When Dr. Gustav Oppermann awoke on the sixteenth of November, which marked his fiftieth birthday, it was long before sunrise. That was annoying. The day would be a strenuous one, and he had intended to sleep late.
From his bed he could distinguish a few bare treetops and a bit of sky. The sky looked distant and clear; there was no sign of the fog that is so common in November.
He stretched and yawned. Then, resolutely, now that he was well awake, he threw back the clothes from the broad, low bed, swung both his feet lightly to the floor, emerging from the warmth of the sheets and blankets into the cold morning, and went out on the balcony.
Below, his little garden sloped, in three terraces, down to the woods; to right and left wooded knolls rose, and beyond the more distant tree-covered area further hills and woodlands appeared. A pleasantly cool breeze came from the little lake, which lay out of sight to the left, and from the pines of Grunewald. In the profound silence that precedes daybreak, he breathed the forest air deeply and with enjoyment. The strokes of an axe came faintly from the distance; he liked the sound; the rhythmic blows emphasized the stillness.
Gustav Oppermann, as he did every morning, reveled in his house. No one, if he were suddenly transported here without warning, would suspect that he was less than three miles from the Memorial Church, the center of the West End of Berlin. Really, he had chosen the prettiest spot in Berlin for his house. He had here all the peace of the countryside and, in addition, every advantage of the great city. It was only a few years since he had built and furnished this little place in Max Reger Strasse, but he felt as though he had grown together with the house and the woods, as though each one of the pines surrounding him were a piece of himself. He, the little lake, and the sandy track below, which, fortunately, was closed to motor vehicles, belonged together.
He stood for a time on the balcony, drinking in the morning and the familiar landscape, without thinking much about anything. Then he began to shiver. He was glad he still had a short hour before his daily morning ride. He crept back into the warm bed.
But he could not sleep. That damned birthday. After all, it would have been wiser to leave town and escape the whole bother.
As he was here, he might at least have done his brother Martin the courtesy of going to the office today. The employees would be vexed, considering the sort of people they were, that he would not be there to receive their congratulations personally. Ah, well. It was too much of a bore to mope about and listen to people’s clumsy congratulations.
A self-respecting senior partner ought to take that sort of thing for granted. Senior partner. Rot. No doubt about Martin being the better businessman, to say nothing of his brotherin-law, Jaques Lavendel, and the chief clerks, Brieger and Hintze. No, he was quite right to steer as clear of the business as possible.
Gustav Oppermann yawned noisily. A man in his position should damned well be in a better mood on his fiftieth birthday. Hadn’t those fifty years been good years? Here he lay, the owner of a fine house that suited him perfectly, of a substantial bank account, of a valuable business partnership; he was a collector and acknowledged connoisseur of fine books, a gold medalist in sports. His two brothers and his sister were fond of him, he had a friend he could trust, a host of entertaining acquaintances, as many women as he wanted, an adorable mistress. What ailed him? If anyone had reason to be in good humor on a day like this, it was he. Then, damn it, why wasn’t he? What was to blame?
In the profound silence that precedes daybreak, he breathed the forest air deeply and with enjoyment.
Gustav Oppermann snorted peevishly, threw himself on his other side, determinedly closed his heavy eyelids, and kept his large, virile head motionless on the pillow. He would go to sleep now. But his fretful resolution was of no avail, he could not sleep.
He smiled like a mischievous boy. He would try a remedy that he had not used since childhood. “I am doing well, better, best,” he thinks. Again and again, mechanically: “I am doing well, better, best.” By the time he had thought this two hundred times, he should be asleep. He thinks it three hundred times and remains awake.
Nevertheless, he really was doing well. Physically, materially, and spiritually. He had, he could honestly say, in spite of his fifty years, the appearance of a man in his early forties. And that was how he felt. He was not too rich and not too poor, not too wise and not too foolish. Achievements? Gutwetter, the author, could never have succeeded without him. Also he had put Dr. Frischlin on his feet. As for what he had published himself, those few essays on eighteenth-century life and literature, they were decent enough books, written by a cultivated man. No more, he didn’t deceive himself. All the same, they were pretty good for the senior partner of a furniture store. He was a mediocre man without any particular talent. To be mediocre was best. He was not ambitious. At any rate, not very.
Ten minutes more, then at last he could get ready for his morning ride. He ground his teeth together lightly, closed his eyes, but no longer thought about sleep. To be quite honest, there were, of course, a few things he still wanted. Wish number one: Sybil was a mistress many people justifiably envied him. The beautiful and clever Ellen Rosendorff was fonder of him than he deserved. Nevertheless, if he didn’t get a certain letter from a certain person today, it would be a bitter disappointment to him. Wish number two: he really could not expect the Minerva Press to undertake the publication of his biography of Lessing. Nor was it important in these times whether the life and works of an author who died a hundred and fifty years ago were described all over again or not. But all the same, if the Minerva Press refused the book, it would be a blow to him. Wish number three:
He opened his eyes. They were brown and deep-set. He did not feel as peaceful or as resigned as, scarcely a moment ago, he had believed himself to be. Deep, vertical furrows above the strongly molded nose, thick eyebrows angrily drawn together, he scowled gloomily at the ceiling. It was remarkable how his face instantly reflected each change in his impetuous, ever-changing moods.
Should the Minerva people accept the Lessing book, there would still be a year’s work on it. If they refused it, he would lock the manuscript, just as it was, in some drawer. In that case, what could he do all through the winter? He might go to Egypt, to Palestine. For a long time he had intended to go there. One should have seen Egypt and Palestine.
Should one really?
Rot. Why spoil this beautiful day by thinking about such things? Thank goodness, it was time for the ride at last.
He walked through the little front garden toward Max Reger Strasse. His figure was rather thickset, but in good training. He walked with precise, quick steps, his entire sole firmly pressing the ground, but he carried his massive head high. Schlüter, his servant, stood in the gateway and wished him many happy returns. Bertha, Schlüter’s wife, the cook, came out too and wished him the same. Gustav, beaming, acknowledged their greetings in a loud, hearty voice. They all laughed. He rode away, knowing that they were standing looking after him. They would have to admit that he kept himself in damned good form for a fifty-year-old. He looked particularly well on horseback, too, taller than he actually was, his legs being a little short, though his body was long. “Just like Goethe,” as his friend at the Bibliophile Society, Headmaster François of the Queen Louise School, remarked at least once a month.
Gustav met several of his acquaintances along the road and waved cheerfully to them without stopping. The ride did him good. He came back in high spirits. It was fine to have a rubdown and a bath. He hummed lustily and out of tune a few not altogether easy melodies, and snorted mightily under the cold shower. He ate a hearty breakfast.
He went into his library and paced up and down a few times with his firm, rapid step. He felt pleasure in the fine room and its tasteful furnishings. At last he sat down before the massive desk. The large windows scarcely separated him from the landscape, and he sat as though in the open air. Before him, in a bulky pile, lay his morning letters, the birthday letters.
Gustav Oppermann always looked at his correspondence with pleasurable curiosity. One had, from one’s first youth, put many feelers out into the world. What was the reaction? There were birthday greetings and congratulations. What else? He rather hoped that perhaps among these forty or fifty letters there might be something to bring excitement into his life.
Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. His books include the novels Moving Kings, Book of Numbers, Witz, A Heaven of Others, and Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto; the short-fiction collection Four New Messages, and the nonfiction collection Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction. Cohen was awarded Israel’s 2013 Matanel Prize for Jewish Writers, and in 2017 was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.