Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb

Journey by Moonlight was a serendipitous find – an unknown (to me) European modernist classic, reissued by Pushkin Press and jettisoned by some kind or foolish soul in Oxfam Books, with a glowing blurb from that most reliably discerning of broadsheet critics, Nicolas Lezard. It is, it transpires, regarded in Hungary as perhaps the nation’s most important 20th century novel; a modernist classic to rank alongside the likes of Ulysses, The Trial, A la recherché and Berlin, Alexanderplatz, and taught in schools up and down the country.

Whereas the canonical texts of English literature tend to have a certain whiff of respectability – Victorian moral disquisitions, stately pentameter odes, earnest examinations of social themes, even Shakespearean tragedies sanitised by innumerable polite performances in the West End – Journey by Moonlight is a novel laced with unreconstructed existential menace. Like Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason, it examines the clash between unconscious desires and the arbitrary mores of bourgeois society, in a world whose meaninglessness and irrationality has been brutally exposed by war.

As its title suggests, Journey by Moonlight is a book with a haunted, dreamlike quality, a transmigration of souls like WG Sebald’s Vertigo or The Emigrants. The novel follows the peregrinations of Mihaly as he drifts around Italy, with a shifting support cast of miscellaneous rootless dreamers. At the beginning of the novel Mihaly and his newlywed Erzsi are on honeymoon in Venice, but before too long Mihaly abandons her and begins a strange odyssey, traversing the historic landscape of Italy in a mysterious search for meaning and identity that takes him into confrontation with the characters and obsessions that populate his subconscious.  Like Sartre’s Mathieu Delareu, Mihaly has reached the ‘age of reason’; recently married, a partner in a small father-son Budapest law practise, his life is seemingly mapped out before him. His vicarious fascination with transgression is reigned in by what he calls his “order-loving, dutiful bourgeois soul”. Though he is suffocated by his deeply conventional existence, he is incapable of finding an alternative way to live.

 

The words ‘to live’ carry the emphasis in that statement, because for all its charm, lightness of touch and wry, understated wit, Journey by Moonlight is also a pitch-black novel that is completely obsessed with death. Indeed, perhaps its key recurring motif is suicidal longing – the primal, irrational desire for the paroxysm of destruction that is sinisterly interwoven with the sexual imagination. Early in the novel Mihaly relates the story of his teenage circle of friends: Ervin, the intense, intellectual romantic and future Catholic monk; international man of mystery Janos (a ridiculous but entertaining cipher); and most importantly, the sinister, dionysian Ulpius twins, Eva and Tamas. On the outside the epitome of patrician poise, in private the Ulpius twins represent the transgressive, taboo-breaking opposite to Mihaly’s instinctive conservativism:

“Later I read in a famous English essay that the chief characteristic of the Celts was a rebellion against the tyranny of facts. Well, in this respect, the two of them were true Celts. In fact, as I recall, both Tamás and I were crazy about the Celts, the world of Parsifal and the Holy Grail. Probably the reason why I felt so at home with them was that they were so much like Celts. With them I found my real self. I remember why I always felt so ashamed of myself, so much an outsider, in my parents’ house. Because there, facts were supreme.”

However, this liberation comes with a dark side: an obsession with sex and death (Eva, like a Celtic goddess, represents these twin seductions). In fact, the story is in a sense the process of Mihaly trying to come to terms with the secret fetish for death that defined their childhood in nihilistic, Dadaist post-WW1 Budapest, and that resulted in the mysterious, sleazy incest-driven suicide of Tamas. The main characters all represent potential paths, alternatives to the life of default conformity from which Mihaly wishes to escape: the spiritual self-sacrifice of Ervin, the unscrupulous liberty of conman Janos, the life of the mind represented by the brilliant intellectual Waldheim, or death, as represented by Tamas the suicide. The difference is that whereas each of these characters seems able to absolutely, almost passionately embody their identity, Mihaly is somehow inessential, a lost soul devoid of conviction. In fact, the book leaves open the unsettling inference that his failure to follow in Tamas’ footsteps and commit suicide is down to a lack of integrity rather than a desire to live.

While this is heavy territory, one of the wonderful things about this novel is that it is brought to life with complexity, irony, detail and warmth. On one level the characters are pawns on a Freudian chessboard on which Szerb plays out the rupture between the primal subconscious and the bourgeois superego. But they embody and animate these ideas in a way that is more than merely essayistic, making this a book that lives. Like The Tin Drum and Heart of Darkness, it is a novel with horror at its core, yet it is never oppressively or self-consciously bleak; indeed, it is frequently charming.

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  1. This is one of my wife’s favourite books. I reviewed his The Pendragon Legend at mine (http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2010/05/16/antal-szerb-the-pendragon-legend/) and found it spectac

    ular. Funny, clever, playful, melancholic, I could go on.

    Nicholas Lezard is one of the very few remaining newspaper critics I pay any attention to. He’s very good.

    The Pendragon Myth also pays a lot of attention to ideas of Celtic myth and character (actually, I hate the pervasive myth that Celts are somehow more in touch with nature, their emotions, the supernatural or whatever, we really aren’t a magical pixie people and anyone who’s spent any time in Glasgow would know that)..

    I picked out some phrases that stood out for me from your review: “complexity, irony, detail and warmth”; “frequently charming”. I couldn’t describe Szerb better (I know,after all I tried). A truly wonderful writer.

    On another note, the study of a man suffocated by his conventional existence, but unable to find an alternative, that’s painful stuff. It feels true. Just because we can recognise a problem, the impossibility of a situation, does not mean we are gifted with solutions. Insight, or at least longing for something more, can easily come unaccompanied by integrity or conviction.

    Of course in being unable to commit Mihaly is like most of us. Compromising, because compromise is what we do.

    On a final note, you’ll probably be amused to know that when I printed out your review to read at leisure the picture from Marienbad somehow overlaid the text in part. The result was that a single figure, with shadow, appeared entirely on its own outside the picture in the middle of the text, invading it. It seemed somehow terribly fitting.

  1. January 1st, 2012

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