Friday 10 August 2018

Journey by Moonlight

Having limbered up with The Pendragon Legend, I last week read Antal Szerb's acknowledged masterpiece, Journey by Moonlight. This one is a very different kind of novel, but the tone of voice – playful, quicksilver, endlessly ironical – is very similar. Szerb has a gift for making his material at once deadly serious and not serious at all (is this a Hungarian thing?). Journey by Moonlight chronicles what is in effect a catastrophic mental breakdown, but it is closer to a fast-moving, unpredictable, often funny adventure or escape story than to a psychoanalytical study. Szerb's is, decidedly, a comic imagination – and a very distinctive one.
  Journey by Moonlight has the kind of opening paragraph that defies you not to keep on reading:

'On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back alleys.'

Mihaly, we learn, is on his first visit to Italy, at the age of thirty-six, on his honeymoon. He has travelled a good deal, but always avoided Italy:

'Italy he associated with grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children, and he secretly feared it, with the same instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women.'

But now he was married, on his honeymoon, so 'now, he reasoned, there was nothing to fear from the danger Italy represented'. Until, that is, he felt the irresistible pull of those Venetian back alleys and, unplanned and unannounced, spent the night wandering in a daze among them. This is the beginning of Mihaly's 'journey by moonlight'.
  Trying to explain this nocturnal fugue to Erzsi, his long-suffering wife, he tells the story of a phase in his boyhood when he came under the spell of a group of free-spirited friends, dominated by the beautiful, death-obsessed Eva and Tamas Ulpius. It is in that luridly intense period of Mihaly's past that the key to all that follows resides, and it is to that phase of his life that Mihaly's flight from present reality repeatedly returns him. When one of those friends of his youth, the unreliable Janos, turns up in person, Mihaly is shaken and knows he cannot carry on with his life as it is. Soon he leaves Erzsi behind by half-consciously boarding the wrong train and taking off on his own, with no idea of where he's going. His journey takes him from one Italian city to another, and to various remoter locations, guided only by hints from Janos, who keeps turning up wherever Mihaly finds himself. But can the troubled Mihaly ever find a way of breaking free of the past that haunts him?
  That bald (and very incomplete) synopsis makes Journey by Moonlight sounds a lot more solemn than it is – indeed solemnity is a note that Szerb's writing never strikes. Reading him is always, for all sorts of reasons, fun; he's a great storyteller, and Journey by Moonlight is a real page-turner. It is also one of those books that is, I think, liable to haunt you for a long while after you've put it down.

  Szerb was a glittering star of the Hungarian literary firmament, the author of three major scholarly surveys of English, Hungarian and world literature, as well as the novels and numerous short stories. But he was Jewish (the son of assimilated Jews, and a baptised Catholic), and therefore vulnerable in the Hungary of the times. In 1944 he was removed from his professorship at the University of Szegad and sent to a forced labour camp. Friends and admirers offered to save him with falsified papers, but he turned them down, wishing to share in the common fate of his people. He was beaten to death in 1945, at the age of 43, and buried in a mass grave.


  1. Wonderfully interesting post.

  2. Thanks zmkc – he's certainly a wonderfully interesting writer...