Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight

Have you ever read a novel by a Hungarian author that is not a page-turner?

I haven’t!

“I need a drink. Because I have to tell you who Tamás Ulpius was, and how he died,” on the fourteenth page, is the same bomb of intrigue that Magda Szabó drops in page three of The Door when she writes, “Thus far I have lived my life with courage, and hope to die that way, bravely and without lies. But for that to be, I must speak out. I killed Emerence.”

Intrigue is the paprika that flavors Hungarian pages up until the very end.

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I was drawn to this book not for what the blurb promised, but for its writer: Antal Szerb, who sadly perished in a camp during the Holocaust. But like Irène Némirovsky, also a Catholic Jew who nonetheless shared a similar fate despite their conversion to another faith, there is nothing politically blatant in their writings.

There is, however, a certain psychological depth in Szerb’s style that makes it extremely appealing to me. The characters themselves are not that likeable but they seem to represent the state of disorientation of the generation between the first and the second world wars.

“‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’ said the doctor, ‘just horrendous exhaustion. What were you doing, to get yourself so tired?’

‘Me?’ he asked, meditatively. ‘Nothing. Just living.’ And then he fell asleep again.”

Death plays a role in this novel, but so does Life. An existential crisis and unresolved issues of his youth haunt the main character and result in the fickleness of his decisions. He abandons his wife on what was supposed to be an idyllic honeymoon in Italy, and there begins what seems to be a muted exploration into the psychopathology of guilt.

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In this edition’s introduction, we learn of Szerb’s fascination for Italy; “its art, its history, its people, its language, its ancient towns and their narrow back streets.” He had lived there as a young man from 1924 to 1929 and the country took hold of him. He returned in 1936, suspecting that it was for the last time. In a travel journal entry he wrote, “I initially wanted to go to Spain… but it occurred to me that I simply must go to Italy, while Italy remains where it is, and while going there is still possible. Who knows for how much longer I, or any of us, will be able to go anywhere? The way events are moving, no one will be allowed to set foot outside his own country.”

Needless to say, his suspicions tragically proved true, but this final trip to Italy gave birth to this novel, which is a poignant love letter to Italy.

But through all of what Szerb says with clarity or through undertones, what I found most disqueting were descriptions of the generation’s moral insanity, how they viewed war with indifference — “bore the changing times on their backs with astonishing passivity, and lived quite unconnected with their own remarkable history.”

And unfortunately, Antal Szerb did not live to tell the tale, but we all know what happened next.