Antal Szerb was an award-winning Hungarian novelist and a widely respected scholar of European literature. He remains one of Hungary’s best-loved writers, and his works have been translated into many other languages. In the 2000s, the publication (in English translation by Len Rix) of Journey by Moonlight, The Pendragon Legend, and Oliver VII, inspired an enthusiastic reception in the Guardian.
The genius of Antal Szerb goes beyond writing style, but it’s in his style that you will find it. His wit is amusing but above all amused, and endlessly generous – it finds delight in the peculiarities of the world and wants to share this delight. There are surprising turns of phrase, which on closer inspection reveal themselves to be new turns of thought. You might pause there, and consider how these thoughts open new ways of looking at the world, or you might move on and enjoy the story. Szerb is an easy-going writer.
His plots, however, are ingenious. One cannot predict what will happen from the premise, and while there is an ironic awareness of literary tropes, they are not so much deliberately resisted as gently pushed aside. Because it is more interesting if, in the middle of a mid-life crisis on your honeymoon, you end up accidentally abandoning your bride on a train; wander helplessly all over the Umbrian countryside; end up in Rome with an old friend from your Hungarian youth who is now a professor of religious history and full of wild theories about both ancient death cults and how to resist petty bourgeois hegemony; meet another old friend who is trying to pimp your wife; meet a third, who keeps trying to run away from you but also agrees to give you poison for the suicide you keep vaguely thinking about. And you end up accidentally becoming the godfather of a Trastevere baby. The world of Antal Szerb – seen here in Journey by Moonlight – is a wild ride, and irresistibly fun.
It is also a rich and ever-expanding world – everything is interesting, from the architectural habits of small Italian communities to the politics of Ruritanian revolutions: see Oliver VII for the story of a king who tries to save his country by engineering a coup against himself, and ends up pretending to be an impostor (of himself) trying to take back his throne. Moreover, these are worlds seen through the eyes of pre-war Hungarian characters, who inform the reader about their cultural and societal preoccupations as much as about the Europe through which they travel. And there is always travel – engagement with other countries is a constant preoccupation in Antal Szerb: What can you know? What should you know? What is authentic experiencing and what is superficial tourism, and what are the respective problematics of each?
In addition to his novels, Antal Szerb wrote a History of World Literature, a popular history concerning the affair of Marie Antoinette’s necklace (The Queen’s Necklace), and several essays and short stories. He was beaten to death in a Nazi concentration camp at the age of forty-three.
Reviewed by Jennifer Sarha
JOURNEY BY MOONLIGHT (Pushkin Press, 2002)
THE PENDRAGON LEGEND (Pushkin Press, 2007)
OLIVER VII (Pushkin Press, 2013)
Written by Antal Szerb
Translated by Len Rix
Jennifer Sarha leads an exciting double life: she’s a researcher of obscure European history by night, a wrangler of research funding applications by day. In her remaining free time she is attempting to learn all the languages in the world. Her Twitter handle is @necverbum and she blogs on https://necverbumverbo.blogspot.co.uk/
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