Read an Excerpt
The God of Storms
It was the day of the great storm. I remember it well because my father—Mendel Liebermann—had suggested that we meet for coffee at The Imperial. I had a strong suspicion that something was on his mind. . . .
A roiling mass of black cloud had risen from behind the Opera
House like a volcanic eruption of sulphurous smoke and ash. Its dimensions suggested impending doom—an epic catastrophe on the scale of Pompeii. In the strange amber light, the surrounding buildings had become jaundiced. Perched on the rooftops, the decorative statuary—classical figures and triumphal eagles—seemed to have been carved from brimstone. A fork of lightning flowed down the mountain of cloud like a river of molten iron. The earth trembled and the air stirred, yet still there was no rain. The coming storm seemed to be saving itself—building its reserves of power in preparation for an apocalyptic deluge.
The streetcar bell sounded, rousing Liebermann from his reverie and dispersing a group of horse-drawn carriages on the lines.
As the streetcar rolled forward, Liebermann wondered why his father had wanted to see him. It wasn’t that such a meeting was unusual;
they often met for coffee. Rather, it was something about the manner in which the invitation had been issued. Mendel’s voice had been curiously strained—reedy and equivocal. Moreover, his nonchalance had been unconvincing, suggesting to Liebermann the concealment of an ulterior—or perhaps even unconscious—motive. But what might that be?
The streetcar slowed in the heavy traffic of the Karntner Ring, and
Liebermann jumped off before the vehicle had reached its stop. He raised the collar of his astrakhan coat against the wind and hurried toward his destination.
Even though lunch had already been served, The Imperial was seething with activity. Waiters, with silver trays held high, were dodging one another between crowded tables, and the air was filled with animated conversation. At the back of the café, a pianist was playing a Chopin mazurka. Liebermann wiped the condensation off his spectacles with a handkerchief and hung his coat on the stand.
“Good afternoon, Herr Doctor.”
Liebermann recognized the voice and without turning replied,
“Good afternoon, Bruno. I trust you are well?”
“I am, sir. Very well indeed.”
When Liebermann turned, the waiter continued. “If you’d like to come this way, sir. Your father is already here.”
Bruno beckoned, and guided Liebermann through the hectic room. They arrived at a table near the back, where Mendel was concealed behind the densely printed sheets of the Wiener Zeitung.
“Herr Liebermann?” said Bruno. Mendel folded his paper. He was a thickset man with a substantial beard and bushy eyebrows. His expression was somewhat severe—although softened by a liberal network of laughter lines. The waiter added, “Your son.”
“Ahh, Maxim!” said the old man. “There you are!” He sounded a little irritated, as though he had been kept waiting.
After a moment’s hesitation, Liebermann replied, “But I’m early,
Mendel consulted his pocket watch.
“So you are. Well, sit down, sit down. Another pharisäer for me and . . . Max?” He invited his son to order.
“A schwarzer, please, Bruno.”
The waiter executed a modest bow and was gone.
“So,” said Mendel. “How are you, my boy?”
“Very well, Father.”
“You’re looking a bit thinner than usual.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“Are you eating properly?”
Liebermann laughed. “Very well, as it happens. And how are you,
“Ach! Good days and bad days, you know how it is. I’m seeing that specialist you recommended, Pintsch. And there is some improvement,
I suppose. But my back isn’t much better.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
Mendel dismissed his son’s remark with a wave of his hand.
“Do you want something to eat?” Mendel pushed the menu across the table. “You look like you need it. I think I’ll have the topfenstrudel.”
Liebermann studied the extensive cakelist: apfeltorte, cremeschnitte,
truffeltorte, apfelstrudel. It ran on over several pages.
“Your mother sends her love,” said Mendel, “and would like to know when she can expect to see you again.” His expression hovered somewhere between sympathy and reprimand.
“I’m sorry, Father,” said Liebermann. “I’ve been very busy. Too many patients . . . Tell mother I’ll try to see her next week. Friday, perhaps?”
“Then you must come to dinner.”
“Yes,” said Liebermann, suddenly feeling that he had already committed himself more than he really wanted. “Yes. Thank you.” He looked down at the menu again: dobostorte, guglhupf, linzertorte. The
Chopin mazurka ended on a loud minor chord, and a ripple of applause passed through the café audience. Encouraged, the pianist played a glittering arpeggio figure on the upper keys, under which he introduced the melody of a popular waltz. A group of people seated near the window began another round of appreciative clapping.
Bruno returned with the coffees and stood to attention with his pencil and notepad.
“The topfenstrudel,” said Mendel.
“The rehrücken, please,” said Liebermann.
Mendel stirred the cream into his pharisäer—which came with a tot of rum—and immediately started to talk about the family textile business. This was not unusual. Indeed, it had become something of a tradition. Profits had risen, and Mendel was thinking of expanding the enterprise: another factory, or even a shop, perhaps. Now that the meddling bureaucrats had lifted the ban on department stores, he could see a future in retail—new opportunities. His old friend Blomberg had already opened a successful department store and had suggested that they might go into partnership. Throughout, Mendel’s expression was eager and clearly mindful of his son’s reactions.
Liebermann understood why his father kept him so well informed.
Although he was proud of Liebermann’s academic achievements, he still hoped that one day young Max would step into his shoes.
Mendel’s voice slowed when he noticed his son’s hand. The fingers seemed to be following the pianist’s melody—treating the edge of the table like a keyboard.
“Are you listening?” said Mendel.
“Yes. Of course I’m listening,” Liebermann replied. He had become accustomed to such questioning and could no longer be caught out, as was once the case. “You’re thinking of going into business with
Liebermann assumed a characteristic position. His right hand—
shaped like a gun—pressed against his cheek, the index finger resting gently against the right temple. It was a “listening” position favored by many psychiatrists.
“So—what do you think? A good idea?” asked Mendel.
“Well, if the existing department store is profitable, that sounds reasonable enough.”
“It’s a considerable investment.”
“I’m sure it is.”
The old man stroked his beard. “You don’t seem to be very keen on the idea.”
“Father, does it matter what I think?”
Mendel sighed. “No. I suppose not.” His disappointment was palpable.
Liebermann looked away. He took no joy in disappointing his father and now felt guilty. The old man’s motives were entirely laudable, and Liebermann was perfectly aware that his comfortable standard of living was sustained—at least in part—by Mendel’s exemplary management of the family business. Yet he couldn’t ever imagine himself running a factory or managing a department store.
The idea was ludicrous.
As these thoughts were passing through his mind, Liebermann noticed the arrival of a gentleman in his middle years. On entering the café, the man removed his hat and surveyed the scene. His hair was combed to the side, creating a deep side parting, and his neatly trimmed mustache and beard were almost entirely gray. He received a warm welcome from the head waiter, who helped him to take his coat off. He was immaculately dressed in pin-striped trousers, a widelapeled jacket, and a “showy” vest. He must have made a quip, because the head waiter suddenly began laughing. The man seemed in no hurry to find a seat and stood by the door, listening intently to the waiter, who now appeared—Liebermann thought—to have started to tell a story.
Mendel saw that his son had become distracted.
“Know him, do you?”
Liebermann turned. “I’m sorry?”
“Dr. Freud,” said Mendel in a flat voice.
Liebermann was astonished that his father knew the man’s identity.
“Yes, I do know him. And it’s Professor Freud, actually.”
“Professor Freud, then,” said Mendel. “But he hasn’t been a professor for very long, has he?”
“A few months,” said Liebermann, raising his eyebrows. “How did you know that?”
“He comes to the lodge.”
Mendel scowled. “B’nai B’rith.”
“Oh yes, of course.”
“Although God knows why. I’m not sure what sort of a Jew he’s supposed to be. He doesn’t seem to believe in anything. And as for his ideas . . .” Mendel shook his head. “He gave us a talk last year.
Scandalous. How well do you know him?”
“Quite well. . . . We meet occasionally to discuss his work.”
“What? You think there’s something in it?”
“The book he wrote with Breuer on hysteria was excellent, and
The Interpretation of Dreams is . . . well, a masterpiece. Of course, I don’t agree with everything he says. Even so, I’ve found his treatment suggestions very useful.”
“Then you must be in a minority.”
“Undoubtedly. But I am convinced that Professor Freud’s system—
a system that he calls psychoanalysis—will become more widely accepted.”
“Not in Vienna.”
“I don’t know. One or two of my colleagues, other junior psychiatrists,
are very interested in Professor Freud’s ideas.”
Mendel’s brow furrowed. “Some of the things he said last year were obscene. I pity those in his care.”
“I would be the first to admit,” said Liebermann, “that he has become somewhat preoccupied—of late—with the erotic life of his patients.
However, his understanding of the human mind extends well beyond our animal instincts.”
The professor was still standing by the door with the head waiter.
He suddenly burst out laughing and slapped his companion on the back. It was clear that the head waiter had just told him a joke.
“Dear God,” said Mendel under his breath, “I hope he doesn’t come this way.” Then he sighed with relief as Professor Freud was ushered to a table beyond their view. Mendel was about to say something else but stopped when Bruno arrived with the cakes.
“Topfenstrudel for Herr Liebermann and rehrücken for Herr Doctor
Liebermann. More coffee?” Bruno gestured toward Mendel’s empty glass.
“Yes, why not? A mélange, and another schwarzer for my son.”
Mendel looked enviously at his son’s gâteau, a large glazed chocolate sponge cake shaped like a saddle of deer, filled with apricot jam and studded with almonds. His own order was less arresting, being a simple pastry filled with sweet curd cheese.
Liebermann noticed his father’s lingering gaze.
“You should have ordered one too.”
Mendel shook his head. “Pintsch told me I must lose weight.”
“Well, you won’t lose weight eating topfenstrudel.”
Mendel shrugged and took a mouthful of pastry but stopped chew-
ing when a loud thunderclap shook the building. “It’s going to be a bad one,” said Mendel, nodding toward the window. Outside, Vienna had succumbed to a preternatural twilight.
“Maxim,” Mendel continued, “I wanted to see you today for a reason.
A specific reason.”
At last, thought Liebermann. Finally, he was about to discover the true purpose of their meeting. Liebermann braced himself mentally,
still unsure of what to expect.
“You probably think it’s nothing to do with me,” Mendel added.
“But—” He stopped abruptly and pushed the severed corner of his
topfenstrudel around the plate with his fork.
“What is it, Father?”
“I was speaking to Herr Weiss the other day and . . .” Again his sentence tailed off. “Maxim.” This time he returned to his task with greater determination. “You and Clara seem to be getting along well enough and—understandably, I think—Herr Weiss is anxious to know of your intentions.”
“Yes,” said Mendel, looking at his son. “Your intentions.” He carried on eating his cake.
“I see,” said Liebermann, somewhat taken aback. Although he had considered many subjects that his father might wish to discuss, his relationship with Clara Weiss had not been one of them. Yet now the omission seemed obvious.
“Well,” replied Liebermann. “What can I say? I like Clara very much.”
Mendel wiped his mouth with a napkin and leaned forward.
“And . . .” Liebermann looked into his father’s censorious eyes.
“And . . . I suppose that my intention is, in the fullness of time to—”
(Now it was his turn to hesitate.)