Written at the heady age of 16, Crazy is German writer Benjamin Lebert’s autobiographical account of a year at a Bavarian boarding school for problem rich kids. Benjamin’s specific problem is his partial paralysis — his left arm and leg are lame — and his miserable performances in math and German, which have caused him to flunk out of four previous schools. Commandeered by his irrepressible roommate Janosch, Benjamin and his crew get up to the usual boarding-school hijinks with a lusty bravado and nervous introspection befitting their adolescence. Their escapades are recounted with the breathless hyperbole of teenagehood, that time when everything is without precedent. No one has ever felt this homesick/lonely/different/happy before, or had adventures this crazy (first sex, running away from school). Conversation among the boys revolves around the meaning of life (girls? God?) and the agonies of being young (tyrannical teachers, dad running off with a “titty monster”).
Unfortunately, neither the irreverent sarcasm nor the naive philosophizing of the original comes across as successfully in Carol Brown Janeway’s translation, which would have benefited from a more idiomatic, less literal approach. Although the mixture of innocence and cockiness with which the characters struggle resonates, the American reader will likely be more struck by the cultural differences, such as the fact that Benjamin is studying two foreign languages in ninth grade, or the unquestioned ease with which these 16-year-olds get their hands around a beer and themselves into a strip club. Judging by this little book, Lebert’s teachers seem to have overlooked something: This “cripple,” as he refers to himself, isn’t a half-bad writer, and while Crazy is no Catcher in the Rye, it’s a sweet, sincere debut.
CRAZY | By BENJAMIN LEBERT, translated by Carol Brown Janeway | Knopf | 178 pages | $18 hardcover