Frigyes Karinthy

The Stranger

The three women were ruminating together on the veranda.

“Well, there’s nothing like success,” said Lenke gazing darkly into the distance while her shapely hand reached for the cigarette box, “the certainty that we’re liked, that we can arouse desire in others without the least effort or intention, simply because we are what we are—yes, that must be an intoxicating feeling. But how rare and how brief a moment it is!”

The two other women thought about it. Böske looked musingly before her; she was sipping some alcoholic drink which sparkled green in the cut glass. She put the glass down.

“The stranger," she said then, dwelling on the word. The other two women looked at her expectantly.

“I’ve forgotten his name, so I'll simply call him the stranger. It happened about two years ago . . . but I cannot remember the time exactly. I'd forgotten about him a long time ago, but just now, when you began to talk, he came back to my mind, and I was thinking of him all the time you were talking, and agreeing with you: there are moments like that, and they are the real ones.”

The two women looked at her eagerly.

“What was he like?” Erzsi asked half under her breath.

“He was tall and lanky. Bony face, not very young, deep-set eyes with an expression that was mysterious, quizzical, intent and yet melancholy and sombre all at the same time. I was feeling very low that day.”

She sighed and drained her glass.

“I was sitting at home alone, I didn’t feel like doing anything. I felt old and worn and disillusioned. My husband was away on some business trip and I didn’t expect him back before midnight. But I can’t say I was missing him very much. I foresaw a dull and dreary evening before me—I didn’t even feel like coming over to you. I put the linen in order, and then I lay down on the couch for a while. I started reading, but threw the book down. Suddenly the doorbell rang.”

Böske sighed.

“I could hear the maid in the hall saying the master was away and that he would have to come back the following day. He must have ignored her, because the next I heard were energetic steps approaching the door and then a knock. I started up from the couch. In came the stranger. He was apparently surprised to find me alone in the room. For a second he couldn’t utter a word, then he greeted me with embarrassment. I asked him what I could do for him—no reply. Then without further questions, he started speaking in a husky, urgent voice.

"You’re Mrs. K., I imagine. I must apologize, I wanted to see your husband. . . about a very important matter. . .” .

“Didn’t the maid tell you my husband was away?” I asked him in an astonished voice.

“Very important business,” he repeated and stared at me. “Forgive me, Mr. K. knows about it. . .”

“And he went on standing obstinately, rooted to the floor. I was a bit embarrassed and indicated an armchair by the table.

“You may as well sit down,” I said for the sake of saying something.

“He looked at me, then at the chair. Finally he sat down. But all this time he went on staring at me. He searched my face with a deliberate look that couldn’t be mistaken.

"I turned red, fully aware of the impact his surprised look was having on me.

“My husband won’t be home until night,” I started to speak quickly to conceal my embarrassment, “but you might perhaps tell me. . . and I’ll let him know.”

“I got up with an uncertain movement. He stood up too. He did not make any reply—he just went on staring at me with narrowed eyes—I could then see quite clearly that he wasn’t in the least interested in what I was saying—the words seemed to make no impression on him. He appeared to have been looking at my mouth, spellbound, ever since he entered the room. I turned away. At that moment something odd happened. The stranger came up and stood quite close to me. I turned away and went back to sit on the couch.

“The next thing to happen was that he came and sat down beside me. Don’t mistake me, please, there was nothing intrusive about it. He bent his head and looked at me intently, without speaking a word. I got up again and began to speak very rapidly.

“Perhaps you would wait for him—no, what am I saying ?—he won’t be home till night.”

“I went to sit in the armchair—and the stranger got up and came over and sat down on a chair quite near me. Now he was quite openly staring at my mouth, his lips fallen open, oblivious of everything and numb. I tell you, there was nothing aggressive about it at all, no crude desire or dominating air of conquest on his part—he was so helpless, so pitifully clumsy in this breach of good manners, this sudden blaze, the guileless movement and sudden vertigo with which he followed me, moon-struck as if lightning had hit the ground before his feet. Yes, that was the moment Lenke was talking about—I seemed to have been overcome by the same intoxicated vertigo myself-—and I seemed to feel for a second what it must have meant for a man that I was a woman, a beautiful woman—I was aware, physically aware, of the magnetic waves streaming from my body, paralysing his will, and forcing him out of his own direction driven by the pleasure and magic of the senses, to orbit passively around me-—in ever diminishing circles, ever closer, ever closer, until his resistance fails and he falls on the glowing core of that fatal celestial body—my mouth. It was a wonderful, exultant feeling—I was trembling, and yet calm. I made a few further efforts: I sat myself on a chair and then again on the couch. And all this while I went on talking, talking quietly, unendingly, unconcerned over what would happen next, and no longer waiting for an answer for I knew he was incapable of answering but he continued to come after me wherever I went, moving closer and closer. . . on the short leash the other end of which I held firmly in my hand. And he continued to gaze at my lips, and waited and waited and waited. . . two enormous eyeballs like two revolving comets. . . dazed with intoxicated desire. . .”

Böske fell silent and reached for her glass. The two reclining women had already straightened their backs and were sitting up looking eager.

“And what then?” Erzsi asked in excitement.

Böske drained her glass in a gulp. She shrugged her shoulders.

“Then—all at once Gyuri burst into the room with the neighbour’s children. They made a big hullabaloo and turned the whole placed upside down in no time. The stranger muttered something about seeing my husband at the oflice. That night, in the dark, my heart thumping but in an indifferent voice I told my husband that a certain gentleman had called. At last my husband recognized the man from my description.

“Oh, of course, Skurek! I know now. . . about the timber business. I’m glad he didn't find me at home. He’s a pretty awful customer, deaf as a post, but he won’t admit it, and instead he insists on poking his nose right into your face to lipread what's being said, because on top of everything else he's short-sighted, poor devil. I'll write and tell him I’m buying those two loads of timber.”

SOURCE: Karinthy, Frigyes. “The Stranger” (Az idegen), translated by László András T., in Grave and Gay: Selections from His Work, selected by István Kerékgyárto, afterword by Károly Szalay, binding and jacket by István Bányai, 2nd ed., (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1973), pp. 157-160.

"Frigyes Karinthy, Humorist and Thinker"
by Miklós Vajda

Frigyes & Ferenc Karinthy in English

Frigyes (Frederiko) Karinthy (1887-1938) en Esperanto

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Select Bibliography

Sándor Szathmári (1897-1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide

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