Past and present

From Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight:

Past and present always played special games inside Mihály, lending each other colour and flavour. He loved to relocate himself in his past, at one precise point, and from that perspective re-assemble his present life: for example, “What would I have made of Florence if I had come here at sixteen?” and this reordering would always give the present moment a richer charge of feeling. But it could also be done the other way round, converting the present into a past: “What fine memories will I have, ten years from now, of once having been in Florence with Erzsi … what will such memories hold, what associations of feeling, which I cannot guess at at this moment?”

I am a neo-frivolist

From Antal Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend (pg. 178):

“I really don’t understand you.  I’d so much rather be in your position.  To devote one’s life to scholarship … to truth, and the service of mankind …”

“You may rest assured that my personal scholarship has never served mankind.  Because there is no such thing as justice, no universal humanity.  There are only versions of justice and different sorts of people.  And it has always given me particular pleasure that my own scholarly efforts, let’s say, in the field of old English ironworking, have never been of the slightest use to anyone.”

“You speak like someone who has no ideals.”

“True.  I am a neo-frivolist.”

“And how does that differ from old-fashioned frivolity?”

“Mostly in the ‘neo’ prefix.  It makes it more interesting.”

My nature is to spend years amassing the material

From Antal Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend (pg. 14).  With everything of his I read (and, now, reread) I find him – for his humor, self-aimed self-aware irony, and lightness of touch with his learning – more and more the author I most wish I’d had as a personal friend.

A colleague’s envy, when all is said and done, is the scholar’s one reward on earth.  I didn’t tell him that in all likelihood I wouldn’t be publishing anything.  My nature is to spend years amassing the material for a great work and, when everything is at last ready, I lock it away in a desk drawer and start something new.

I’m a tired, cold, sardonic, bookish sort of chap, I felt

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.”

An easy topic we might have in common

From Antal Szerb’s A Garden Party in St. Cloud:

Rapidly, and by foreordained necessity, I set about flirting with a little Highland Scots girl, an Arts student. With my usual boyish enthusiasm, and looking for an easy topic we might have in common, I expounded St Thomas Aquinas’ theory of time to her. “Yes, yes,” she replied — pronouncing that ‘yes’ with the wonderfully impenetrable simple-mindedness that makes British girls so attractive.

Enjoy the wine today, tomorrow there will be none

The opening to ch.15 of Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight:

THE NEXT DAY they did indeed visit the Villa Giulia. They looked at the graves and the sarcophagi, with their lids supporting terracotta statues of the old Etruscan dead enjoying their lives—eating, drinking, embracing their spouses, and proclaiming the Etruscan philosophy. This, being wise enough not to have developed literature in the evolution of their cultural life, they never  committed to writing, though of course it can be read unmistakably on the faces of their statues: only the present matters, and moments of beauty are eternal.

Waldheim pointed out some broad drinking bowls. These were for wine, as the inscription proclaimed: Foied vinom pipafo, cra carefo.

“Enjoy the wine today, tomorrow there will be none,” Waldheim translated. “Tell me, could it be expressed more succinctly or truly? That statement, in its archaic splendour, is as definitive and unshakeable as any polygonic city-walls or cyclopean buildings. Foied vinom pipafo, cra carefo.

The patera – pictured below – is real, as is the inscription (only with vino in place of vinom).  It is one of the few meaningful bits of an old Italic language, Faliscan, related to but distinct from Latin.  The Old Latin version of the same is reconstructed as ‘hodie vinom bibabo, cras carebo.’  The literal translation is “today I will drink wine, tomorrow I won’t have any”


With the text clearer – reading right to left:



Dostoevsky called Gogol the demon of the guffaw

From Antal Szerb’s essay on Nikolai Gogol, translated in Reflections in the Library: Selected Literary Essays 1926-1944.

In Gogol, every character carries his own ghost within him.  They are the portraits of two devils, said Pushkin of Khlestakov and Chichikov…. It is the cast of Gogol’s imagination that makes ghosts of them.  He does not invent new lineaments, but hones the existing ones to the point of ghostliness. “In me everything has moved away from its place,” he writes in one of his letters.  “If, for example, I see someone trip up, my imagination at once appropriates this image and develops it into some dreadful vision, which torments me so much that I am unable to sleep and feel sapped of all my strength.”  Here the point is that the most ordinary workaday reality turns ghost-like if we stare at it long and hard enough: one of Gogol’s secrets is that he releases the dread that lurks in the workaday.  Dostoevsky called Gogol the demon of the guffaw.

This is humanism not as a feeling but as an attitude to life

From Antal Szerb’s essay on Thomas Mann, included in Reflections in the Library: Selected Literary Essays 1926-1944.  

This is humanism not as a feeling but as an attitude to life; in practice it is primarily a negative stance: abhorrence of the use of force, of tyranny, of the crippling of individuality.  This is the humanism of the eighteenth century, of Voltaire and Goethe.  It derives from an awareness of human dignity, and from the intellectual’s serenity, tenderness, and horror of fighting, for it rises far, far above the passions that provoke human beings to commit bloody barbarities.  It is an ethos that is not rooted in any feeling or religion, but solely and uniquely in the intellect.  This intellect-based morality has been from Goethe onwards the greatest pride and achievement of the German spirit, and from this the new German world, with its new uncertainty in ethics and intuition, has diverged the furthest.