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 KingsBook of Num­bersWitzA 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.