This last book by Ödön von Horváth, one of the 20th-century’s great but forgotten writers, is a dark fable about guilt, fate, and the individual conscience.
An unnamed narrator in an unnamed country is a schoolteacher with “a safe job with a pension at the end of it.” But, when he reprimands a student for a racist comment, he is accused of “sabotage of the Fatherland,” and his students revolt. A murder follows, and the teacher must face his role in it, even if it costs him everything.
Horváth’s book both points to its immediate context—the brutalizing conformity of a totalitarian state, the emptiness of faith in the time of the National Socialists—and beyond, to the struggles of individuals everywhere against societies that offer material security in exchange for the abandonment of one’s convictions. Reminiscent of Camus’ The Stranger in its themes and its style, Youth Without God portrays a world of individual ruthlessness and collective numbness to the appeals of faith or morality.
And yet, a commitment to the truth lifts the teacher and a small band of like-minded students out of this deepening abyss. It’s a reminder that such commitment did exist in those troubled times—indeed, they’re what led the author to flee Germany, first for Austria, and then France, where he met his death in a tragic accident, just two years after the publication of Youth Without God. Long out of print, this new edition resurrects a bracing and still-disturbing vision.
“Horváth was telling the truth. Furiously.” —Shalom Auslander
About the Author
Liesl Schillinger is a literary critic, translator, and regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Washington Post, New York, Vogue, and elsewhere. Her most recent translation from the German is the novel Every Day, Every Hour, by Nataša Dragnić.
Read an Excerpt
THERE WERE FLOWERS ON MY TABLE. BEAUTIFUL. A present from my landlady, kindly old soul: a birthday present.
But I needed to use the table, and I pushed the flowers aside, together with the letter from my people. “For your thirty-fourth birthday,” my mother wrote, “I send you the very best wishes, my dear child. May Almighty God bring you health, luck, and happiness.” And my father: “For your thirty-fourth birthday, my dear boy, I wish you the very best. Almighty God give you luck, health, and happiness.”
Well, luck will always come in useful, I thought—and thank your stars you’ve got your health into the bargain. Touch wood. But happiness? No, happiness I’ve missed. No one, really, is happy.
I sat down at my table and uncorked my bottle of red ink: it got onto my fingers and I was annoyed. Somebody ought to invent an ink which would put an end to stained fingers … No, I can’t call myself a happy man.
Don’t be so silly, I said to myself. You’ve got a safe job with a pension at the end of it. Isn’t that something in these days, when nobody knows what to-morrow holds? How many fellows would almost give an arm to be in your shoes? For what a tiny percentage of candidates for the teaching profession succeed in getting good posts in the end! Be thankful that your post is in a county high school, where you can grow old and senile without a moment of real worry. Why, you might live to be a hundred—the oldest inhabitant of the Fatherland! Then, on your birthday, you’d have your photo in the illustrated newspapers. “He is still in possession of all his faculties,” you would read beneath it. That’s where the pension would come in! Think it over, and count your blessings.
I did: and I began working.
Twenty-six blue copy-books lay before me—I’ve twenty-six boys in my charge, fourteen-year-olds; for yesterday’s geography lesson they wrote me an essay. Geography and history are my subjects.
Outside, the sun was brilliant. It must have been fine in the park! Well, work’s work. Must get on correcting the essays and put down the marks in my register even though I know how meaningless these marks are.
The subject set for the essay was this: “Why do we need colonies?” … Yes, why do we need colonies? Let’s hear what they’ve got to say.
The first pupil whose book I opened had a name beginning with B. Bauer. Franz Bauer. There are no A’s in my class, but to balance that there are five B’s. Curious, that—so many B’s in a class of only twenty-six. But two of them are twins. Automatically I ran down the list of names in my register, to discover again that the B’s are no distance from the S’s. There are four S’s, three M’s, two each beginning with E, G, L, and R, but only one to represent F, H, N, T, W, and Z. Names beginning with A, C, D, I, O, P, Q, U, V, X, Y do not figure on my list.
Now, Franz Bauer, why do we need colonies?
“We need colonies,” he had written, “because we need numerous raw materials; without raw materials we cannot keep our home industries working at high pressure. This would have disastrous consequences: our workmen, here at home, would once more be without work.” Quite true, my dear Bauer. “The workers are not the only party concerned: the whole of the nation is involved. The workers are ultimately a part of that whole.”
Well, ultimately, that’s a great discovery, isn’t it, I thought. And it occurred to me at that moment how often to-day the most ancient platitudes are disguised as up-to-the-minute slogans! Or have they always been?
I don’t know.
But I knew I’d got to get on with my task of correcting twenty-six essays—essays packed with false theories and distorted conclusions. Wouldn’t it be nice for us if the very meaning of words like “false” and “distorted” were unknown to us—but there, they are only too familiar, and they go strolling arm in arm and singing their vain lays.
I must be careful: I’m a State employé. It wouldn’t do for me to venture the tiniest criticism. Even if silence irks me—what good could one man do? He must keep his anger to himself. I mustn’t lose my temper.
Get on with your correcting. You want to go to the cinema to-night.
Well, what’s this that N’s written? I found myself reading: “All niggers are dirty, cunning, and contemptible.” What rubbish! Cross it out.
I was on the point of writing in the margin, “An unsound generalization,” when I pulled myself up. Hadn’t I recently heard this very opinion of niggers? Where was it? Yes—it came out of the loud-speaker in a restaurant where I was having dinner—and quite took my appetite away.
So I let N’s sentence stand. For it is not for a schoolmaster to question the opinions stated on the radio.
And while I read on, there was the radio still droning and cackling and vibrating through my mind: the newspapers re-echoed it and the children wrote it down like a dictation.
Soon I’d got as far as T: beneath his book lay Z’s. Where was W? Had I mislaid his work? No, he was poorly yesterday—caught a bad cold at the Stadium on Sunday—inflammation of the lungs. I remember now, his father wrote me a note. All in order. Poor W! What were you doing at the Stadium, with that icy rain storming down?
Well, you might as well ask yourself what you were doing there! You were at the Stadium too on Sunday, you stuck it out till the whistle went, although neither of the teams was at all in the first class. Why?—play was slow, tedious even—why did you stay? You, along with thirty thousand other spectators?
When the outside right outplays the left half and centres, when the centre-forward breaks away and shoots, when the goalkeeper throws himself on the ball, when the back’s attempt to clear brings a free kick and a spectacular save, whether the play’s fair or foul, the referee good or weak-willed, impartial or the reverse—then for all those onlookers nothing exists in the world outside the game. The sun may shine or it may be pouring or snowing. It makes no difference to them. They’ve forgotten everything.
What is “everything” for them?…
I had to smile: the niggers, perhaps—