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"Szerb belongs with the master novelists of the 20th century" PAUL BAILEY Daily Telegraph "May Szerb"s re-entry into our literary pantheon be definitive" ALBERTO MANGUEL Financial Times
About the Author
Antal Szerb was born into a cultivated family of Jewish descent in 1901. He graduated in German, English and Hungarian, and rapidly established himself as a formidable scholar, publishing books on drama and poetry, studies of Blake and Ibsen, and Histories of English, Hungarian and World Literature. In 1933 he was elected president of the Hungarian Literary Academy. He was also known as an essayist, playwright and as the author of various novellas and a historical fiction, The Queen’s Necklace. He died in a labour camp in 1945.
Antal Szerb was born in Budapest in 1901. Though of Jewish descent, he was baptised at an early age and remained a lifelong Catholic. He rapidly established himself as a formidable scholar, through studies of Ibsen and Blake and histories of English, Hungarian and world literature. He was a prolific essayist and reviewer, ranging across all the major European languages. Debarred by successive Jewish laws from working in a university, he was subjected to increasing persecution, and finally murdered in a forced labour camp in 1945. Pushkin Press publishes his novels The Pendragon Legend, Oliver VII and his masterpiece Journey by Moonlight, as well as the historical study The Queen's Necklace and Love in a Bottle and Other Stories.
Oliver VII is the young king of Alturia, a backwater Central European nation that shortly after WWI is still a monarchy, clinging to the old traditions. Its chief exports are sardines (its flag features two of them) and a distinctive red wine. Oliver VII loathes having to wear the field marshal's greatcoat, which since Philip the One-Eared has been de rigueur apparel for Alturia's monarchs, and he is rather bored with being king. So he masterminds a coup against himself and, incognito, slips off to Venice "to get to know life". There, as Oscar, he falls in with a troupe of swindlers and conmen (and one memorable con-woman) and, as kismet would have it, ends up in an elaborate sting impersonating the deposed King Oliver VII of Alturia - i.e., impersonating himself.
Standard protocol dealing with "spoilers" weighs against further summary of the plot. Suffice it to say that the madcap farce never wanes. As the novel proceeds, new twists and deceptions arise every few pages, but all are resolved or finessed with ingenuity or good fortune. The novel is a frothy Bohemian operetta mixed with a Marx Brothers movie. Antal Szerb tells the story deftly and with abundant good cheer. OLIVER VII is a delicious piece of Central European entertainment.
There is, however, a serious aspect to the novel. It was the last novel that Szerb wrote before he was compelled to wear the yellow star, then consigned to the ghetto, and finally transported to the labor camp where he was beaten to death in January 1945. He had had plenty of opportunities to escape Hungary, one involving an academic post at Columbia University. But he declined them all, in large part out of loyalty to Hungary and those he loved. In a sense, he internalized the line of the greatest Alturian poet that serves as the motto for this novel: "Duty is not a bed of roses."
Wikipedia defines a farce as a "comedy that aims to entertain the audience by means of unlikely, extravagant, and improbable situations, disguise and mistaken identity... and a fast-paced plot whose speed usually increases... and moves at a frantic pace toward a climax in which the initial problem is resolved. ...Generally, there is a happy ending." This definition certainly applies to OLIVER VII, where King Oliver of Alturia is unwilling to sign the unfavorable Coltor Treaty, is overthrown in a subsequent revolution, lives incognito in Vienna as the schlemiel Oscar, and then impersonates himself while participating in a plot to defraud the businessman Coltor of his vast fortune. In doing so, King Oliver... well, I'll say no more.
OLIVER VII is not great literature. Its characters are one-dimensional. There are no unique insights. Szerb evokes no special worlds or worldviews. Fate is playful and comical and not a profound confrontation with conscience or duty. Even so, this novel does share many features with Szerb's superb novel Journey by Moonlight (Pushkin Paper). As Len Rix observes in his terrific afterward, these include protagonists who start as misfits, flee from their responsibilities, and have strange adventures as they quest for their true selves. In JOURNEY, Szerb uses these preoccupations to create outstanding fiction. In OLIVER, the same material produces, well, entertainment.
Rix also observes that OLIVER reveals Szerb's "sly wit, benign good humor, and capacity to surprise us at every turn... and is unswervingly playful."
Recommended as a beach book, provided the amazing JOURNEY is read first. Rounded up to four stars.
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The Pushkin Press deserves congratulations for publishing its series of elegant,reasonably-priced books resurrecting forgotten masters of central European literature. None is more masterly than the Hungarian Antal Szerb, famous in the 1920s and 30s, murdered in the Second World War by Hungarian Nazis and almost totally forgotten until recently. This short novel - novella, really - is set partly in Venice but mostly in Alturia, a fictitious kingdom in Mitteleuropa, closer in spirit to Ruritania than Hungary. If the whole book does not quite live up to the scintillating wit of its opening, it makes a hugely enjoyable read. Like Joseph Roth, another great Jewish writer who grew up in the last days of Austro-Hungary, Szerb betrays a certain nostalgia for the Habsburg monarchy. The Oliver VII of the title is a monarch who would rather not be king - until, that is, love persuades him otherwise. Unlike Roth's often mordant works, this is an effervescent comedy without a trace of bitterness, its levity recalling a Franz Lehar operetta. Such light-heartedness is remarkable for a work written in the depths of the Second World War, when the Jewish population of Hungary was facing ever-increasing persecution. (Szerb himself declined to escape to safety abroad when he could have done.)
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Admission: I used to be a Hungarian until 1957 and Szerb's works were, in the original language, always my favorites. Oliver VII. was not on the best-seller list when Szerb was alive (he was murdered by the German Nazis) and I am sure the translation loses some from the original's flavor. Still, those who like Szerb's works, it is worth while to read.
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