Lebert, Benjamin

Benjamin Lebert: Crazy

This book was published when Benjamin Lebert was only 16 years old and it was published when he was 18. It is written in the first person from the point of view of 16-year-old “Benjamin Lebert”, a crippled failing student condemned to his fifth school in an attempt to raise his academic scores. The voice has a convincing tone, myopically youthful and self-centred, but ultimately it doesn’t succeed in creating a believable narrative.

Perhaps that is because we are denied knowledge of relevant details external to the story. For instance, we don’t learn the exact nature of Benjamin’s physical problems. We learn he’s partially paralysed on his left side and that he was never expected to walk, but he does, even though it tires him. We also learn that in another school he was bullied, tied to a tree and had his lunchtime sandwiches stolen. He says he was treated as an outsider. But at this new school, Castle Neuseelen, he isn’t subjected to such indignities. In fact, he makes friends easily and fits in well. It’s odd, then, that he feels “crazy” and is eventually forced to leave the school, apparently for lack of academic performance. This strained credulity for me. I couldn’t accept why either Benjamin’s caring parents or a school specialising in children with “problems” would allow him to be treated so callously.

What this demonstrates is that the young writer’s imagination is working well but unfortunately his youth betrays him with a lack of literary technique and convincing narrative strength. Nevertheless the book is a compelling narrative because of the strengths of voice and point of view and the weaknesses are easily overcome through the strength and vitality of the writing and Benni’s convincing voice. While I could not always accept some of the twists and turns of the plot, I never lost faith in Benni’s firm narration.

Lebert has gone on to write another book The bird is a raven (2006) that shows a development of his writing ability and it is to be hoped that Crazy is an impressive start to a substantive literary career.

Lebert was born in Freiburg and has lived mostly in Munich since he was eight, although he now lives in Berlin. It’s interesting to see southern Germany fictionalised through the eyes of a “crazy” 16-year-old who obviously comes from a prosperous family, even if the family is splitting apart (Benni tells us how his father has moved out of home and his sister tells him his father has set up house with a younger woman). Given this, comparisons with Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s The catcher in the rye are easy to make, but Lebert’s story is not as tortured nor as dark as its American forerunner.

Salinger leaves us with the thought that Holden Caulfield could be a psychopath or a disturbed someone who appears in the middle of the night with a sharp knife in his hand. We don’t think this about Benni. Lebert shows us how Benni fits in to a world where he’s unlikely to ever be very successful, but he’s likely to be happy and content because that’s part of being “crazy”.

The Book

Lebert, Benjamin: Crazy / tranls. by Carol Brown Janeway. - New York : Vintage, 2001. - 177 S.ISBN 0-375-40913-0. Original title.: Crazy (German)

Jeremy Fisher is the Executive Director of the Australian Society of Authors

    Eugen Ruge wins the German Book Prize 2011

    His novel “In Zeiten des abnehmenden Lichts” is an autobiographical story of an East German family and his incredible literary debut.