“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....”
A photo of Budapest, taken from the Danube last summer