When I was young poem outline

Book of the week Norbert Gstrein - When I was young

On November 4th, Norbert Gstrein in Vienna received the Austrian Book Prize endowed with 20,000 euros for his novel "When I was young".

Gstrein is an elegant stylist

The writer Norbert Gstrein, born in the small Tyrolean village of Mils in 1961 and now living in Hamburg, is an elegant stylist. His sentences can span half a page, and yet they are clear and precise.

Gstrein is an intellectual and at the same time very sensual author who knows how to combine interpersonal depths with social issues, as he recently did in his much-praised novel "The Coming Years".

It is about identity crises and marital crises, but also about the migration and climate misery, and all of this is told with a sure instinct, without ignoring the contradictions and mendacity in these subject areas.

In Gstrein's new novel, ideologies are criticized

Gstrein goes to work with similar craftsmanship and ideology-critical sophistication in the new novel "When I was young", in which the first-person narrator Franz looks back on his youth:

When I was young I believed in almost everything, and later in almost nothing, and at some point during this time I might have lost my belief, might have lost my belief.

Norbert Gstrein: When I was young

The fact that the young Franz became alien not only to the Catholic faith, but also to believe in any institution, has largely to do with the family circumstances in which the son of a hotel owner grows up.

The father's restaurant attracts couples wanting to marry

The father runs two businesses in the Tyrolean Alps, a ski hotel in winter and a restaurant in summer, which at first ironically, but then "seriously" is called the "wedding factory", "without losing its appeal".

So, week after week, the couples from the surrounding villages, and soon also from distant cities, come to celebrate their weddings, which are all similar to one another, which soon includes fifteen-year-old Franz taking photos of the parties and celebrations.

In fact, the busy boarding school student soon developed a certain professionalism in staging those images that are supposed to capture the supposedly most beautiful day in the life of the bride and groom.

When i was young

Norbert Gstrein
Publishing company:
Carl Hanser Publishing House
Publication date:

Marriage does not necessarily mean happiness in life

Franz knows only too well how little marriage has to do with real happiness, because the only couple he really knows and that disturbs him are mother and father.

You don't learn very much about your parents, but you do learn that they usually get into an argument after their work is done. The father then sits in court over the mother, literally, and the two sons lie in the next room listening to it, hearing the mother's suicide threats.

She regularly says she is going 'into the water'. And that is an essential motif of this novel, especially since later a bride allegedly takes her own life, falls into an abyss. In the narrator's mind, this is almost a substitute for what the mother fortunately never did. "

When the accident happened, Franz left home long ago, studying medicine, then English and German studies a little listlessly. But because the professional photographer who has taken over the son's work falls ill, the father asks him again to take the pictures again temporarily, and the melancholy Franz is even happy about a change, even if he thinks he has in Definitely "seen enough weddings" in his life.

Norbert Gstrein in conversation with Carsten Otte

Wedding photographer Franz is suspected of murder

So he photographs the bride, who is soon lying below a ledge with a broken neck, and later the police look for clues about the course of events in these pictures.

There are many indications of a suicide, but also because the woman doesn't look suicidal when she looks into the camera, Franz is suspected of having something to do with her death.

In addition, it turns out that the not so young wedding photographer had kissed a young, much too young girl against his will a few days earlier, namely the unconventionally dressed and virtuoso violin-playing cousin of another bride.

There is a theory in the novel that is a bit robust, a bit too robust and which is being presented by a nun of all people. This nun says that men, in her eyes a great many men, probably all men, have a tendency to 'push' women. There is one at the beginning. Then comes the next and the next. In the end, she is 'pushed' so far that it stands on an abyss that it only takes one last 'push' or not even that.

Norbert Gstrein in conversation with Carsten Otte

The abuse story haunts the protagonist

The way in which Franz pushed not only the girl, but also the perhaps depressed bride, or not, is initially kept open, because the perpetrator is looking for the distance, runs off for Wyoming.

The history of abuse and the guilt that Franz admits to himself or to the reading public only in small portions will haunt him to the United States as well. In Jackson, a fashionable holiday resort in the state of Wyoming, he makes ends meet as a ski instructor and meets a Czech rocket physicist and professor.

A strange and somewhat one-sided friendship develops between the two, which is central to the course of the novel. Norbert Gstrein very skilfully reflects the episodes in the USA using the characters and events in the Austrian homeland of the first-person narrator.

Franz is confronted with another suicide

The events in Tyrol do not necessarily appear in a different light, but what is happening in the distance again raises the question of the supposedly clear causalities.

Because again Franz is confronted with a suicide: The professor friend kills himself, and in search of the reasons the accusation comes up that the man was a pedophile. But he wasn't. His twisted views, his conspiracy theories and projections onto his Austrian companion are rather due to a traumatizing car accident in which his parents and sister were killed at a young age.

The narrator walks a fine line

Norbert Gstrein's literary skill is now evident in clearly naming the subtle differences between life's lies, rumors and guilt and at the same time warning against simple ascriptions. The literary highlight is that, of all people, an unreliable narrator helps him walk on this narrow narrative line.

The attempts not to depict reality, but to attempt to create the world, are usually better. If you have a very reliable narrator, you tend to get into a relationship of representation. That is the formal reason. There are also other reasons for how I look at characters, at people. There is a place in the novel that says 'because' is one of the most dangerous words of all. Which means that it is very difficult, when talking about people, characters, to establish an all too clear causal connection. You just have to be a bit careful not to get morally approximate in the constant fogging.

Norbert Gstrein in conversation with Carsten Otte

Norbert Gstrein is a great nebulizer. It only becomes clear late that the moral and - incidentally - beyond doubt, position of the writer is hidden in the literary construction.

The first-person narrator longs for forgiveness

“When I was young” is a kind of accountability report, perhaps even a penance by the first-person narrator who reveals his guilt, but who also wants to put an end to the agonizing self-pity and who ultimately longs for forgiveness.

In this respect, Franz may have lost his childlike belief in God, but the teachings of Catholicism continue to shape him.

It makes sense to read Norbert Gstrein's new novel primarily as a literary commentary on the “me too” debate. In fact, the text goes much further as it tries to explore the possibilities and limits of literary writing on such a subject.

Gstrein's set lines are beautiful and cruel at the same time

As in previous novels, Gstrein forms the most beautiful and cruel sentence lines in which ambiguities and contradictions are skillfully incorporated. Precisely because the media world is shaped by friend-foe patterns, Gstrein invokes the power of literature that defends itself against hasty conclusions.

The author is committed to a long narrative tradition, and so he pervades his novel with numerous references to well-known and less common works of world literature that deal with intoxicating love, forbidden desires and the aporias of youth and old age.

There are swipes at Jane Austen's classic or subtle references to the erotic-fantastic novel "Aura" by Carlos Fuentes.

The vastness of the USA instead of the Tyrolean mountains and valleys

Norbert Gstrein, as one learns on a further narrative level of this all-round successful prose work, has also embarked on a journey into the imagery of the American literary landscape, which he will probably continue in his next books.

Instead of the narrowness of the Tyrolean mountains and valleys, which shaped his early work above all, Gstrein now finds his literary happiness in grotesque scenes that can only be told in the vastness of the USA. Franz drives the professor's corpse on a pick-up to his final resting place through a country where loneliness also stands for freedom, if grim highway policemen don't keep appearing there.

Not least in these calm and frightening road movie passages, Norbert Gstrein shows that he is currently one of the most important German-language writers. Even if he flirts with it in “When I Was Young”, he basically only translated this novel from English.

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