the guardian Tue 16 October 2012
In the winter of 1929, 10 Viennese schoolchildren committed suicide in a single week. Reading Torberg's account of the Austrian examination system at the time, one is surprised to find that the number was so few. Young Gerber is an 18-year-old facing the archaic school-leaving oral interrogation known as the Matura. His chances are not helped by the fact that his teacher, referred to throughout as "God Almighty Kupfer", takes perverse satisfaction in breaking the will of vulnerable students. Torberg demonstrates a fine understanding of a sadistic bully whose powers drain away outside the classroom: "The fact that he could construct the regular section of a prism by discovering its trace points using affinity was not going to fill many people with awe-stricken respect." Gerber himself can be a bit ingratiating at times, though Anthea Bell's translation has a nightmarish clarity that puts one in mind of Tom Brown's Schooldays re-written by Kafka. And the final chapter, which details the final examination, brings back long-suppressed sensations of clammy palms and palpitations.