard there was going to be a new teacher. — How does Hobbelmann know, anyway? — It's not set in stone. — Why not Mattusch as our class teacher again? — God Almighty's not so bad, you just have to keep on the right side of him. — That's true. — I'm staying out of this. — God Almighty Kupfer is all right. — Don't expect me to swallow that. He's failed me once already. — Let's go on strike. — Down with Kupfer. — Don't be ridiculous. — I'm telling you, Rothbart will stay where he is and Niesset will be our form master ..."
Then the bell rang, only faintly audible at first in all the hubbub, but it soon died down. Eight o'clock. School was beginning. Someone closed the classroom door from the outside, and now all was quiet.
But then the noise swelled again. It was a familiar phenomenon, and its nonsensical nature hadn't changed since the students' first day at school: as soon as the bell rang they went to their places — without any pushing and shoving — where they continued the conversation they had broken off. Real silence fell only when the class teacher, often several minutes later, opened the door. And today of all days, when there were no lessons, only the class teacher's official opening of the year of studies, which — as if to lead them gently from leisure to hard work — always began a little late, so that you didn't really know whether to count it as a school day or still the holidays — well, today of all days, then, there was no real reason to preserve an anxious silence. Soon there was general conversation again.
Only Kurt Gerber sat there in silence. His thoughts were in confusion, he tried in vain to gather them all together and begin sorting them out, he could grasp nothing clearly but that name, the idea of it, the quintessence of that idea: Professor Kupfer, God Almighty. What to do? How was he to behave to him? Submissively? Knuckling under from the start, without waiting for the first blow, ducking so that it would fall on empty air? That would mean he didn't even find out whether Kupfer really meant "to deal with" a "slacker" like him! Or, on the contrary, should he fight back? Brace himself to resist at the first occasion for it: I am not going to duck! But, for Heaven's sake — this was the last year at school, the crucial year when you had to, had to pass the final examination, known in Austrian schools as the Matura. What should he do? Wait and see, that's best, he thought. Maybe he won't really be as bad as all that, and I'll be able to get along with him without losing face. Some people speak well of him. Yes, and anyway — who says for certain that he's going to be our class teacher? Why shouldn't Mattusch stay with us, or maybe it will be the descriptive geometry master Rothbart, or Hussak who teaches maths and physics? Why is it to be Kupfer all of a sudden teaching us maths and descriptive geometry and being our class teacher? Why? Just because Hobbelmann wanted to show off by imparting a sensational piece of news? Nonsense. God Almighty Kupfer won't be coming here ...
"Here comes God Almighty Kupfer!"
Mertens, who had been keeping watch outside the door, rushed in and sat down in his place as good as gold. The noise broke off abruptly.
So it was true. Or maybe he was on his way to another class?
He ought to be here by now.
Was Mertens trying to fool us?
There — now ... nothing.
The sound of the door handle being pushed suddenly down was like a shot breaking the deep silence. Kurt started with alarm, and his knees felt weak as he got to his feet.
The others had risen as well and stood motionless as Professor Artur Kupfer, known among the students as God Almighty Kupfer on account of the infallibility to which he often and emphatically laid claim, strode past the right-hand row of students to the teacher's desk.
Professor Kupfer was about forty years old, and rather too corpulent for a man of medium height. Areas of his short fair hair bore witness to unsuccessful efforts with the brush to arrange it neatly at the back of his head. His moderately high forehead, like the whole of his rather bloated face, was an undistinguished red in colour, despite the attention he obviously devoted to it, and on his thin, prominent, aquiline nose that effect was enhanced by the little red veins running over it. Steely blue eyes behind oval, rimless glasses looked persistently for something that wasn't present. Today he wore a casual pale-grey suit with a matching tie. He had draped a raincoat over the arm in which he was clutching the large green class register; his free hand, as usual, was plucking at his carefully trimmed blond moustache.
Professor Kupfer had reached the lectern that was the teacher's desk. He mounted the step up to it, still with his back turned to the students, and threw the raincoat carelessly over the back of his chair. Then he swung swiftly round, looked expressionlessly at all of them now standing to attention, and said very quietly, with a slight nod of his head, "Sit down!" For the first time that remark, heard five times every day for hundreds of weeks, had a special effect on the students. It was almost a relief, coming from the mouth of the man whose appearance had imposed such unusual and almost paralytic rigidity on the eighth-year class. He actually speaks, they thought, God Almighty Kupfer speaks like any human being. Doesn't make his stern will known in brief gestures. Says just, "Sit down", like the other teachers, and now there he stands saying nothing, as any human being might say nothing.
"I will wait until we have total peace and quiet," says Professor Kupfer in a sharp voice, without moving, without looking at anyone. And only when the class is sitting as motionless as it was standing before, only then does he move, apparently in order to illustrate the contrast between the students, who must sit still at his bidding, and him, whom no one here can command, and who now moves all the more freely
Kurt Gerber had not looked away from him yet; he was staring at him spellbound, as if looking for some vulnerable spot in the enemy with whom he was about to enter the ring for a ten-month wrestling match.
Now Professor Kupfer made a movement like a man waking from profound and distant thought, leant against the tall lectern, hands in his jacket pockets, and suddenly began to smile. Instantly, he had so transformed both himself and the mood of the class that all he had previously said and done became an artificial prelude, one he had performed almost without thinking. Now, however, now that God Almighty Kupfer was really here, now the real game began.
His voice had an entirely different sound — and once again Kurt jumped, just as he had when the door handle was pressed down, although both times he had known what was coming next.
"Well, so here we all are." Kupfer fell silent, as if thinking hard. He wanted to give what he said the appearance of improvisation, as if he were voluntarily exposing his own little human weaknesses. (Hoping to appear "jovial", he often adopted a stilted manner.)
"Let's see who's here." His glance swept around the room. Kurt sat there in fevered expectation. What would happen when God Almighty Kupfer noticed him?
"Lewy," said Kupfer, with his mouth hardly open, "we've already had the pleasure — Lengsfeld, yes, all old acquaintances — and I see Gerber is also here — you liked the summer holidays better than this, eh?" he asked as Kurt, who had risen to his feet, red in the face and unsure of himself, silently bowed.
"Yes." Kurt said this barely audibly, and quickly sat down again.
"Good. We'll start with a roll-call of the register."
He opened it and began reading out the names; each time a student said, "Here," he made a note in the book without looking up.
Kurt, listening carefully as he waited for his own name to be called, expected to hear "Berwald" at this point, and he looked at Lisa's place. It was still empty. In his surprise, he didn't hear Kupfer murmuring, "Berwald has left the school," nor did he hear him reading on, calling the names of Blank, Brodetzky and Duffek, he didn't hear Gerald's name or his own. His thoughts had abruptly taken another direction, and in the same way as they had previously been circling around "Kupfer", they were now circling in mindless haste around "Lisa"... Lisa, Lisa, he thought, where's Lisa? And now, when Hobbelmann turns and urgently whispers "Scheri", he jumps, and his carefully prepared "Here" comes out in such a strange tone that no one can help laughing, and even Kupfer, who has called "Gerber!" three times with increasing impatience, only shakes his head and, without castigating him for inattention, reads on through the register. Halpern, Hergeth, Hobbelmann. Once again, Kurt hears nothing, but stares at the green-painted wood of the desk in front of him and thinks: Lisa. He was planning to invite her out to a cake shop for the last free morning when she might not be surrounded by twenty others; he'd meant to work out a plan with her for the school term ahead, one last moment of free time, entirely free — you're back from Italy, Lisa, where no one knew you were still at school, and you and I and everyone know that I'm almost past my schooldays, we're much older than we used to be, and we'll behave accordingly, no one must notice anything, we won't talk on our own in break, those childish idiots mustn't have anything to see and gossip about, Lisa — but Lisa wasn't here.
Professor Kupfer had closed the register and stepped forward to deliver his opening address to the class, with the same smile on his lips as he had assumed earlier. It really did suggest a touch of goodwill, even a kind of modesty He was trying to come down, as far as possible, to an earthly level. But the obvious care he took to do so made his intentions clear: they were to notice how far he had to descend from those heights where he usually sat enthroned in order to appear to the students a member of the human race like themselves. Look, his tone of voice and the tenor of his address implied, I am taking a great deal of trouble to make myself understood. But thank heavens, I can only regret that it doesn't work. I am steeped too far in knowledge that is denied to you, in experience that you could not understand — yet something of it must come through to you in my words, and for your sake I did intend to keep them as easy as I possibly could. However, no one can stay far below his own level for long. So, as I proceed further in my address, I must give more meaning and richness to my words, seemingly at the expense of the subject. You will not be able to follow me, but I can't help myself. I trust you will not take offence at my considering you stupid. But should anyone dare not to hide his inferiority under a cloak of humble shame, and instead try to express it in any way whatsoever, thus making me aware that I am, after all, among hopeless idiots, it will be the worse for him! And I shall be careful that not the slightest expression of your stupidity escapes me!
Excerpted from Young Gerber by Friedrich Torberg, Anthea Bell. Copyright © 1958 Paul Zsolnay Verlag, Vienna. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsTranslator's Foreword, 11,
Chapter I: God Almighty Kupfer, 19,
Chapter II: Entry of the Gladiators. Strike the Gong, 49,
Chapter III: Three Encounters, 82,
Chapter IV: Meditations on x, 100,
Chapter V: The Palfrey Stumbles, 120,
Chapter VI: A Young Man Called Kurt Gerber, 146,
Chapter VII: Kurt Gerber, Number 7, 185,
Chapter VIII: The Hard Path to Failure, 204,
Chapter IX: "Wednesday at Ten", a Trashy Novel, 234,
Chapter X: A Storm on Two Fronts, 255,
Chapter XI: The Palfrey Collapses, 285,
Chapter XII: The Matura Examination, 307,