Love in a Bottle by Antal Szerb (tr. Len Rix)

Born in Budapest in 1901, Antal Szerb was one of the leading figures in 20th-century Hungarian literature. Although his family was Jewish, he was baptised at a young age and remained a Catholic for life. A prolific essayist, reviewer and writer of fiction, Szerb is perhaps best known for his wonderful novel, Journey by Moonlight, published in 1937. (I read it pre-blog, but there are links here to recent reviews by Emma and Max.) During the 1940s, Szerb faced increasing hostility and persecution due to his Jewish descent, culminating in his incarceration and murder in a concentration camp in 1945. He was 43 years old when he died.

Alongside the essays and novels, Szerb also wrote a number of short stories and novellas. Love in a Bottle brings together a selection of these short pieces which span the breadth of this author’s career, from his student years in the early 1920s to the time shortly before his death in the mid-1940s.

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The book is divided into two parts, the first of which contains three early stories written between 1922 and 1923. These pieces draw heavily on the traditions of myths and fairy tales. In Ajándok’s Betrothal, a young girl (Ajándok) longs for a suitor of her own, especially once her sister becomes engaged to a man from their village. When a mysterious wanderer named Máté arrives during the festivities on St John’s Night, young Ajándok is convinced he is destined to be her future husband. Like the other pieces in this section, this story is shot through with a noticeable sense of loneliness and isolation; its heroine is young, beautiful and ‘as solitary as a river by night.’

Next we have The White Magus, a tragic story set in the time of Byzantine Empire. All across Byzantium, children are dying from a strange, unfathomable illness. The only ray of hope comes from the beautiful Princess Zoë whose kindness, compassion and magical touch provide a brief respite from the suffering. As a consequence, she spends her time visiting the sick children of the land, comforting them and helping out wherever possible.

Zoë was indefatigable, loyally accompanying every grieving mother on these last journeys. But not one of those distraught parents knew the depth of pain that she did. With every child that went to the grave, part of her own life was being buried. It was not just the mothers’ tears that burnt into her heart. It was also the nameless, mysterious grief that had claimed the children, and her earnest desire to understand the fatal secret in their eyes, as they slowly faded into death. (pg. 51)

When Zoë succumbs to the same illness, the elders of the land set off for the Carpathian Mountains to consult the great oracle, the White Magus. Rumour has it that the Magus knows all the deepest secrets of life itself, so it is hoped that he will be able to cure the princess. Without wishing to give too much away, the Magus can see a possible course of action, but it is one that will come at a price.

The third of the early stories, The Tyrant, features the powerful Duke Galeazzo of Milan, a ruler who confines himself to his tower of solitude, never setting foot in the city he presides over with such shrewdness. Despite taking an interest in his protégé — a young boy named Lytto — the Duke has tried to banish all feelings of love from his heart. This is a story which explores the theme of isolation and the struggle to control one’s inner feelings when that state is disrupted.

The second section of the collection contains eight stories, all written between 1932 and 1943. The first two, Cynthia and A Garden Party in St Cloud, are free-flowing pieces which feel quite personal in style, almost as though they might have been inspired by experiences in Szerb’s own life. The stories begin to explore the somewhat idealised view of romance that often characterises a man’s youth. They are by turns playful, witty and ironic. Cynthia tells of a brief love affair, a relationship in which the narrator is drawn to the titular character for her superior social class and her eighteenth-century wit. In St Cloud, the protagonist finds himself attracted to two women, one of whom, Marcelle, is the girlfriend of his friend, Gábor. This is a wonderful story which reminded me a little of Journey by Moonlight.

I drank and marvelled at her chameleon-like nature. To tell the truth, she had always deeply attracted me: I loved both her wonderful two-sidedness and its very transparency, in the same way that I had always been secretly attracted to walking sticks that could turn into umbrellas, slide rules that could be used as laryngoscopes, and the symbols in Ibsen. I was also drawn to her for the reason that men are generally attracted to women: that is to say, I have no idea why. But this particular attraction I had dismissed as just another of the hopeless loves with which I serially embellished my young life. (pg. 120)

Romance features once again in A Dog Called Madelon, in which the protagonist, János Bátky is convinced that he will only find true passion by dating a woman with an aristocratic pedigree – in other words, a Lady Rothesay as opposed to one of the less alluring ‘Jennys’ he tends to meet.

Yet again, Jenny managed to forget some item of her clothing, and when she called back she found Bátky in a terminally bitter mood. He had been reflecting on the way his whole life had been frittered away on a procession of frightful little Jennys, when ever since boyhood he had yearned for a Lady Rothesay. History held the sort of erotic charge for him that others found in actresses’ dressing rooms—a truly great passion required three or four centuries’ historical background at the very least. (pg. 172) 

This is a story with an ironic twist in its tail, one of my favourites in the collection.

In another highlight, Musings in the Library, a young man finds himself falling for a girl he meets in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. This story has an interesting ending, one that highlights the paradoxical nature of life, that sense of tension between happiness and disillusionment.

The titular story, Love in a Bottle, harks back to the mythical legends of Szerb’s early stories as the magician, Klingsor, tries to free Sir Lancelot from his love of Queen Guinevere. In this playful piece, the spirit of Love takes the form of a kind of sprite to be found sitting inside the young knight’s body.

The Incurable features a writer who cannot prevent himself from putting pen to paper, even when he is paid to give up his craft. This is a comical story, a short sketch but no less satisfying for its brevity.

The book ends with a slightly different work: a historical piece titled The Duke, an imaginary portrait of the owner of the Palazzo Sant’Agnese near Rome at the time of the late 16th century. It feels very different to the other pieces in the book, possibly closer in style to Szerb’s novel, The Queen’s Necklace.

Love in a Bottle is a really interesting collection, especially for lovers of Szerb’s novels (or for readers with an interest in European literature per se). Those with some knowledge of the author’s other works will be able to spot connections to some of these pieces – for example, János Bátky, the lead character in A Dog Called Madelon, shares a name with the protagonist of Szerb’s first novel, The Pendragon Legend (both were published in 1934). The geneses of his themes are here in these stories: the idealised romanticism of youth; a preoccupation with the self; the tensions between opposing emotions; the contradictory nature of life itself. All in all, this is another intriguing collection of stories from Pushkin Press, a welcome addition to their translations of Szerb’s work.

40 thoughts on “Love in a Bottle by Antal Szerb (tr. Len Rix)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I loved that image as well! It’s a good indication of the tone of the stories in the second half of the collection. Szerb’s prose is very graceful, and there’s a wonderful lightness of touch here too. All credit to Pushkin for bringing these stories to a wider audience.

      Reply
  1. heavenali

    I have meant to read Szerb for ages having heard such great things about his novels. This collection does sound excellent – the quotes you include highlight the quality of Szerb’s writing which I think I would really like.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I would definitely encourage you to give Szerb a try as I think you’d enjoy him a great deal. I’m not sure if these stories would make the best introduction to his work. In many ways, I’m quite glad I had already read a couple of his novels before I started on the stories as it was useful to have a bit of context. I would recommend either Journey by Moonlight or The Pendragon Legend as a good place to start with Szerb – both are excellent.

      Reply
  2. bookbii

    This sounds like a beautiful collection of stories. For some reason I often find myself steering away from short stories – I think I am not a fan – and then I remember Tove Jansson, Raymond Carver, A.S. Byatt, Italo Calvino, Lorrie Moore and all the other great short story writers and realise how foolish that idea is. Yet I still shy away from them. How weird. Anyway, this sounds like a really good introduction to Szerb’s writing. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome, Belinda. It’s a nice little collection to have on the shelves (and as ever with Pushkin the book is a thing of beauty in itself). I tend to read quite a few short stories as they’re often easier to fit into short chunks of time, especially if I’ve only got 20 mins or so to spare. That said, I reached a point last summer when I must have read too many shorts in the space of a month as they’d all started to merge together in my mind. I guess it’s a question of mixing things up to avoid an overload! Raymond Carver is one of my favourite writers of short fiction. I went through a phase of reading his stories back in the day.

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Great review Jacqui.

    These stories sound really good.

    I tend to like it when authors base modern tales on folklore. As you describe them these stories seem to have a European mythic feel to them.

    I have not read Szerb but I would like to.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I really think you’d like Szerb, especially given your interest in the classics. He shares something in common with Miklos Banffy whose ‘They Were Counted’ trilogy I read over the winter months. I’m not usually a big fan of the mythic, but it works very well here.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, this is one for you, Karen. I’m sure you’d enjoy it, especially if you loved Pendragon and Journey. One of the most fascinating things about this collection is the link to Szerb’s other work. If you decide to pick it up, you’ll almost certainly recognise some of the central themes as you’re reading the stories.

      Reply
  4. realthog

    Gosh, this book sounds good — especially, pour moi, the mythological-type stories in the first half. I don’t know Szerb’s work at all, so may give it a try.

    Reply
  5. Max Cairnduff

    I have a copy of this (quite possibly a review copy, which is a bit shameful given I’ve not reviewed it). It sounds marvellous. Does it say why no stories between ’23 and ’32?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m pretty confident you’ll enjoy it, Max. The stories are quite diverse, and as they’re presented in chronological order of writing it’s possible to see how Szerb’s ideas and themes were developing during his career.

      Based on Len Rix’s introduction, it sounds as though Szerb didn’t write any short stories (or any fiction) between 1923 and ’32. After introducing the first three stories, Rix states: ‘Several years passed before Szerb returned to the genre.’ He seems to have spent the intervening years teaching and writing studies on various writers (mostly Hungarian, but Blake and Ibsen too), plus a short ‘History of English Literature’. There was a year in England between 1929 and ’30, and I’m sure this must have had an influence on some of Szerb’s work. One of the pieces I neglected to mention in my review (Fin de Siècle) features a group of poets including Ernest Dowson and John Davidson. Oscar Wilde pops up too in the form of a brief but witty pen portrait. It’s an interesting piece. I’ll be curious to see your take on this collection whenever you get a chance to read it. (I found my copy in the local Oxfam – how about that for a bargain!)

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The story of his life is terribly sad. Despite public and critical acclaim of his work, it took him ages to secure a university position because of his Jewish descent. Then in the 1940s, a wave of anti-Jewish laws stripped him of his post and ultimately led to his deportation to a concentration camp where he died. As Len Rix states in his intro, ‘Through all the horror, he [Szerb] never lost faith in humanity, never lapsed into cynicism. Even with the end approaching he retained his self-effacing gentleness, repeatedly putting the lives of others before his own — eventually with fatal results.’ He was a great writer. No doubt he was a compassionate human being too.

      Reply
  6. Emma

    I loved The Pendragon Legend and really liked Journey by Moonlight.
    I’m off to see if these are available in French.
    do you know if this collection was published in that same volume in Szerb’s time or if it’s a collection done by Pushkin Press?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like it, Emma. The original collection of Szerb’s short fiction was published in 1947 (two years after Szerb’s death). Overseen by his widow, it brought together all the published short stories and novellas, together with fragments of a projected novel and three stories that were found in Szerb’s desk. (It sounds as though this collection was available in Hungary under the title ‘Szerelem a palackban’ although that title may refer to a 1963 reprint.) In 2010 Pushkin P published a selection of these pieces in an English translation with a reprint following in 2013. This new edition contains two additional stories omitted from the Hungarian original: Cynthia and A Garden Party in St Cloud. It seems they were left out of the original on the grounds that the author had probably never intended them for publication. I’m glad they were included here as they’re rather beautiful pieces. My edition was published in 2013, and all the stories are presented in chronological order of writing (not sure if that was the case in the 2010 version – the intro suggests not). Hope that helps!

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    Szerb is such an enjoyable writer – there’s a real love of stories in his work. Have you read The Third Tower? It’s the only one of his books published by Pushkin I haven’t got.
    I wonder what the new translation of Journey by Moonlight is like?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, tremendously enjoyable and thought-provoking too! Have you reviewed this one, Grant? I should have checked for a post at yours.

      No, I haven’t read The Third Tower (or Oliver VII for that matter). Maybe next year. I wondered about that new translation of Journey – it’s Alma Classics, isn’t it. Oddly enough, I haven’t seen much about it on the blogosphere. Would be interesting to see a comparison of the two translations at some point.

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  8. Guy Savage

    I read his Journey by Moonlight which I liked but didn’t love, and I have another of his on the shelf waiting… Still anything from Pushkin Press gets my interest

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m not sure which of his others you have on the shelf, but for you I’d recommend The Pendragon Legend ahead of this collection. (And then there’s Oliver VII which Max loved.) Two or three of the stories are quite close in style to Journey (with an element of romance), so you might prefer the novels.

      Reply
  9. gertloveday

    He has an extraordinary range. I have only read Journey by Moonlight which has the strangeness evident in the stories you describe here. A very different writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, his range is so diverse, and that variety really comes through in this collection. The following quote didn’t make the final edit of my review, but I think you’ll appreciate it. It’s taken from the title story ‘Love in a Bottle’ in which the spirit of Love takes the form of a kind of sprite inside Sir Lancelot’s body.

      ‘There it sat, astride Lancelot’s spine, tickling him with a little feather brush. After a while it grew tired of this game. It wriggled its way adroitly between the folds of the lung and set about squeezing the knight’s heart. But it must have got bored with that too, because it then slipped into the aorta, where the flow of blood carried it into the brain. It fiddled about for a while among the convolutions, pulling all sorts of things out of the drawers and then stuffing them back again, got itself tangled up in the network of nerve endings, gave a great yawn and jumped out through Lancelot’s mouth onto the bed. There it sat, dangling its legs over the edge and gazing at itself in a little mirror. Love is always rather vain. But it wasn’t exactly beautiful. It was pale and gaunt, restless and malformed, and its veins were knotted from years of stress. Of course it saw nothing of its own ugliness, for, as we all know, Love is also blind.’

      Isn’t that great?

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Melissa. I think you’d love this collection of Szerb’s stories, and it’s interesting to see how his writing developed over the years. Well worth seeking out!

      Reply
  10. erdeaka

    I am not familiar with Hungarian literature, but, reading your review, I found this collection interesting. I think I will put it into my wishlist :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I haven’t read a huge amount of Hungarian literature either, but what I have read has been excellent. It’s an interesting collection, all the more so for the variety of pieces – I think you’d like it.

      Reply
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  13. Julie's Book Cave

    A beautiful review, Jacqui and one which will encourage me to read this collection. I especially loved the passage from The White Magus. I think I will be reading this very soon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Julie. I’m so glad to hear that you like the sound of this one as it’s a captivating collection of pieces. Szerb’s writing is so beautiful. I do hope you enjoy it.

      Reply
  14. lonesomereadereric

    It sounds like a really diverse collection and interesting insight into the place/culture. Great how you connect these stories with his other writing. I’ve never read his books before so will have to pick this up at some point.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Eric. That was part of the appeal for me, to see how these stories connect with Szerb’s other work. He’s definitely worth checking out, a wonderful writer.

      Reply

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