The first time I've heard about Antal Szerb was no more than two months ago. Since then, I managed to put my hands onto all the novels by Szerb translated into English, whose number equals to three.
I had the luck to make a good catch while visiting an Oxfam charity shop in lovely Bath, UK.
Bless the kind reader who donated Szerb's novels to Oxfam!
'Journey by Moonlight' ('Utas és holdvilág'), published in 1937, is widely considered as Szerb's masterpiece, but I must confess that I liked 'The Pendragon Legend' - his first novel - a hint more.
Nevertheless, this novel came very close to the intellectual pleasure I felt while reading Szerb's previous work and is considered a milestone of Hungarian literature.
Antal Szerb had the rare talent to combine serious and farcical elements into his novels. What we have into this one is a post-wedding personality crisis of a Hungarian man - Mihaly - who is still tied to his adolescence, prone to womanising and cannot really cope with the social and moral responsabilities brought by adulthood.
From the very first sentence of the book, we know that something odd is going to happen to Mihaly. He's travelling through Italy on honeymoon with his newly-wed wife Erszi, a pretty but rather boring socialite whom he took away from her previous wealthy husband out of an extramarital fling.
Unlike his wife, it's the first time that Mihaly visits Italy and he's deeply fascinated by the country due to its glorious past rather than because of what he sees around him. To Mihaly, Italy means first and foremost Goethe, the Renaissance and the Ancient Romans' deeds in a dramatic and sentimental manner that brought to my mind 'Peter Camenzind' by Herman Hesse.
But whereas Hesse really meant what he wrote writing his idyllic postcards from a non-existent Italy (with an involuntary comic effect) Szerb is able to cast some clever observations on Italy in the 1930s between the lines thus stressing out the absurdity of Mihaly's behaviour in being tied to a Grand Tour-shaped past.
Art, food, sensual pleasures and architecture aside, what Mihaly really pines for is wondering and wandering around the alleyways of Venice, the hills of Tuscany and the forests of Umbria preferably by night and in a state of self-indulged introspective stupor which leads him to take impulsive and absurd decisions.
Erszi is rather tolerant of her husband's recurring oddities but all the same she doesn't care a bit to catch him when Mihaly - unaware and aware at the same time - leaves her behind by boarding a wrong train. From this point on, Szerb focuses on Mihaly's identity crisis and the interesting people and the former acquaintances he meets through his Italian adventure. Some of these encounters happen by chance, some others not but all leave a mark in Mihaly's tormented story.
The author shows us a man who rebelled against a petty bourgeois life, but poor Mihaly doesn't quite know what led him to rebel and what he's inclined to pursuit and how. By writing so, Szerb tells us about the protagonist's personal defeat and evokes the topic of suicide which is a taboo much dear to his fellow Hungarians.
And yet, don't look at 'Journey by Moonlight' as your dark and depressing novel spiralling downwards to the abyss of human nihilism as Szerb's peculiarity and ability is that he always knew how to cheer you up with a touch of lightness. Go and read yourselves.