I had just come back from my morning constitutional around the Marktplatz when Silke, the department secretary, a tasty bit of blonde Topfenstrudel, met me at the door with the news that I had a visitor.

“Who is it, Silke?”

“It is one of your former students,” she said in that lilting-gutteral voice that German secretaries sometimes employ when they don’t like you, “I have let him into your office.”

“Good God!” I interjected, “Not the office!”

“Well, he seemed very nice, Herr Professor. He’s short, but good looking and rather distinguished.”

“Did he give you a name?”

“I’m afraid I forgot it.”


I was tempted to simply turn around and head out the door again. A half hour should be enough to make him, whoever he was, give up and go away.

“Herr Professor,” said Silke, “I told him you’d be back any minute now.” Like most of the lesser staff here at the Institut, she takes pleasure in thwarting, confounding, and annoying the professoriate.

“Very Good, Silke. Danke.”

Well, there was nothing for it. I crept noiselessly to the door, and peeked around the corner into my office. Sitting on one of the uncomfortable chairs I keep especially for visitors was M., a former student of mine who is now a very respected scholar at a major American university. The little twerp!

He must have heard my breathing, for in that instant he turned in the chair and spotted me.

“Ach! Herr Professor von Korncrake!” he said with apparent pleasure, leaping to his feet and extending his hand.

“My dear M., it is so very good to see you,” I lied, taking his hand, “how long has it been?”

“It has been too long, Herr Professor, too long.”

I will spare you the rest of the conversation, dear readers. You well know how these things go. “How’s your sister?…Oh, really? Well, she always looked very fecund. And your parents?…That’s too bad…. Do you remember so-and-so?”

Pfui. Better I should stick a toasting fork in my eye.

Of course, this was more difficult than most, as M. (or as he is known in the German press, “the distinguished Herr Prof. Dr. Dr. X”) recounted for me in exquisitely painful detail the numerous triumphs of his meteoric career: a prestigious position, a well-received first book, a second book that became a best-seller in eight languages (including Icelandic), and now a MacArthur “genius” grant.

And I remember him when he was fresh, snot-nosed post-graduate who couldn’t handle a locative declension if his life depended on it.

But, such is life, eh? Turn, turn, turn.

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