Short Story Review – Zsófia Bán – Frau Röntgen’s Hand (trans. Jim Tucker)

I have simply marked it in my notebook with an X

I like the way in which Zsófia Bán highlights the madness and obsession of the inventor via long sentences which stretch effortlessly across line after line, held together with nothing more than commas and enthusiasm.  Willy’s (*ahem*, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, Nobel Laureate and discoverer of the X-Ray) obsession for his mistress and then wife, Anna Bertha, is mirrored, reflected, copied in his drive to push science forward.

I like how he sees himself as a man of madness, someone who has delved too deep, who will (he believes) be stricken from the honour role of great scientists, fearing that he will be “permanently expunged from the Great Ledger of Science”.  And yet he is propelled forward by his obsession nonetheless, always moving onward, anxious to capture and contain his wife in any way that he can while recognising that she is infinite and uncontainable (else why would he love her?)

I like the excitement and exuberance, the enthusiasm, the careless heedless rush of the text, the way it continues and goes on and on, hardly stopping to breathe, careening ahead like an out-of-control automobile.  Or, to be more timely to the nineteenth century setting, the hansom cab.  Unifying the cool rationality of science with the passion of art is not new, but it is done well, here, and is always worth highlighting.  Genius strikes where it will, and tends to fall upon those who spend the most time preparing.

The instant I jotted down this X, my legs gave out under me, the blood drained from my head, and I daresay I lost consciousness for a few minutes. I had discovered something that I can never describe in any scientific journal, indeed never so much as put on paper or discuss, without losing whatever remaining professional status I yet enjoy…

In the second half of the story the perspective shifts, relaxing somewhat from Willy’s excitement, easing away from the first person perspective to the third, with a concomitant reduction in commas and emotional words.  And then it shifts again, showing Anna Bertha’s perspective as she struggles to deal with this man who operates in such a rarified state.  But she loves him, of course, and that counts for something.  Not enough, really, because while it might be nice to love an epoch-shaking individual, it doesn’t always warm the bed:

…summoning all of her imaginative power to focus on the moment when Willi’s body last intertwined with hers, when they last awoke like a fresh-baked loaf of braided bread, like two snails stuck together or fatefully fused twins, when they had taken possession of each other’s body like one walking the grounds of his leafy woodland estate, where every last bud and blade comes to life under the other’s gaze, at the other’s touch the juices begin to flow, where the other’s breath conjures up oxygen and warmth, the steam of morning and the afternoon’s buzz, and where all this was once conjured up by the sheer force of her imagination

Though we can see here that her inner life is as dense as Willy’s and that, given the chance, she is as happy to wax eloquent as he.

Near the end of the story he convinces her to take an X-Ray, and then she sees – and we see, because it is included in the text – the first ever photograph of the bones and inside of a human.  The horror, the beauty:

Seeing the picture Anna Bertha cried out, I have seen my own death!, but even this did not concern her at the moment since Willy, his joy infinite, threw his arms about her, and his hot tobacco breath filled Anna Bertha with such happiness that she wouldn’t have minded if she had truly collapsed dead on the cold floor of the laboratory.

So what we have then is a story attempting to intertwine the madness of science with the madness of art and the madness of love.  And all of them are revealed to be foolish, no matter whether they succeed or fail.  Of course they are, and in a sense, that’s what’s nice about it.  Science is as full of happy accidents as love, and really, how absurd is it that two people who meet by chance can come to spend the rest of their lives together?  How many relationships formed by turning left at a street corner rather than right, and how many stilled before conception?  Science is the same, or can be, and knowing this humanises what can be perceived from the outside as a cool, calm, robot-like life where nothing but carefully measured outputs matter.  Bán is an expressive writer who takes great relish in having her characters riff on their feelings and their thoughts, and it’s wondrous to watch in action.  They jump alive from the text, a confused mix of happy sad obsessive tired loving cold cheerful despondent.

And I like it.

Frau Röntgen’s Hand is a short story by Hungarian writer Zsófia Bán, and was translated by Jim Tucker  You can read the story online at Words Without Borders.

Author Zsófia Bán
Title Frau Röntgen’s Hand
Translator Jim Tucker
Nationality Hungarian
Publisher Words Without Borders

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