“The Incurable” is taken from a volume of short stories entitled Love in a Bottle, by the Hungarian writer Antal Szerb. It was written after the author, a lifelong anglophile, had spent a scholarship year in London, most of it researching in the library of the British Museum, which features often in his writing. It was a place he loved above all for its quintessential Englishness—the blend of grandeur and eccentricity, the grave formality of its procedures and the wonderful collection of oddballs it invariably attracted, a world of interlocked and mutually incomprehending private obsessions. Obsession is a recurring topic in Love in a Bottle.
In this tale the obsession is of course that of the writer with his craft—a vice familiar to Szerb himself, who was prolific—not so much in the area of fiction but literary scholarship. In his short lifetime he published an astonishing range of critical and literary-historical works, while working as a language teacher in a commercial secondary school. His anglophilia was spontaneous and innate, but in the rabid right-wing climate of Hungary in the Thirties it also had a political dimension.
The art is that of caricature—consciously ironic, always affectionate—but the detail is unexpectedly precise. Even the improbable reference to football, the supposed FA cup tie between Bournemouth and Aston Villa, is subtly nuanced; as are the collection of uncles—the country doctor’s wife with the strange hats, the émigré to South Africa who sends native penny whistles to his nephews; and the family relations in his sister’s household.
Szerb is above all an ironic writer: with him it goes beyond manner. It is Jewish, Hungarian, Mittel-European. In his master work Journey by Moonlight, it darkens into a mode of apprehension that verges on the tragic. Here we find him in a purely playful mood, doodling gently with a theme that haunted his own life, one not unconnected with the darker forces in the culture that would, all too soon, lead to his pointless and appalling death.
Translator, Love in a Bottle
By Antal Szerb
Recommended by Pushkin Press
PETER RARELY WAS ON HIS WAY HOME BY TRAIN from Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, where he supported a course for students on the bagpipes, at his own expense, since everyone was complaining that with the advance of the gramophone and the radio this illustrious and ancient form of music was dying out. He had just been up for the closing ceremony and was feeling very pleased with the way things had gone. If only my bear sanctuary would do as well, he mused. Another of his great concerns was that these remarkable animals had become extinct in the British Isles, and he had made a home in the Welsh forests for some bears imported from Transylvania.
But his main worry was his number-counters. He had hired some unemployed people to count up to 7,300,000 without stopping. Two had already given up, three were still counting, but when he had left London even the best of them had only managed something like 1,250,000. Where might he have got up to since?
In the express dining car he caught sight of a familiar face. It was the writer Tom Maclean. Maclean was sitting on his own, sipping spoonfuls of mock turtle soup, gazing thoughtfully into the distance, and jotting down the occasional word on his notepad.
“May I?” Rarely asked, settling himself down beside the writer. “I’m not disturbing you?”
“You certainly are, very much so,” Maclean replied with obvious delight. “Please stay and disturb me some more. It would be a real kindness.”
Rarely began to feel somewhat alarmed. The thought had flashed through his mind that he might not be the most eccentric person on the train.