“Journey By Moonlight” by Antal Szerb

“Journey By Moonlight”: what a tricky novel to try to squeeze into a genre. I still haven’t managed it.

It tells the story of Mihály, a bourgeois Hungarian businessman whom we meet in Italy, where he is honey-mooning with his new wife. Having spent a few magical years rebelling as a teenager in the company of the eccentric, death-obsessed and decidedly un-bourgeois Ulpius family, Mihály has finally taken up a respectable position in his father’s firm, married the well-connected and seemingly conventional Erzsi, and attempted to mould himself into the kind of man he thinks he ought to be. Something about Italy gets under his skin, however, and he and Erzsi are separated when he slips off their train to buy a quick coffee: rather than trying to pursue his new bride, Mihály takes the rather radical step of leaving her on the train and fleeing deeper into the Italian countryside, plagued by nostalgia for his lost youth and the extraordinary friends he hasn’t seen in years.

That hilariously unromantic break for freedom sums Mihály up perfectly. He is a wonderfully passive anti-hero – probably a rather unflattering self-portrait of the author – who drifts through an increasingly bizarre set of experiences with an endearing lack of self-awareness. In a tone which fluctuates between breathtaking sincerity and gentle irony, Szerb presents Mihály as a kind of flawed everyman – he believes no one could ever truly understand him; he is sure that he is more intelligent than anyone else he meets; and is frequently convinced that people are trying to kill him. Yet you always find yourself rooting for him, because as well as his charm he is essentially fighting a battle we can all sympathise with. After all, who hasn’t sat slumped in their office, looking at their never-ending list of unanswered emails and wondering how it could have come to this – how that idealistic eighteen year old, full of such ambition and passion, could have turned into someone who “measures her life in coffee spoons” and treats a walk to the scanner as an exciting daily highlight. What a silly, but genuinely heart-wrenching tragedy! Who wouldn’t let the train disappear out of the station and quietly sneak off into the Italian countryside in search of some magic? Run, Mihály, run!

It is on that basis, then, that Mihály wanders from town to town, occasionally delirious, frequently drunk, and quietly tormented by the notion that if he can just find his childhood gang, suddenly his life will have a new purpose. As I say, Szerb sways gently from to tragedy to comedy as he leads his Mihály on this rambling, psychogeographical journey – and those tonal drifts make you feel pleasantly disorientated, so that you never know quite where you are or what is real. His characterisations in particular are a complete joy, and raise Szerb up to the ranks of genius. Janos Szepetneki, the raffish thief who emerges out of the shadows and, Puck-like, orchestrates Mihály’s strange journey. Eva Ulpius, the beautiful, other-worldly and faintly ridiculous temptress, obsessed by her brother, death, and over-the-top theatrics. Ervin, perhaps the most heart-rending character of all – a highly-intelligent, chain-smoking Jewish boy with a passion for women, who sacrifices every worldly pleasure to become a saintly monk. Erzsi’s Persian would-be seducer, an opium dealer who attempts to buy her love with gold, and whose wild eyes always make her think of Blake’s “tiger, tiger, burning bright.” I challenge anyone not to delight in each and every one of them.

In the end, it is the gentle sense of melancholy which always stays with me when I have finished reading this book – because Mihály’s escape is, as you fear it will be, unsustainable, and eventually he has to abandon his fantastical Italy for Budapest, adult-life, and responsibility.

Mihály listened in silence. He was going home. He would attempt once more what he had failed to do for fifteen years: to conform. Perhaps this time he would succeed. That was his fate. He was giving in. The facts were stronger than he was. There was no escaping. They were all too strong: the fathers, the Zoltans, the business world, people. 

In a last bid for independence he half-heartedly tries to commit suicide – to please Eva and to give his life some meaning – but is tempted back to the world by a juicy bowl of pasta. And there’s Szerb’s fondly mocking take on the human condition in a nutshell – no matter how dull the bourgeois office job may be, there will always be pasta, and wine, and hope. For as he says in the novel’s closing line, “And while there is life there is always the chance that something might happen....”

Journey By Moonlight

A photo of Budapest, taken from the Danube last summer

“The Third Tower” by Antal Szerb

I was given a copy of “Journey by Moonlight” when I was nineteen, and have loved Antal Szerb ever since. He is a beautiful writer, combining that peculiar sense of Hungarian fatality; a relish for the absurd; and acute observations of the human condition with a remarkable lightness of touch. In Len Rix’s wonderful translations, he is also always eminently quotable:

“In London November isn’t a month, it’s a state of mind.”

“We carry within ourselves the direction our lives will take. Within ourselves burn the timeless, fateful stars.”

I wish I knew more about his life. I know that that he lost his position as a Professor of Literature at the University of Szeged, and that his History of World Literature was put on a list of forbidden works, because he was from a Jewish background. Despite being given several opportunities to leave Hungary during the 1940’s, Szerb stayed because he would not abandon his friends, family and other writers. He was eventually sent to a concentration camp in 1944, and was beaten to death a year later.

I cannot, or perhaps will not, apply practical criticism to his work, or divorce his writing from the story of his own life – particularly when reading “The Third Tower: Journeys into Italy.” This short volume, beautifully published by Pushkin Press, contains a series of mini-essays and observations written by Szerb during a holiday in Italy in 1936. His writing, as always translated by Len Rix, would be hauntingly beautiful enough even without its prescience. But the fact is that Szerb foretells the war here, and the way in which Europe would shortly be torn apart:

“Then 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 that will be; indeed, for how much longer I, or any of us, will be able to go anywhere? The way events are moving, no one will be able to set foot outside his own country.” 

What Szerb could not know, even though it feels as though he suspects it, was that this brewing conflict would lead to his own death, and that lends this volume a brutal pathos. Particularly because in amongst these pieces about bourgeois self-consciousness; the fierce heat of an Italian summer; the apparent plainness of Venetian women; and the great art which Italy has inspired, is what is essentially a declaration of independence. During this trip, Antal Szerb found peace through solitude and, when confronted by the strange, homogeneous mass of holidaying Italians, asserted his own integral sense of individuality:

“I can feel the good this solitude is doing me. My thoughts arrange themselves in longer sequences. My feelings are more intense, and I see their outlines more clearly….It is a comfort to know that I have discovered this panacea, even if it wont always be part of my life.” 

He was killed in 1945 in part because Jewish families were stripped of their individuality, and people were reduced to groups; again with his prescience he identifies something of that in the Fascist state – individuals sacrificing themselves to the mob – and instinctively rejects it. It is almost as though we see him becoming his own champion, formulating his opposition to anti-Semitism years before he himself would be the victim of persecution:

“But, on a moral or ethical level, this immeasurably inflated patriotic self-esteem has transformed every Italian into a hero, puffed him up into a citizen of a second Roman Imperium. Sitting here on the train I have the feeling that, compared to anywhere else the people are altogether more of a body…their boundaries dissolved in the shared Fascist enthusiasm.”

His journey through Italy leads Szerb to a recognition of the importance of rejecting collectivism, and protecting his own soul from governments or “any set of beliefs” – “I shielded my solitariness from them, and from the European future that they represented for me.” It seems entirely right that this message should have survived his own senseless death, and should be one of the ways in which he is remembered and for which he is loved.

The “Third Tower” of the title, then, refers to the three medieval towers in the mountaintop town of San Marino. Very near the end of his holiday, Szerb made his way through the heat and along the Road to the Third Tower – and, as the other tourists and day-trippers fell by the way-side, carried on alone; literally climbing his way out of the feeling of restlessness and uncertainty which had been plaguing him. It was at the foot of that final tower, as he looked out at the view of a country he loved but which was not his own, that his happy solitude reached its zenith. By the time he reached his journey’s end in Trieste he was tired – he had endured mosquito bites, pokey hotel rooms, packed trains and sleeplessness – but he had discovered peace and the strength to face whatever the future might hold. As I say, his closing words are all the more powerful because we know what Antal Szerb would be confronted by over the final years of his life – but they are still incredibly important now, when it is so easy to lose your own sense of self in the noise of the modern world.

“Somehow, all it needs now is courage. Just don’t surrender your solitude for anything or anyone. How does Milton’s Satan put it? “What matters where, if I still be the same?” Whatever becomes of Europe, trust in your inner stars. Somewhere, always, a Third Tower will be waiting for you.

It’s enough.”

liberty statue_n

Liberty Statue, Budapest