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Miklós Szentkuthy: Fejezet a szerelemről (Chapter on Love)

It has been said that Szentkuthy’s works are part of the literature of excess. While I can certainly see this – though using excess in a good way rather than in a bad way – I think I would prefer literature of exuberance, a much more pleasing word. This book was written between Prae and theSaint Orpheus’s Breviary series. i.e. in the mid-1930s and its exuberance certainly prefigures the latter.

The opening plot is relatively straightforward. I use the word relatively referring to Szentkuthy’s often complex plots rather than those of other writers. It is set in a small town in Italy. On the day in question, the town’s most illustrious son, the Pope, died. The mayor seems to stay up all night entertaining his council members. He leaves every half hour. They suspect it is to visit his mistress. They are only partially right. It is, firstly, to visit his sick wife, secondly to visit his sick mistress (a prostitute) and thirdly to visit his son and daughter who are with the envoy from Pistoia. They are trying to get news from him and, to encourage him, the daughter is gradually unbuttoning her clothes, though revealing nothing.

The next scene involves a young man who has been appointed, unwillingly, as secretary to the mayor (he felt that public life bore the same emotional paradoxes as love: the eternal panorama of faith and faithlessness ) and is off to tell his fiancée. When he gets to her house, her just widowed sister is there and a sort of wake is going on for the deceased man. Our hero is clearly more attracted to the sister than to his fiancée.

This all seems relatively straightforward. However, the way Szentkuthy tells it is not. Let us take, for example, the bed in his sick mistress’s bedchamber. While seemingly very simple, he takes several pages of his exuberant prose to describe it. He gives a long and colourful description of the bed and bedroom and what it means to him. We can tell from some of the words he uses how varied his description is: mystical, deathlike, portentous, grave (the noun), whirlpool, detachment, tragic, annihilation.

One of his techniques is the use of dualities. We have already seen this in his discussion of love. (This book is, you will recall from the title, about love.) For him the opposite of love is not hate but death, Venus and Thanatos, as he puts it. In the discussion of the bed we have more dualities: wife vs mistress, bed (wife) vs divan (mistress), rouge (mistress) vs wife (blood) – his wife is bleeding because of her illness. We will see further evidence of these dualities.

The young man who is visiting his fiancée has a different perspective. He associates her house with ageing as there always seem to be a lot of elderly people there. Indeed, he says they are all dead. He is scathing about the fiancée – her the old-fashioned virginity was like some old piece of furniture or a clock ticking away perpetually under a bell jar: wonderful and boring, valuable and ridiculous . He observes her and the others present as though from a distance, like the outsider that he is. However, it seems that he is not sexually attracted to his fiancée but he is sexually attracted to her sister and though the sister is in mourning for her late husband, he is not going to miss his chance.

Quite abruptly, at least as far the telling of the story goes, the young man does marry his fiancée (A hundred people fell ill with indigestion, a hundred got stone drunk ). However, on his wedding night, his father takes ill so he spends half the night with his father. He is highly critical of his father (he lacked the gift for paradox, sophistry, logical sadism that suffused my self-ego). The other half of hs wedding night he spends at the local brothel. How often we dream the utopias of complete erotic freedom in which not the slightest trace of freedom is possible in love we are not-free, he thinks to himself.

At the beginning of the book, we have learned two things. The Pope died, as mentioned, and a knight turned up on horseback. Both of those issues are now pursued. Who is the Pope? We do not know. We know he is called Pius, real name Rico. However, the other details we learn do not fit in with any of the real Popes called Pius. The blurb on the back of the book suggests the events took place in the late Renaissance, which would suggest Pope Pius V but the other details do not match his biography. We must therefore assume that the Pope and, indeed, the town, are fictitious.

The Pope’s brother, a priest, still lives in the town. He could have been a cardinal or similar but declined. We also meet his niece Angelina, who will play a larger role later in the book. We learn more about the Pope, including the epiphany he had while lying in bed with his girlfriend, which made him change his ways, resulting in his being elected Pope. The Pope will write a letter to his brother, explaining his life and thoughts. He will also have an imaginary conversation with a hanged (i.e already dead) villain named Tiburzio, possibly Tiburzio di Maso. If it was, this makes our Pope Pius II but, again, other details do not fit. Things get complicated as it is feared the (unnamed) Emperor was responsible for the death of the Pope. We see various people take sides – particularly the Mayor and the Donna (also with no name), a former mistress of the Mayor and something of a schemer.

The knight is Juan Bautista Real and he has come to see the Donna to see if the town can be conquered, though he is no brave knight, but a good-looking young man whose career has mainly been as an artist’s model. There are plots and counter-plots and lust and love. They think the mayor is in favour of the Pope but this is not the case. The mayor whose entire life had been spent in anxious contemplation of the battle between Pope and Emperor. in his imagination watched with dark satisfaction the exiled Pope, slaughtered bishops, pilloried thirty-voiced Gregorian masses and churches turned into stables.

We conclude with two women – Angelina, whom we have already met, and Flora, and one young man, Cugnani, who is full-on Oedipal as well as being in love with Angelina. You tore off my body from my ribs like sempervivum from a rock, you crushed my muscles and bowels like colourful Gothic stained glass windows, leaving only fishbones of the lead frames, he says to Angelina, while looking through the keyhole at his mother undressing.

The book is, of course about love and we get many comments about love, which can best be described as unconventional. She knew that in love only these two ailments matter: psychology’s grotesque crumblings and money’s Midas sunflower-positivism or Love always juggles with two balls: objectivity and comedy or (from the Mayor) You have meant everything to me, oh Aphrodite the embryonic, blood-core, unicellular nervousness of vegetation, the blind-most life-twitchings. I have nothing but admiration for translator Erika Mihálycsa, coping with these seriously weird metaphors and comments.

However, that is what makes this book so enjoyable. There are no clichés here, nothing predictable, no-one behaving normally, even by Renaissance standards. Everyone, in thought, word and deed, is strange, unusual and decidedly weird. It may be that you do not always fully understand what they are saying – this is definitely a book that bears rereading, probably more than once – but, nevertheless, it is undoubtedly original and, as any good novel, give you pause for thought. As the song says, love is strange, even in real life but it is really strange in this book.

This is the sixth Szentkuthy I have read and I think it is my favourite. Strange though it may be, there is a sort of plot running through it – the death of the Pope, possibly arranged by the Emperor, and how the Emperor is going to react, coupled with the effect on the denizens of our unnamed town. It also has one running theme, i.e. love, even if its view of love may not be one we totally recognise. Accordingly, we are partially able to follow where Szentkuthy is going, while, at the same time, enjoying the book as he goes off-piste with his images, his metaphors, his comments and his sub-plots. I do not normally reread books but I am sure that I will give this one another go in the not too distant future.

Publishing history

First published in Hungarian in 1936 by Kecskeméti Hírlapkiadó
First published in English in 2020 by Contra Mundum Press
Translated by Erika Mihálycsa