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Journey by Moonlight (Pushkin Paper) Paperback – January 1, 2001
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Never off our bestseller list, this radiant novel thoroughly deserves its place here London Review Bookshop No one who has read it has failed to love it. What is so wonderful about the book is its tone and its grasp of character... There is something almost divine about this and that Szerb's great intelligence didn't force him to produce a work of arid perfectionism makes it all the more remarkable -- Nicholas Lezard The Guardian Journey by Moonlight is a burning book, a major book -- George Szirtes Times Literary Supplement Szerb belongs with the master novelists of the 20th century -- Paul Bailey Daily Telegraph May Szerb's entry into our literary pantheon be definitive -- Alberto Manguel Financial Times [A] most important document regarding the opinions and literary orientation of the author's generation -- Miklos Szabolsci History of Hungarian Literature (1964)
About the Author
Antal Szerb was born in 1901 into a cultivated Budapest family of Jewish descent. Graduating in German and English, he rapidly established himself as a prolific scholar, publishing books on drama and poetry, studies of Ibsen and Blake, and histories of English, Hungarian and world literature. His first novel, The Pendragon Legend, was writtenin 1934. Journey by Moonlight appeared in 1937, followed in 1943 by The Queen's Necklace and various volumes of novellas. He died in a forced-labour camp at Balf in January 1945.
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Szerb organized JbM into four sections. The first shows Mihaly during his breakdown, when he demonstrates mighty ambivalences, as well as tells the gripping story of his youthful friendships. In section two, Mihaly begins to emerge from his breakdown, when he travels in arbitrary fashion through Tuscany. In this section, his troubling ambivalences lessen and he finds solace in the Italian countryside, which Szerb describes with a loving eye. In section three, a calmer Mihaly emerges and begins to reengage with the jilted Erszi, who is living in Paris. This Mihaly, while still peculiar, is hilarious. And he encounters an old friend, an eccentric academic, who puts an intellectual gloss of Mihaly's strange nostalgia for his adolescent friends. Part four shows these newlyweds in surprising moments of truth, with Mihaly becoming even funnier. "You were always a strange boy," his father observes in the book's final few paragraphs.
This is a major work of fiction in which Szerb manages to address such subjects as rebellion, the pursuit of personal truth, and some very weird thoughts about the propinquity of eroticism and death in a highly original and often hilarious tale.
I'm out of my depth here: But is this Woody Allen meets Thomas Mann?
Mihály, I must admit, is rather tiresome for most of the book, although we do have the pleasure of seeing him grow as a person. I myself quite liked Erzsi, who is undergoing her own erotic awakening throughout the book. The minor characters are also excellent. I adored both the English doctor and Millicent, the innocent American art student. Janos, the Hungarian con artist, is also an impressively vital character.
Definitely recommended for those interested in European literature and in compelling, twisty plots.
JOURNEY BY MOONLIGHT is set in the 1930s, but its atmosphere is that of the 19th Century. The novel begins with Mihály and Erzsi, both of solidly Budapest bourgeois background, on honeymoon in Italy. Mihály is not your typical protagonist. He is as much anti-hero as hero, more passive than assertive. He becomes obsessed with nostalgia for his past and paralyzed by fecklessness concerning his future and he abandons Erzsi to embark on a solo tour of Italy. The novel then traces the remainder of their "honeymoon" until each, by entirely separate paths that do however intersect once, returns to Budapest. During their journeys, each undergoes a number of psychological travails; each encounters other sexual temptations; and each is confronted several times with the choice between conformity to bourgeois values and release of himself/herself to the realm of desire. In addition, Mihály is continuously confronted with the choice between Eros and Thanatos. (For those so inclined, the novel contains abundant material suitable for psychoanalytical interpretation.)
What most distinguishes JOURNEY BY MOONLIGHT is its tone. The novel is light, playful, and ironic. Frequently Szerb's tongue is obviously planted firmly in cheek. The humor usually is under-stated, but it nonetheless elicited from me the occasional chuckle. Despite poking fun at his characters, Szerb at bottom is warm-hearted and good-natured. The fantastical and magical continuously asserts itself on the narrative, but never quite takes over. Sometimes it is shouldered aside by madcap farce and other times it relapses to a seemingly sober realism.
The novel is interlaced with Szerb's gently biting commentary on all sorts of European matters, especially Italian. (Szerb had had extended stays in England, France, and Italy.) For example, he observes of Mussolini's Fascist Italy that: "The Italian papers were always ecstatically happy, as if they were written not by humans but by saints in triumph, just stepped down from a Fra Angelico in order to celebrate the perfect social system. There was always some cause for happiness: some institution was eleven years old, a road had just turned twelve." But Szerb also, even-handedly, applies his trenchant eye to his own: After Milhály awakes from a drunken stupor in an Italian working-class home and neighborhood, "his hand unconsciously groped for his wallet. The wallet was there in its place, next to his heart, where the Middle-European, not entirely without a touch of symbolism, keeps his money."
Throughout, the novel keeps the reader off-balance. It is so playful that one is tempted to pigeonhole it as sheer entertainment, albeit quite charming and sophisticated entertainment. But I think beneath all the dazzle there are some serious themes or messages. In Rome, Mihály is shown some Etruscan drinking bowls, with the inscription (in Etruscan): "Enjoy the wine today, tomorrow there will be none." And Szerb's answer to the novel's (and the Middle European) preoccupation with suicide is that "while there is life there is always the chance that something might happen."
A paragraph about the author, with whom I was completely unfamiliar before this book caught my eye: Antal Szerb (1901 - 1945) was yet another victim of the Holocaust. He was born to assimilated Jewish parents but was baptized and raised in the Roman Catholic Church. He became a Professor of Literature and a highly regarded scholar of Western literature, and he wrote four novels in the last decade of his life. Despite opportunities to do so, Szerb refused to flee Hungary even after the Nazis occupied the country and ratcheted up their anti-Semitic demands on the Hungarian government. In late 1944 Szerb was sent to a forced-labor camp where, in January 1945, he was beaten to death. That story shares a few tragic features with the story of Bruno Schulz. I sense that the Nazi murder of Antal Szerb worked as grievous a loss on world literature as did the execution of Bruno Schulz.
Note: Amazon also carries another translation of the novel, under the title "The Traveler". There are over 270 reviews of "The Traveler", most of them by students at Florida International University where the translator of that rendition is on the faculty. I am in no position to compare the merits of the two translations, but I will say that the translation by Len Rix in JOURNEY BY MOONLIGHT is highly literate and fully engaging.