(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Schoolteacher Helmut Halm is vacationing with his wife, Sabina, as they have for the past eleven summers, in a little town by the water on the German side of Lake Constance. Sunburn, a fondness for food and alcohol, and a lack of exercise do not flatter his forty-six-year-old body or hers. The reader first meets them in a sidewalk cafe watching the passersby, whose appearance puts him to shame: He has not even managed a decent tan, and sunburn has brought out every wrinkle and blemish in his wife’s puffed-up skin. Just as he decides to return to their lonely rented room, a trim, muscular, handsome, bronzed young fellow comes up beside them, accompanied by an equally stunning woman, both stylishly casual in blue jeans. Helmut, with distaste, imagines the man to be one of his former students, but the latter introduces himself, however improbably, as Klaus Buch, Helmut’s long-forgotten boyhood companion. Klaus, though Helmut’s age, appears a generation younger, thanks to a regimen of jogging, sailboating, health foods, mineral water, and abstinence from drink and tobacco. He and his strikingly lovely younger wife, Helene, obviously revel in their appearance, even as they excite Helmut’s envy. Klaus professes great joy at this chance encounter and insists on renewing their friendship, despite reluctance on Helmut’s part. In front of both wives, Klaus spins endless tales about their often embarrassingly sexual boyhood adventures. Helmut professes, not very convincingly, to remember virtually none of the details, and he even denies the basic truth of some of the incidents.

Klaus asks that Helmut and Sabina lead a hike into the nearby mountains, but he sneers at the height that they finally attain: a mere hill. He laughs uproariously and mocks Helmut’s inability to keep to the route, a failure scarcely diminished by a sudden downpour. At the summit, they dine at a restaurant, but Klaus objects to the poor quality of the food. During their descent, passing through a village, they come upon a runaway horse, with two men chasing it helplessly. Klaus, approaching it in a wide arc, daringly grabs its mane and mounts it. It races off anew but soon is seen returning, Klaus still astride. He claims to identify with runaway horses and maintains that the owner erred in approaching it head-on: “You must never stand in the path of a runaway horse. It must have the feeling that its path remains unobstructed. Besides: You...

(The entire section is 993 words.)