'Tell me,' he asked, with some embarassment, as we strolled along: 'you're a bloody German, aren't you?'
'Oh, no. I'm Hungarian.'
'What's that? Is that a country? Or you are just having me on?
'Not at all. On my word of honour, it is a country.'
'And where do you Hungarians live?'
'In Hungary. Between Austria, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia'.
'Come off it. Those places were made up by Shakespeare.'
And he roared with laughter.
(from The Pendragon Legend, page 31)
I lived with Hungarians. I worked with Hungarians. I drank with Hungarians (and no less than Hungarian homemade palinka!). Boy, I even went punting with Hungarians.
And yet, all that I recall from the fascinating Hungarian language is two words: hupikék törpikék.
Which sounds just lovely when you hear it and it's an excellent icebreaker speaking with your average
beautiful Miss Polyglot, but, in fact, means 'Smurfs'. Now you know it: go and conquer parties!
How did I come across Antal Szerb? No idea.
But what I know is that 'The Pendragon Legend' turned out to be a serendipity of a book. I was looking for a decent gothic novel in the wake of Poe and Machen and, this book - to some extent - is a gothic novel, but that's not all. There is much more here and Szerb managed to mix plenty of sweet and sour ingredients with an excellent final result.
Now, how can I describe this?
There is this certain Young Frankensteinesque mood in 'The Pendragon Legend', so much that I expected Frau Blücher to pop up, but dismissing this novel as a parody would be unjust.
There is a quintessentially British sense of humour bringing P.G. Wodehouse and the early Evelyn Waugh in mind, but nonetheless Szerb pokes fun at Englishmen, Scots, Welshmen and Irishmen from the continental point of viewof Janos Batki, 'Doctor of Philosophy specialised in useless information'.
Batki is a Hungarian academic in London toying with his rather obcure research in 'English mystics of the Seventeenth century'. Having no impelling economic problems, he spends a good deal of his time in the Reading Room of the British Museum, under the very same dome that plays such an important role in 'New Grub Street' by George Gissing and 'The British Museum is Falling Down' by David Lodge.
Not so here. Batky will leave London and his vague studies at the British Museum behind in the pursuit of intellectual curiosity. An invitation from the distinguished Earl of Pendragon (a man 'with a remarkably handsome head' but charged of being 'mad has a hatter') will take the Hungarian Phd to Wales where a very funny and very creepy serie of events will happen.
A scholar of Blake and Ibsen, Antal Szerb spent only one year of his life in the UK. And yet, in such a short time he was not only able to complete a once acclaimed World History of Literature, but also to grasp a lot about Britons and their idiosyncrasies. The Hungarian author was clearly fascinated by Britons and I bet he had great fun while writing 'The Pendragon Legend' which was his first novel.
You can get that Szerb was witty and well-read as well as a man who loved to court women and being playfully seduced by a pretty face. Not your standard academic bookworm, then.
Quite surprisingly to Janos Batki - Szerb alter ego here - courtship is not an intellectual pleasure, but actually quite the opposite as he firmly believes that beautiful women are not meant to be clever. Worse: beautiful women might be imprisoned to make the world a better place. As you can see, this is a novel where the main character does have some interesting opinions.
But don't take Antal Szerb wrong, please. He was not a misogynist as the irresistible character of the rubenesque Lene Kretzsch - a modern and sexually liberated intellectual - can prove in this novel.
Despite of its name 'The Pendragon Legend' has nothing of Arthurian. This is an entertaining romp with some spooky moments, mysticism, cheeky saxophone interludes (if you know what I mean), brilliant dialogues and many a good and sharp observation. Much credit to Pushkin Press and the excellent translation by Len Rix for making this book available to an English reading audience.
As a self proclaimed bookworm I couldn't help but finding 'The Pendragon Legend' extremely engaging and a pleasure to read. True, the finale sort of disappointed my expectations, but what came before was brilliant enough.
All things considered, it's high time I pay my first visit to Budapest.
'A Martian Guide to Budapest' written by Antal Szerb in the 1930s might be of use.
(if you tell me where I can buy that).