Love in a Bottle

There is something unsettling about the tone of Antal Szerb's mature work, a louche, world-weary disenchantment that is drawn to aphoristic certainty ("They began to feel like kings in exile - as does anyone who has drunk a great deal of brandy") and savours irresponsibility and seclusion. The milieu in which he wrote exacerbates the reader's uncertain reaction. As Europe suffered in the early 1940s, Szerb, in Hungary, wrote a historical account of the Diamond Necklace Affair, a gavotte of midsummer madness and aristocratic embarrassment in pre-revolutionary France. Three years after completing it, Szerb was beaten to death in a forced-labour camp.

Pushkin Press has already published Szerb's three wonderfully wry novels, The Pendragon Legend, Oliver VII and Journey by Moonlight, his masterpiece. Love in a Bottle brings together six short stories from 1934 and 1935, along with three youthful novellas from the early 1920s. The apprentice works are consigned to the rear of the volume, undoubtedly because two of them are markedly inferior to the rest of the collection. "The White Magus", about a Byzantine princess who sacrifices herself to save the children of her city, and "Ajandok's Betrothal", in which a young girl falls in love with a demon, are earnestly symbolist and too much in love with death, easeful or otherwise.

“The Tyrant", however, is altogether more complex and emotionally involved: a closet drama in which the reclusive and authoritarian Duke of Milan unwillingly finds himself growing both protective and wary of his page. The duke's rejection of emotion as political weakness is entwined with a barely acknowledged fear that his paternal feelings may not be so disinterested. More unconventionally, "The Tyrant" is also a fictional elaboration of Renaissance thinking about tyrannicide and courtliness, a scholarly twist typical of Szerb.

Szerb was ambivalent about the life of the mind. He spent years in the libraries of Europe and wrote histories of Hungarian, English and world literature. His fascination with historical curios ("The Duke: an Imaginary Portrait" is a cracking pseudo-essay that never declines into parody) was salted with a stinging dash of self-contempt. The perpetual student suffers the same hardships as the poet, without any of the bohemian compensations. But, as Szerb's avatar in "Musings in the Library" remarks while flirting with a young student in the Bibliothèque nationale, "Don't let it worry you that 90 per cent of the people you see here are geriatrics, cripples and lost souls. It's not only an asylum for them. It's also a refuge for the eternally young."

Elsewhere - in "The White Magus" and "Love in the Bottle" - magicians (the medieval equivalent of the academic) are good-hearted meddlers, though uncomprehending of human foibles. Klingsor, the sorcerer in the title story, believes he is doing Sir Lancelot a favour by stealing his love spirit so that the knight will no longer pine unrequitedly for Guinevere. Lancelot soon discovers that being happy makes him hopelessly miserable, and berates Klingsor, who, dead from the waist down like Browning's Grammarian, is bemused that emotional castration can be so unsuccessful. "Fin de Siècle", the finest story in the collection, satirises Yeats, Ernest Dowson and the rest of the decadents. The poets and their self-dramatising Weltschmerz ("Tyrconnel remained out in the fog, sensing the utter emptiness of his life") are rescued by Szerb's evident delight in resurrecting this hazy era.

We owe thanks to Len Rix, Szerb's accomplished translator, for his part in raising from the dead a writer of such cool irony and historical sympathy.

Love in a Bottle
Antal Szerb
Pushkin Press, 245pp, £12

Jonathan Beckman is assistant editor of the Literary Review

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze