PENDRAGONIA – IN MEMORIAM KLÁRI SZERB

PENDRAGONIA1
(IN MEMORIAM KLÁRI SZERB)2

This story within a story is told as it happened, without frills and as close to the facts as the writer’s memory allows given the distance of scores of years.

When Klári Szerb arrived in London and László Cs. Szabó3 called me to meet her, I was delighted to see her again, although slightly embarrassed at the memory of our first meeting in 1953. At that time she lived in the centre of Budapest, at 8, Madách Avenue, 2nd floor, flat no. 2, in a corner house of a grand avenue that had been abruptly stopped in its tracks by the city planners. In the flat right above her lived my aunt and I, at the time a student at the Faculty of Arts. In our little library we kept a copy of Traveller by Moonlight by her husband Antal. I also voraciously read his History of World Literature and his History of Hungarian Literature in the National Széchenyi Library, and managed to get hold of The Pendragon Legend in an antiquarian bookshop. So you could say Antal Szerb was a literary hero for me, and for that reason his wife, a black haired and handsome lady, deserved my full homage. She was reserved though, and usually returned my greetings unsmilingly with just a nod of her head.

On a summer evening then in 1953 I was making my way home from a swim, with my wet trunks in my hands. The double doors of our balcony were wide open – my aunt was airing the flat – as were Klári Szerb’s balcony doors. I made a ball of my trunks, and threw them up so they would land on my aunt’s balcony. My aim was good but not good enough and the trunks landed on the living room carpet of the flat below the one intended. Up I went and rang Mrs Szerb’s doorbell to apologise. She was cooking supper in the kitchenette and had heard nothing. She had a strong memory and never forgot this incident, always smiling whenever we met.

In London we met three times during which she spoke about the frail frame of her husband Tony Szerb, his trips to Wales, his admiration for certain British aristocrats, and her correspondence with Alexander Lenard,4 the Latin translator of Winnie the Pooh. In return I told her about my first visit to the mansion of Earl S. and mentioned that I had met Alexander Lenard in the Sao Paulo bookshop of Dezső Landy.5 “Tamás, what did you discuss with Alexander?” asked Klári with intense interest. “Nothing”, I said, hanging my head in shame. “When Landy introduced us, Lenard was reading a book. He shook my hand and gave me a look which implied: Do not disturb my circles, so I slunk away.” Later Landy told me that he was the publisher of the edition princeps of the Latin Pooh in 200 copies. The American publication and world fame came later.

Long before that, in the spring of 1957, I found myself in Oxford, where I struck up friendships with, among others, Hungarian medical students who left during or soon after the Revolution.

Among the friends were Judith C. who had been locked up in one of Kádár’s prisons, then released, another two young women, and two young men. One tall blond chap, Honourable G. was heir to a great demesne in Glamorgan, his sportsmanlike companion meanwhile was Sir Colin M., the eldest son of a deceased general. One of the girls was lady Anne N., the daughter of the British ambassador in Yugoslavia, and Lady Polly S. who hailed from the borderlands of England and Wales, and was the eldest daughter of Earl S.

These grown up children were collecting money for the Hungarian refugees, one of them sponsored a Hungarian family, and they all read whatever books or bulletins they managed to track down on the history of Hungary. They gave parties replete with crab claws and champagne. For some mysterious reason Anne favoured me with her company, and we swam in the Thames and danced at charity balls through the night. It was not from Anne though, but from Polly, whose parents were abroad at the time, that I received my first invitation.

“For the long weekend”, said she, a tall young woman with an aristocratic long nose. She stretched her vowels saying: “We don’t live very faaaa….” Judith and I took the train as the boys had their own transport, Anne meanwhile had left for Yugoslavia. The journey lasted two hours or so, during which Judith, who had developed chilblains in Kádár’s cells, put her feet on to the radiator of the compartment. Eventually we arrived to T., a small village with a tiny railway station where the train only stopped if the Earl (or one of his retainers) stuck out his walking stick.

“Do we have to walk now?” I asked Judith after we got off. Their home – Polly’s grandfather was Home Secretary during the war – was not so far away. She looked at me with her wet, short-sighted smiling eyes and said: “They’ll come for us, presently”. Then we spotted a large ramshackle Rolls Royce with an old woman standing by it, parked in a small car park. The car looked around the same age as Judy, young for a girl but old for a car. If the Rolls was ramshackle the old woman was even more so. I felt my democratic instincts rising in me: These aristos, I thought, should have the decency to clothe their retainers better. She wore a tattered coat, a torn head kerchief, and a pair of old wellingtons. Yet Judy kissed her on the cheek enthusiastically, and introduced me, the Hungarian student in Oxford, not to a retainer but to the widow of the eighth Earl, Polly’s grandmother.

The mansion was as big as the riding-school in Baja. Inside there was order, Jacobean furniture, Chinese vases and oil paintings of all sizes. Polly welcomed us with open arms: “The house is new”, she said, “because the right wing of the old house was burnt to the ground during the Napoleonic wars.” “How come”, said I, “surely, those wars did not reach this far?” “But the prisoners of war did”, she replied.

It had, however, never been proved that the prisoners were the culprits. Valerie, the valet was the great-great-grandson of one of them. I was led to my quarters. A huge room, cold as an icebox, with a bathroom with a tub the size of a small swimming pool. Suddenly the crash of the gong for lunch pierced through the walls. The dining room, as big as our garden at home, had a mahogany table for 24 persons, but we were going to eat in its alcove, at a small table laid for six. I sat opposite a large oil painting of Polly, clad in a ball-gown with a high lace collar. “Wow”, I exclaimed, looking at Polly sitting next to me, “what lovely old fashioned garb you were wearing.”

“That’s not me, it’s Gran, at the age of 18”, she said and they all laughed. I stole a glance at the old lady. She had got rid of her rags from before and now wore a kind of jersey. The maid cleared the tureen with the remainder of the thick soup, and Valerie pushed in on a trolley the aromatic roast lamb – it was Holy Saturday. As the only male present – uncle Herbert was to join us in the evening – I was asked to carve the lamb, which was intact apart from head and tail. During the lamb, the Countess (Lady S.) pinned me down with a question: “Is there philosophy in Hungary?” In reply I gave a short (but still too long) account of the activities of György Lukács.

At the same time the two Oxford boys arrived, apologising for being late, and informing me that the Countess had inquired about filoxera, not philosophy. Although I am the great grandson of a winegrower I gave short shrift to filoxera.

After lunch the girls went out to the garden to pick flowers, while the gents stayed in the courtyard in front of the mansion. “What shall we do?” asked the Honourable G., who wore a tweed jacket with a spectacular hole in the right elbow. “Let’s play snur”, I suggested and in a few moments had taught the two aristos this Hungarian proletarian game. You have to aim at a line and the one whose coin is thrown nearest, will toss up the bunch. Heads are winners. All their change ended up in my pocket.

The afternoon tea was served in the Oxford style, dinner was a novelty for me. The whole company dressed up, in evening dress, bow tie to boot, except me, who had the same jacket on that I received from the Oxford Committee for the Hungarian Refugees. I must have looked like the gardener who strayed in uninvited. Valerie was in livery whose silver buttons sparkled in the candlelight. The arms length-wide candelabra stood proud in the middle of the mahogany table, while the ancestors in the oil paintings looked down at us severely from the walls. I sat on the right of Uncle Herbert, with Polly on my left, and the Countess at the head of the table. “And your father, will he not be dining with us?” I asked Polly, the young lady of the house. “They are hunting this afternoon”, she said. The conversation bobbed up and down, to and fro, until Herbert honed in on Radio Free Europe. What was my opinion of it? I opined that they were not worth their salt. During the Revolution they gave false reports of the West’s willingness to help Hungary. Then Herbert said he was on the Radio’s Committee. Too bad, I thought, but said nothing. He offered cigars to the boys, while the ladies withdrew to the salon. “With us it was the other way round”, I remarked, our fathers withdrew to the pipatorium. Herbert entertained us with a bunch of dirty jokes. On the way out I mentioned to Judy that Uncle Herbert was a proper git. She protested vehemently, “Herbert is an absolute charmer”, she said.

I woke in the middle of the night, Valerie was banging on the door. “The Honourable Herbert requests your presence.” “At this hour of the night?” “Yes. A Hungarian family has arrived in the estate with no English.” Well, a compatriot of mine had arrived in a motorbike with side-car as he had heard that there was a vacancy for a mechanic. “You could have waited until the morning” I said to my over-zealous compatriot. “Well, these Hungarians are original types, it seems”, said Herbert, “but they have to wait until the hunt is over. Only the Lord of the House may decide about employment.”

It was raining next day, so I spent most of the time in the library, surrounded by some 35,000 books sparkling with gold leaf letters due to the seventh Earl’s fondness for bookbinding. There was no catalogue though. Polly told me Uncle Herbert was a great bookman, but not the cataloguing type, while Valerie was simply too busy with other duties.

The hunt arrived around midday: all pomp and noisy circumstance, red coats, mingling with barking white and yellow beagles, glaring horns and bugles, the thud of hooves, and high octave pitches of human voices. The hunters did not enter the inner sanctum of the house, but scattered in the hall where my hunting eyes discovered two ladies wearing cherry coloured coats. The brilliant beauty of the younger one was underpinned by her muddy boots. From behind me Polly gave the introductions: “My mother and my younger sister, Sarah”, then she asked them about the fate of the fox which her father, the Earl, had caught up with. I was standing there mesmerised by their elegant yet muddy double of female charm, then bowed and declared: “Sarah, we would all be enchanted if tonight you joined us young people, instead of the hunters’ ball.” She looked me up and down, like a tomographer examines a patient. She uttered no word, and shook her adamantine head that would have made Lady Hamilton proud before the battle of Trafalgar. I bowed again and heard her walk off: “Who was this chap?” asked the mother to which her daughter replied: “The new mechanic I believe.” With that, I put paid to any notions I might have had of mésalliance.

After the late supper my earlier companions and me sat around the giant fireplace where dry pieces of logs gave such explosive crackles that I often jumped, so fresh were the memories of ‘56. Looking at Polly and Judy sitting there, I reflected on the red breath of the fireplace, surely responsible for the rosiness of the English cheek.

The late evening turned into late night, the malt whiskey bottle stood empty in front of Herbert, the rain and wind had passed on, and the moon looked into the salon through the glass door of the balcony. Having opened the second bottle, Herbert suddenly set upon Judith, or – to be more precise – her dead grandfather. With his voice raised and with bulging eyes and gesticulating hands, he said, “Your granddad was a scoundrel, who sold our country to the Bolsheviks!” Judith silently struggled for air. Colin gently stepped in: “During the war, and immediately afterwards, the Soviet Union needed aid. She was our ally.” Herbert lifted his forefinger high: “Ally, my foot!” “Cripps and his gang were fellow- travellers, who acted against British interests. The whole Labour Party is a bunch of crooks, they sold the British Empire down the river, for thirty pieces of silver.” Herbert now was standing on his feet.

Polly whispered to me, “This is his hobby horse, especially since aunt Henrietta married Sir Kwana in Africa.”

Herbert stepped to the balcony door, opened it, and urinated on the flowers down below in the garden.

Having listened to the whole story Klári Szerb touched my arm and said: “The balcony door is in our horoscope, Tamás.”

In the years since our London meeting I have been sending her my books, and also received from her the first (American) translation of Traveller. There was to be a second translation, by my friend, the English don, Len Rix and I was to obtain her approval for it. When she did not answer my letter I phoned her: “I am not well, Tamás”, she said in a hoarse voice. She was happy with the second translation. But by the time it was printed she was no longer with us.

The Pendragon Legend

(Translation by Len Rix, London, The Pushkin Press, 2007, pp. 10–11)

Early one summer, with the London season drawing to its close, I was at a soirée at Lady Malmsbury-Croft’s. This kind lady had taken me under her wing ever since my time as Donald Campbell’s scientific secretary. I should explain that my occupation is to assist elderly Englishmen in the pursuit of their intellectual whims. Not to earn my living, as it happens: I have a small inheritance from my mother on which I can get by in whatever country I choose. For some years now that country has been England. I am extremely fond of its noble landscapes.

During the course of the evening the hostess seized me and led me off to a tall, grey-haired gentleman with the most wonderfully impressive head. He was seated in an armchair and smiling silently to himself.

“Your Lordship”, said she, “this is Mr John Bátky,6 the expert on medieval British insectivores – or was it old Italian threshing machines? – I really can’t remember at this moment. But whatever it is, I know you’ll find it absolutely fascinating.”

And with that she left us.

For some time we smiled benignly at one another. The Earl had a remarkably handsome head, the sort one sees wreathed in laurel on the frontispiece of old books: a kind you don’t often see nowadays.

At the same time, I was rather embarrassed. I felt the noble lady’s somewhat inexact description had made me appear mildly ludicrous.

“Allow me, if I may”, the Earl began at last, “to ask what our hostess actually meant.”

“My Lord, the sorry truth is that the good lady was to some extent right. I am a Doctor of Philosophy, specialising in useless information, with a particular interest in things a normal person would never consider.”

This was a facetious attempt to fend off a more serious topic, namely, what I actually do. I have found that the English do not approve of displays of intellectual curiosity.

A strange smile crossed the Earl’s face.

“Not at all. I am quite happy to talk about serious topics. I am not English. I am Welsh. That makes me, apparently, fifty percent more like a Continental. No Englishman, by the way, would ever ask you your occupation. However, for my intellectual satisfaction, I must insist on an answer to the question.”

He had such an intellectual-looking head that I blurted out the truth. ”At the moment I’m working on the English mystics of the seventeenth century.” “Are you indeed?” the Earl exclaimed. “Then Lady Malmbury-Croft has made another of her miraculous blunders. She always does. If she gets two men to sit with each other thinking that they were together at Eton, you may be sure that one of them is German and the other Japanese, but both have a special interest in Liberian stamps.”

“So my Lord is also a student of the subject.” “That’s a rather strong term to use, in this island of ours. You study something, we merely have hobbies. I dabble in the English mystics the way a retired general would set about exploring his family history. As it happens, those things are part of the family history. But tell me doctor – are you interested in it as a religious phenomenon?”

“Not really. I don’t have much feeling for that aspect. What interests me within the general field is what is properly called ‘mystic’ – the esoteric fantasies and procedures through which people once sought to probe nature. The alchemists, the secrets of the homunculus, the universal panacea, the influence of minerals and amulets… Fludd’s Philosophy of Nature, whereby he proved the existence of God by means of a barometer.”

“Fludd?” The Earl raised his head. “Fludd should not be mentioned in the company of those idiots. Fludd, sir, wrote a lot of nonsense because he wished to explain things that could not be accounted for at the time. But essentially – I mean about the real essence of things – he knew much, much more than the scientists of today, who no longer laugh at his theories. I do not know what your theory is, but nowadays we know a great deal about the whole – the microscopic detail. Those people knew rather more about the whole – the great interconnectedness of things – which can’t be weighed on scales and cut into slices like ham.”

The fervour in his eyes was certainly un-English. The subject was clearly close to his heart.

Then he was overcome with embarrassment. He smiled, and assumed a more casual tone.

“Yes, Fludd is a bit of an obsession with me.”

At that moment a pretty girl joined us, and chatted away at great length, rather inanely, while the Earl, with true good breeding, generously encouraged her. I writhed with frustration, desperate to resume the conversation. Nothing interests me more than the way people relate emotionally to the abstract – why Mr X is a convinced Anglo-Catholic and Miss Y is devoted to Gastropoda. And why an Earl should be so enthusiastic about someone so distant and thoroughly dead as Fludd – that justly forgotten quack and sorcerer – was a particularly interesting question.

But once again, Lady Malmsbury-Coft descended on me, and this time her blunderings proved less inspired. She led me to a distinguished old dame who would not have looked out of place in a museum and who quizzed me about animal rights in Romania. My protests were in vain: she insisted on regaling me with shocking examples from her last visit to Armenia. Apparently some lapdogs had become separated from their owner and been forced to fend for themselves.

Luckily a friend of mine, Fred Walker, suddenly appeared before us, with a sleekly- groomed young man in tow. He seated this person beside the lady, gathered me up and whisked me away. The old dowager failed to notice the change.

“Who is this Earl?” I asked him.

1 Pendragonia. The title of this piece recalls the title of Antal Szerb’s first novel: The Pendragon Legend, published in Budapest in 1934, and published by Pushkin Press in English in 2007. The Pendragon Legend was translated by Len Rix and it was as much a runaway success as the Hungarian original. Szerb, an anglophile, spent a period of time in Britain (England, Wales and Scotland) and recalled his experiences in imaginatively transformed novelistic form, weaving patterns of a Welsh legend and British aristocratic barbarians in a fascinating tale.

2 Klári Szerb (1913–1992): Antal’s wife, a literary historian.

3 László Cs. Szabó (1902–1983): Hungarian essayist and literary historian.

4 Alexander Lenard (1910–1972): Hungarian polymath, the translator of Winnie the Pooh into Latin.

5 Dezső Landy (1908–1990): A publisher in Hungary until 1956, then a bookseller in Sao Paulo.

6 Szerb’s hero, John Bátky is the alter ego of the author, a scholar from Budapest. He is introduced in London to the Earl of Gwynedd, the Pendragon of the title who invites him to his castle in Wales. As the novel progresses Bátky becomes entangled in a web of coincidences. His English and Welsh characters are all disguised, his story is an invention. Kabdebó describes a set of events, involving a slice of British aristocracy whose full names are not revealed. The author/observer is also a Hungarian man of letters whose fondly ironic account of a visit to a mansion recalls Szerb’s Pendragonia.

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