From Antal Szerb’s Musings in the Library in the collection Love in a Bottle. The narrator, a Hungarian scholar living in Paris, begins to develop an attachment to a visiting Hungarian student he had introduced to the Bibliotheque Nationale. Telling himself he should act in the spirit of one of his literary favorites – Casanova – he hopes to force a seduction by keeping her out past her residence’s 1am closed-for-the-night deadline, only to find out along the way that she’s been aiming for him for much longer.
“Ilonka, I am so dreadfully ashamed of myself. And I haven’t given you a thought these past two years. In fact, for the last two years I haven’t thought about anyone. Even now I find it difficult to think of anyone but myself. Tell me, will I ever be able to make up for my shortcomings? I see myself as a sort of water man.”
“What sort of water man?”
“The one they pulled out of the lake at Ferto. He had grown membranes between his fingers and forgotten how to speak. His name was Istok Hany.”
“You don’t have to say anything. And you’ve nothing to make up for. Those two years were wonderful for me. I was never alone, and I loved you the way adolescent girls do. And now I am almost grown up, and a university student, I can travel on my own, and I’ve come to Paris to be with you …. But Tamas, what’s the matter? That’s the third time you’ve looked at your watch. My god, I’m not late, am I?”
“Not just yet, Ilonka.”
“What’s the time?”
“Just enough for you to get there in a taxi. It’s ten to one.”
What can I say? I’m not Casanova. Perhaps if I’d been a few years younger and less broken-down, I would have taken the gamble …. but principally, of course … if she hadn’t confessed her feelings. But once she had? It would take more than a little bit of love and a miniscule amount of audacity. The whole thing had become too much for me.
I’m a tired, cold, sardonic, bookish sort of chap, I felt. It was no good. I just wasn’t up to the occasion. Like Janos Arany when summoned by the maiden, I answered: “It’s too late. I’m going home.”