Monday 2 July 2018

A One-Off

I've been reading a very strange, but hugely enjoyable, book by Antal Szerb, a Hungarian writer who was recommended to me by an unfailingly reliable source. He is best known – inasmuch as he's known at all over here – for his novel Journey by Moonlight, which I intend to read very soon, but I decided to start with his first, The Pendragon Legend (first published in 1934 and reissued in 2006, newly translated, by the excellent Pushkin Press).
  The Pendragon Legend is best described as a romp – but a romp like no other I've ever come across. This is a Hungarian writer throwing himself full tilt at a very British kind of action adventure, mixing into his particular blend elements of supernatural thriller, romantic fiction, murder mystery, gothic horror, modern psychoanalysis, ancient alchemy and historical memoir – all of which are lightly parodied and satirised. As are the curious ways of the English and Welsh upper classes, observed with bemused wonder by the Hungarian narrator, who is himself presented as a kind of parody of the stereotype fiery Hungarian, with his weakness for adventure and romance (and indeed sex, of which there is a surprising amount, though all of it is discreetly presented).
  The novel was the product of a year spent in England, much of it in the reading room of the British Museum, where the learned Szerb was researching for his compendious histories of English and of world Literature. He was also pursuing a keen interest in Rosicrucianism, alchemy and the occult, and he puts his knowledge of those fields to good, but far from serious, use in The Pendragon Legend, much of which involves spooky goings-on in a castle whose previous occupants included a pioneering alchemist who, it seems, might have discovered the secret of eternal life.
  It's an introduction to the Earl of Gwynedd, a descendant of the great alchemist, that plunges our hero, Dr Janos Batky, into the headlong thrills-and-spills adventure that then unfolds, at dizzying speed. Eagerly accepting an invitation to the Earl's Welsh seat, Blatky immediately encounters some very rum goings-on, and some pretty rum people, as the spicy goulash of a plot thickens at an alarming rate. Soon, without quite realising it, Blatky is in way over his head...
  The Pendragon Legend is surely the least Hungarian of Hungarian novels, and it's impossible to think of any parallel. Perhaps there's something of the dashing tone of the young William Gerhardie (Futility), but no further resemblance. As a read, it's a highly entertaining page-turner, whose preposterous plot is strangely compelling, probably because of the unexpected sidelights, jokes and insights that keep popping up among the nonsense. There's a decidedly modern, ironic – and, of course, Hungarian – sensibility in evidence amid all the Gothic set pieces. Journey by Moonlight is, by all accounts, an entirely different kettle of fish, much deeper and darker. I look forward to reading it.

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