Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb (translated by Len Rix). $16.95, 320 pp. NYRB Classics.
The Third Tower by Antal Szerb (translated by Len Rix). $16.00, 112 pp. Pushkin Press.
Antal Szerb’s lithe, lively, and wholly endearing fiction is peopled by male dreamers on spiritual journeys of self-discovery. Each one sets out on his respective mini-mission with good intentions but knows from the outset that there are only so many harsh truths he can withstand. In this respect, all Szerb’s protagonists seem to have heeded the advice of Greene’s Dr. Hasselbacher at the beginning of Our Man in Havana: “You should dream more, Mr. Wormold. Reality in our century is not something to be faced.”
Dr. János Bátky, the narrator of Szerb’s first full-length novel, The Pendragon Legend (1934), is a Hungarian academic on sabbatical in Great Britain. When he is invited to the Welsh castle of the Earl of Gwynedd he is dragged into a world of family intrigue, superstition, treachery, and murder. After enough nocturnal escapades and jangled nerves he yearns to beat a retreat to London, “Back to the British Museum, to the impregnable calmness of books.” “You speak like someone who has no ideals,” the enchanting Cynthia tells him. “True,” Bátky replies, “I am a neo-frivolist.” Bátky appears again in a short story from the same year, “A Dog Called Madelon.” His unwillingness to accept humdrum normality is made clear in the first paragraph. This is a man who
took care to protect himself against the greyness of everyday life. As a child he even managed on occasions to convince himself that the chocolate he was eating was in fact salami. Later, he acquired a passion for cocktails. The gin in his vermouth seemed to him to embody the mighty spirit of ancient pine forests. Adding curaçao to red wine conjured up a sixteen-year-old girl—who no doubt had long since married.
In Szerb’s last novel, Oliver VII (1942), the eponymous itchy-footed young monarch of a Central European country also tires of day-to-day reality. Bored of being a “prisoner in the palace,” frustrated at “Sitting on a platform, with a smiling face, full of envy for those seated below,” he eventually plots a coup against himself and flees to Venice where he gets more illusion and adventure than he bargained for.
Both characters’ creator was also a dreamer, or at least an introspective and unobtrusive scholar who lost himself in books, both reading and writing them. The bookish Bátky is clearly Szerb’s alter-ego, as is the nameless narrator of the story “Cynthia” (1932), who again sits in the British Museum devouring books and admiring their “divine smell of dust and their shamefaced air of not having been read for centuries.” These stories and The Pendragon Legend were written after the year (1929-1930) Szerb spent in London on a postdoctoral scholarship—the bulk of the time cocooning himself in—yes—that bibliophilic paradise, the Reading Room of the British Museum. A further stint in Paris inspired “Musings in the Library” (1934), and although it is a work of fiction, the narrator speaks for his creator when he confesses that the very best moments of his youth were “those spent in the Bibliothèque Nationale, especially the winter evenings.”
Szerb was born in Budapest in 1901. Though of Jewish descent, he was baptized a Catholic. He developed an aptitude for languages at an early age and rapidly established himself as a poet, playwright, essayist, reviewer, translator, literary historian, and novelist. By 1934 he was regarded as Hungary’s most respected writer. His doctorate on the Hungarian poet Kölcsey was followed by a study of Blake and a short but notable History of English Literature. The sheer breadth of his reading enabled him to produce the acclaimed History of Hungarian Literature in 1934 and a further volume seven years later, the History of World Literature. He was granted a university position in 1937, but as anti-Semitism continued to pollute the country his appointment met with hostile opposition. Suddenly Szerb was Jewish again. When debarred from working in the university and denounced in Parliament, he found himself ostracized. His work was banned and he was branded with a yellow star and herded into the ghetto. In 1944 Szerb was deported to a forced-labor camp at the border town of Balf. The following year there, aged 43, he was beaten to death.
One remarkable aspect of Szerb’s woefully brief literary career was his ability to remain stoic in the face of adversity. Oliver VII is a breezy caper but, written only a couple of years before its author’s death, it has no right to be. Similarly, Szerb’s last major work, The Queen’s Necklace (1942), which instead of a dark, caustic allegory about Nazi influence and oppression, turns out to be a spry and gossipy “real history”—devoid of any critical hidden agendas—of the events leading up to the French Revolution. Szerb’s output is routinely blessed with deft and carefully calibrated buoyancy. His prose is light but never frothy, witty without being flippant, ironic rather than sardonic. His head-in-the-sand, reality-dodging dreamers may proclaim themselves neo-frivolists but their scrapes and escapades are too freighted with dilemma, consequence, and self-revelation to be entirely weightless, harmless romps.
One other peculiarity is Szerb’s singularity. Simply stated, he writes like no other major twentieth-century Hungarian writer. His novels eschew Sándor Márai’s Hungarian backdrops and repel Stephen Vizinczey’s racy exuberance. László Krasznahorkai’s avant-garde convolutions are another time, vision, and language. Even if Szerb had survived the war and written about the Holocaust, the idea of him changing tack and creating something akin to Imre Kertész’s dark and searching meditations is as good as unimaginable. In an interview with The Quarterly Conversation, Szerb’s excellent translator Len Rix attested his special status went beyond national borders:
Szerb is unique in so many ways, a one-off, so utterly impossible to fit into literary-critical boxes, whether of genre or period, that I can understand why traditional criticism back in Hungary, with its obsession with categories and labels, despaired of him. He defies classification.
Szerb muddied the waters even further with the publication of his 1937 novel, Journey by Moonlight. Surveying the full stretch of his fictive achievements, this book appears as an incongruous blip—not only tonally, thematically, and stylistically divergent from anything Szerb produced before or after but also of a far superior caliber, plumbing greater emotional depths and parading a more extensive range of complexities. NYRB Classics have just added the title to their range. Thanks to them, and plucky British-based publishing house Pushkin Press, this cruelly forgotten Hungarian writer is now available in English. With luck he is about to get the wider readership he deserves.
* * * *
On the first page of Journey by Moonlight we find out how much this book’s lead character resembles author. Szerb informs us that Mihály has enjoyed “protracted years of wandering” and has spent long periods in England and France. Ditto Szerb. However, we are also told, “it was Mihály’s first visit to Italy, at the age of thirty-six, on his honeymoon.” Here protagonist deviates from creator, for Szerb had lived in Italy in the 1920s and was passionate about the country. In 1936 he made what he believed would be—and in actual fact was—his final trip there. This farewell tour inspired The Third Tower: Journeys in Italy, a travelogue published that same year, and Journey by Moonlight, his masterpiece, written over several months on his return and published one year later.
Both books open in Venice and then head south, stopping along the way at key cities. Szerb’s travelogue, is composed of tight, vignette-formed chapters studded with nuggets of insight, history, and quirky wisdom, but as nourishing as it is, when placed against Mihály’s odyssey it resembles bite-sized antipasto to a rich and multi-flavored piatto principale.
Many of those flavors are in evidence right from the beginning of Journey by Moonlight. As both newlyweds walk back to their hotel from an evening at the theater, Mihály is taken by the impulse to stay out and roam Venice’s labyrinthine side-streets alone. “What was the strange attraction, the peculiar ecstasy, that seized him among the back-alleys? Why did it feel like finally coming home?” Questions Mihály can’t answer and irrational urges he can’t help but respond to mesh with moody atmospherics, palpable topography, death imagery, and, on his return at daybreak to his anxious and baffled young wife Erzsi, the first of many rising waves of self-doubt.
Thus Szerb starts as he means to go on: it is only some chapters later, while his married couple explores Ravenna, that he introduces the first trace of plot. Mihály and Erzsi are enjoying drinks and ice cream in a piazza when the serenity is shattered by the arrival of a motorbike, its rider one János Szepetneki. This blast from Mihály’s past doesn’t dawdle, lingering just long enough to remind Mihály of their old feud, label his wife repulsive, and announce that he has discovered that their mutual childhood chum, Ervin, is now living as a monk in Italy. When Mihály refuses to help track him down Szepetneki roars off. Erzsi, furious and curious, asks for an explanation. What follows is a lengthy account of the drama of Mihály’s high-school days. Growing up in Budapest he befriended brother and sister Tamás and Éva Ulpius, whose espousal of “natural freedom” encouraged Mihály to shrug off his inhibitions, surrender his “order-loving, dutiful bourgeois soul” and fall in love, talk and drink through the night, dabble in morphine and theatrical play-acting, and commit to a death-pact. The adventurous rogue and “great liar” Szepetneki constituted another member of the Ulpius set, as did “great lover” and poet Ervin, who, like Szerb, converted from Judaism to Catholicism. The “whirlpool” panic attacks which had afflicted Mihály promptly disappeared; instead, his adolescence became filled with unbridled joy—“the happiness time of my life.” Indeed, these “vagabond years” with Tamás and company are so precious to him that no sooner has he divulged all to his wife than he regrets it. He has “given himself away. To Erzsi, a stranger . . .”
Szerb takes a considerable artistic gamble here: only twenty pages in and he swerves off, abandons the present, and hits us with forty expository pages—the longest chapter in the book—about his hero’s past. By rights this narrative detour should be disruptive, but although a break in Mihály’s itinerary means a suspension of views on sights and history, his meandering reveals much on his character and his history. Szerb’s diversion also prepares us for the eventuality of Mihály’s past returning to haunt him. Will he get to taste again that “rapturous, deceptive, elusive happiness”? An opportunity presents itself when he and Erzsi resume their travels. As their train makes a stop, Mihály jumps off to grab an espresso at the station café. He then “involuntarily, but not unintentionally” boards another train. His wife is carried to Rome, he to Perugia, “further from Erzsi, towards solitude and himself.” His honeymoon is over, and, as he realizes he is better off alone, his marriage, too.
So begins a new journey on a different track. Mihály travels Italy in pursuit of self-knowledge, giddily aware that the country is more beautiful now that he is “on the loose” and answerable to no one. Soon his freedom gets too much for him and he suffers a breakdown. “I know what’s wrong with me,” he tells an English doctor. “Acute nostalgia. I want to be young again. Is there a cure for that?” Here, then, is the crux of Szerb’s novel. Like The Great Gatsby and Le Grand Meaulnes, Journey by Moonlight centers upon a dreamer who can’t let go of the past. But Szerb goes deeper than this by highlighting the charade of a life Mihály has forged and upheld. He toils in his father’s firm doing a job that doesn’t interest him. After-work obligations—“the bridge parties, the Danube outings, the well-to-do ladies”—are equally exasperating. For fifteen years he has “forced himself to become something other than what he was, to live never after his own inclination but as he was expected to. The latest and not least heroic of these exertions had been his marriage.” He acknowledges that by walking away from his wife on his honeymoon he has “failed as an adult.”
This sense of failure reawakens in Mihály his childhood death-wish—one that was planted in the first place by “princely, death-marked” Tamás, “a young man who was too good for this world.” Death permeates Szerb’s novel, seeping through and winnowing into the most unexpected cracks. At the beginning, during his wandering in the wee small hours in Venice, Mihály finds himself drawn towards the Island of the Dead and the hospital from which “the gondolas of the dead began their journey.” (As such, Mihály’s La Serenissima resembles less the “pampered city” and “centre of the world” as depicted in The Third Tower and more Thomas Mann’s “sunken queen of the Adriatic” filled with disease and coffin-like gondolas.) When under Tamás’ spell Mihály professes to being “weary to death, as weary as only a twenty-year-old can be, and indeed I yearned for the secret of death, longed for the dark delirium”—and yet, in contrast to his friend, the allure of suicide regularly wears off, usually in tandem with the effects of alcohol, in the cold light of day. Back in Italy, Erzsi chides him for “always thinking about corpses and the smell of death.” Away from her, toward his journey’s end, Mihály decides he wants to die, but on the allocated day he is instead dragged to a christening, where, as in his youth, he has a change of heart. Dying no longer seems a sublime act: “The elevated gave way to the mundane, as always happened.”
This last brief episode and eleventh-hour reprieve borders on farce. It is almost as preposterous as the letter Mihály receives from Erzsi’s former husband—a man who should hate Mihály for seducing and stealing his wife—in which he appeals to the “absent-minded” but “amiable bohemian” to take care of Erzsi’s dietary requirements, look out for her mood swings during her “times of the month” and accept a long-term loan to keep her in the style to which she has grown accustomed. Such moments bubble up at opportune junctures to temper the mortality-tinged thoughts and deeds and stop the proceedings from descending into thick doom and gloom. As Julie Orringer notes in her perceptive introduction, Szerb was a master ironist who could imbue his prose with a “wry, satirical, finely tuned sense of humor, ever alert to the limitations of the human animal.” Mihály’s self-pity, delicate sensitivities, earnest confessions and lofty pronouncements are subtly but roundly mocked. He is cut short when attempting po-faced solemnity:
“Just think, dying is so much more easy and natural than staying alive . . .”
“Do get on with the story,” said Erzsi impatiently.
And in Rome, when weeping over Keats’ grave (“Keats, the greatest poet since the world began”), a group of English tourists relay to us his overdone absorption:
Mihály took a step further away, thinking that perhaps they were discomposed by his presence, but they simply remained standing, nodding from time to time, and looking self-consciously at one another. The two children’s faces were every bit as embarrassed and blankly beautiful as the adults.”
Keats isn’t the only Romantic poet Szerb makes mention of. Journey by Moonlight comes with epigraphs from Blake and Shelley. The Third Tower is patterned with Goethe’s footsteps and features a concise eulogy on Byron, Keats, and Shelley, for Szerb “a holy trinity of English lyricists.” We get another, more general reference in the same book, and with it make another connection between Szerb and future creation Mihály:
I would say that it is for these back alleys that I love Italy. For me, they represent what gardens were to the age of Goethe, and what “Nature” was to the Romantics. No snow-covered peak, no glacier, mountain lake or stream, no sea or parkland could ever move me like the back alleys of an old Italian city. My dreams, my moods of nostalgia, lead me thither.
This is echoed in Journey by Moonlight when Mihály speaks of his love of the ancient streets of Buda and the houses of Pest. “Houses have so much to say to me. For me, they are what Nature used to be to the poets—or rather, what the poets thought of as Nature.”
* * * *
Thus both books, one fiction, one non-fiction, intersect or run on parallel tracks in certain places. Along with shared attributes between author and character and nods to past poets, there runs an exhibition of consistently arresting portraits of Italy. This, naturally, includes a series of picture-postcard views: in Journey by Moonlight Siena—“more beautiful than Venice”—is made up of “steep, pink streets [which] undulated over several hills in the shape of a happy-go-lucky star,” its cathedral “hovering over it like a towered Zeppelin, in the livery of a pantomime zebra.” In The Third Tower Verona is “grimly handsome,” the Apennines are pleasingly “human-scale” (unlike the “inhuman” Alps) and Trieste in the top corner with its wide Austro-Hungarian thoroughfares, “feels somehow like home.”
But more interesting than Szerb’s descriptions of Italy’s perennial splendor is his sporadic but significant pin-point detail of its political status quo. We adapt to the rhythm of Mihály’s travels, encounters, longings and his dilations on love, friendship, identity and religious history—only to be jolted when apprised of a bust of Il Duce on a street corner, or a fascista who on recognizing Mihály “seized him by the arm, with a strength he would never have thought possible.” When Mihály is reunited with his old friend Ervin at a remote monastery he is told that having been Jewish worked against him as there were “fellow-monks who made it clear how much they disliked my race.” (Not only monks: as teenagers in Budapest, Tamás originally hated Ervin for his cleverness—“Jewish boys tend to mature early”—and “became thoroughly anti-Semitic whenever he was mentioned.”) Similarly, the blue skies in The Third Tower grow overcast every time we hear of the country’s political climate:
Along with the serenity of Italy there is also a horrific side. . . . In his letters Shelley writes about the natives as if they were terrifying semi-savages, and to this day something of that lingers on in them. It is no accident that in their moments of grandeur they like to put on black shirts and go marauding, or march around in procession dressed up as bandits.
Mihály learns much about himself on his travels. He discovers he can’t live the rest of his life with his wife, and that he was never in love with Éva, even though she was “the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.” Nor is he in love with Millicent, the American student of art history he joins forces with in Foligno: she is “no more than a simile, a random phenomenon of the mind. And she was nothing. Nothing.” He performs a slick volte-face, veering from the belief that he was better off in the past (or better off dead) to realizing that life (and being alive) in Budapest isn’t so bad. He also comes to learn that whatever doubts we may have about our way forward “We carry within ourselves the direction our lives will take. Within ourselves burn the timeless, fateful stars.”
Szerb learns much on his own Italian journey but he couldn’t have known what fate awaited him. In his introductory statement to The Third Tower he writes of the diminishing probability of his venturing abroad again. “Foreign travel is not one of life’s basic needs. No doubt the totalitarian state will sooner or later decree that the true patriot is the one who stays at home.” When he adds that “My impressions of Italy always feel like the last visions of a dying man’ there is true tragedy. What for him was sharp metaphor is for us, with hindsight, blunt actuality: for by this point Szerb was as “death-marked’ as Mihály’s lodestar, Tamás. In his 1942 preface to The Queen’s Necklace, Szerb notes wistfully that “those beloved haunts of my youth, the great libraries of Paris” are “now closed to me for the indeterminate future.” Despite receiving many offers to escape Hungary, including formal permission to emigrate in 1944, Szerb stayed put. In one of his many elucidatory afterwords, Rix makes mention of Szerb’s relentless faith in humanity and his altruistic reluctance to abandon similarly incarcerated family, friends and colleagues—and how it is “impossible not to connect these attitudes with the values enshrined in his books.”
At one point in Journey by Moonlight, Mihály once again becomes a cipher for Szerb when he extols the “two very serious, dreamy years” he spent in England, wallowing in London in “an orgy of solitude.” We glean equal enthusiasm in The Third Tower when Szerb admits to being amazed throughout his solo pilgrimage at how little he misses human company. Solitude proves beneficial:
My thoughts arrange themselves in longer sequences. My feelings are more intense, and I see their outlines more clearly. Chaotic thoughts are reduced to order, and almost everything welling up inside me spills out and ripens toward form and expression.
All of this is channeled into Szerb’s writing. Wanderlust gave him inspiration and solitude an original artistic voice. We should be grateful that he traveled and reveled in his own company, and grateful for the wonderful books that were the result.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer whose credits include the Times Literary Supplement, The Economist, and The Literary Review in the United Kingdom, and The National, the Forward, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Daily Beast elsewhere.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Malcolm Forbes