the real test of life was uncertainty

Oliver VII, by Antal Szerb and translated by Len Rix

Nicholas Lezard, in his review of Oliver VII for the Guardian, asked if a novel can be constructed out of pure joy. The answer of course is yes,  because the answer is Oliver VII: a fairy tale of love, loyalty and confused identities.

Antal Szerb only wrote three novels. This was his last, written in the shadow of the Nazi conquest of Europe. Three years after its publication Szerb was killed in a labour camp. It would be easy to read Oliver VII’s humanist vision as escapism, except that it’s nothing of the kind. Rather it’s a statement of the value of romance in the widest sense, of kindness and perhaps ultimately of European culture in the face of an enemy that despised all those things.

Heroic as all that is, it’s not of itself a reason to read his novel. Were it didactic, or worthy, it would fail as literature however brave or inspiring it might be. The reason to read the novel is because it is, quite simply, wonderful.

Oliver VII is the indifferent king to the obscure Southern European nation of Alturia. Alturia has but two exports, its wine and its sardines, and it is bankrupt as its people are perhaps more romantic than practical. Alturia’s northern neighbour is Norlandia, a colder, gloomier and more sober land where grapes do not grow and which sardines do not care to visit.

Alturia’s finances have become unmanageable and its people are becoming increasingly unruly. The only hope Oliver’s ministers see is a deal with Norlandia’s greatest business tycoon, Coltor. Coltor will help Alturia redeem its debts, but in return will assume control of its wine and sardine production. Alturia will be saved, but at the cost of its sovereignty.

You know, it wasn’t until I sat down to write this review that it occurred to me quite how timely that is.

Coltor is no ordinary merchant. He made his fortune selling half-pairs of shoes (each of which could be worn on right foot or left), so those who had lost a shoe could buy a half-pair instead of wasting money on a whole pair. He built houses from onions, a textile cigarette, ant-powered lamps and edible fog. We’re in the world of whimsy here, but even whimsy has its serious inhabitants.

Oliver would prefer not to sell the country he only recently became king of, but his ministers give him little choice. Oliver then, in disguise, leads a revolution and has himself deposed by patriots opposed to the Coltor plan. He leaves for Venice with but a trusted aide, where he disguises himself again and falls in with a gang of con-artists headed by a figure naming himself Count St. Germain.

Soon the con-artists have an audacious plan. They will take this new acquaintance of theirs who has such an uncanny resemblance to the former King of Alturia and will train him to impersonate that missing monarch. Oliver, they decide, will pretend to be Oliver VII.

Meanwhile, back at home, the people are finding life without Oliver more difficult than they had imagined…

By now Alturia’s problems were not trivial. With the rejection of the Coltor plan the public finances had sunk to the state of an intractable mess. [The chancellor] had been replaced by the chief accountant of a large bank who, a week later, committed suicide in a fit of book-keeping insanity. He was followed by a wine merchant who fled the country without embezzling a single cent; then a business tycoon, who promptly arranged for his own denunciation, and a university professor who simply disappeared, said to have been lost in the labyrinth of the Exchequer and never seen again.

Like many comic novels Oliver VII in some senses is deeply serious. Here everyone wears a mask of some sort or another, and so naturally they find themselves in Venice. The novel becomes an examination of identity, of how we become who we are and how who we are changes according to who others think we are. Oliver steps beyond convention, represented in part by the heavy and restrictive greatcoat the king is required to wear on all formal occasions, and changes from being a man who is given his part in life (for a king is born to be a king, and has no other options) to one who chooses it.

If you want then, there is plenty here beneath the surface to think about and this is a novel that would easily bear a re-reading. It’s also though a novel with the most marvellous sense of its own absurdity. In Venice Olliver falls in love with a young woman who is part of the team of con-artists. Here he embraces her:

Being French, Marcelle liked to talk in moments of passion.

“Oh Oscar … I love it, you’re like an express train … like a wild sheikh … like a bartender at closing time …”

Oliver VII comes with an extremely well written afterword by translator Len Rix, that throws light both upon its themes and on Szerb’s life. Rix shows too how Oliver VII represents a synthesis of Szerb’s themes in his previous two novels, which Rix also translated. For that reason, I wouldn’t actually suggest this as your first Szerb if you’ve not tried him already. If anything, I’d do not as I did and save this for third. Rix makes a good case for reading Szerb in order, and I rather wish now that I had (I haven’t yet read Journey by Moonlight).

With that small caveat, all that’s really left to say is that it will be remarkable if this doesn’t end up on my end of year list come December. It’s clever, funny, well written and utterly charming. Like Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend, and like the Alturian people themselves, it’s a book of “a somewhat dreamy nature, fanciful and poetically inclined.” That’s ok though, because as the Count St. Germain says:

“Long after reinforced concrete has disappeared, the need for adventure will still be with us.”

The Nicholas Lezard review I mentioned can be found here.

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21 Comments

Filed under Hungarian Literature, Rix, Len (translator), Szerb, Antal

21 responses to “the real test of life was uncertainty

  1. The first Antal Szerb book I read (Journey by Moonlight) was unusual enough. This one sounds even more strange but nothing at all like J by L. However this sound intriguing enough for me to want to give it a go. As you say, it sounds terribly topical.

  2. This sounds like my kind of book, exactly! I’ll have to put Szerb on my list (not for immediate reading but for sometime), and I’ll try to read them in order!
    By the way, you asked me to tell you how I liked John Ashbery’s poetry. I’ve dipped into it and can’t say I’m impressed. Not my kind of poet, unfortunately. I’ll never like that obscure modern style where you can’t make head nor tail of what’s going on.

  3. This was an enlightening review, so effective that I’m hooked: I shall have to get the book (and, it seems, Szerb’s first too). As you point out, this has such strong contemporary resonances, not just concerning the financial state of Europe but also about the mask slipping from the faces of our politicians, financiers and media moguls. Thanks for this!

  4. As you know, I wasn’t that keen on Journey by Moonlight, but this one sounds like my sort of thing–and part of the answer to that lies in the fact that I was just wondering why no one sells one shoe, so that I wouldn’t have to buy a new pair when only one is ruined. Obviously there is a character here who’s someone I can relate to.

  5. Tom, might be worth reading The Pendragon Legend first, then treating this as a synthesis of the themes of the previous novels.

    Lorinda, I think you’ll like this, though again I’d read The Pendragon Legend first. I still need to read your follow-up poetry post, which I’ll be interested in. Sorry you didn’t get along with Ashbery, but he does sound a poet one would either love or not respond to at all. Which did you try?

    calmgrove, my only caution would be that there’s no anger in this. So there is contemporary resonance, but it’s much more about how the roles we choose define who we are than it is about issues of sovereignty – those are more a backdrop than the focus.

    Guy, so I recall. This is, I understand, much more frivolous. Not sure if that helps or not but the afterword made it clear there were parallels with Journey but that Journey was a much darker work. This is more hopeful, or more forgiving. Not having yet read Journey there’s a limit of course to how sure I can be.

  6. Max: There’s a copy on its way to me. Not sure when I’ll get to it, but it does sound as though I’ll really enjoy it.

  7. I look forward to your thoughts when you do.

  8. Re Ashbery: I just glanced at a few more poems and I think I fall in the camp of the unresponsive. There is no making sense of his poetry at first blush, and I’m not sure I could make much sense out of it after deep study. I like imagery to have some control and focus; it doesn’t have to be easy, but a pattern should emerge. Maybe I just lack patience. I actually liked “Leaving the Atocha Station” better because it appeared to be an intentional stream-of-consciousness presentation of what was seen during a train ride.
    I’d love for you to look at the follow-up poetry post. Here’s the URL again in case you’ve lost it. http://termitewriter.blogspot.com/2012/09/how-does-poet-turn-words-into-poetry.html
    Did you ever get a chance to read my review of the Simon Gough book? Sam Jordison seemed to like it. The URL for that one is http://termitewriter.blogspot.com/2012/09/book-review-white-goddess-encounter-by.html

  9. Sounds fascinating, Max! I agree that comic novels often have quite serious things going on under the surface. Sometimes I find they can be even more effective at communicating serious ideas, because as a reader your guard is down, and while you’re focusing on the comedy the author can introduce elements which, in a serious book, might come across as too didactic or worthy.

  10. I’m going to buy the two last Szerbs immediately, this one sounds marvellous but I’ll follow your advice and read Journey by Moonlight first. Let’s hope they’re available in French, otherwise I’ll go for the English translation.

    When I started reading your review about this country depending on wine and sardines and in financial mess, I thought about another one with its olive oil and its feta cheese.
    It’s a bit depressing in a way and frightening too when you think of what happened next.
    The quotes are fantastic.

    PS: This reminds me of Les Enchanteurs by R. Gary, I don’t know why. The con-artists in Central Europe, probably.

  11. Lorinda, I honestly thought I’d commented on your Gough review, which I read a little while back. Apologies for that. I’ll rectify my error tomorrow, and read your poetry entry then too (the last one was excellent after all).

    Andrew, I was thinking of Farrell’s The Troubles when I wrote that. If you’ve not read it then it’s worth checking out. I’ve a review here, and it really is a tremendously good book. Guy’s good on comic fiction as I recall.

    Good luck with them Emma, I’ll be delighted to hear your thoughts. The quotes are great, and there were plenty of other passages I could just as well have picked.

    If there are any lessons in this book regarding our current situation, and it’s not a book of lessons, then it’s a reminder that kindness has value. I get quite annoyed by people who argue that the Greeks brought this on themselves and by reason of that seem to think we shouldn’t sympathise. Leaving aside whether that’s correct or not (that’s way beyond this blog’s subject matter), even if it were wholly correct it still wouldn’t be a reason not to sympathise with people facing a loss of livelihood and future.

    As a child I remember being told the parable of the ant and the grasshopper. Like many children what I took from it was not that the grasshopper should have worked harder and that I shold admire the ant’s prudence; rather my conclusion was that the ant was a sanctimonious bastard.

  12. There are no comments on my Gough review on my blog (http://termitewriter.blogspot.com), and you didn’t put a comment on your own review re mine, so if you did comment, you did it in some location that I never visit.

  13. I ordered the two Szerbs, they’re still available in French.

    I didn’t know that La Fontaine had crossed the channel. I had to learn this by heart in school. Well, living in an ant-minded region, that’s not the way I was taught to look at the grasshoper. But I think you’re right. Ants don’t bring the pleasure of art to the world, grasshopers do. Both are useful to our well-being.

  14. Lorinda, that would be because I jotted them down on a printed out copy of the review. I do that sometimes when I haven’t time to read something online. I must then have forgotten to actually post the comments.

    Emma, hurrah! On the ant and the grasshopper I was taught to respect the ant, but my instinctive sympathies were with the grasshopper. Also, I just thought that the fact the ant was right, didn’t make leaving the grasshopper to die ok.

  15. leroyhunter

    Sounds delightful Max – it’s on the wishlist. I have read Szerb in order so far, more by accident then design.

  16. It is Leroy, but as noted above I’m not sure I’d start on this one. This is a good author to do chronologically.

  17. Leroy, which in fact is just what you’ve done. Not sure why that suddenly failed to register given I’d just read your comment. Anyway, I’d be delighted if you do read it to hear how it fits with his others.

  18. Reading my comment again about the ant and the grasshoper, I need to add something. I don’t imply that artits are lazy (which is what the ant thinks about the grasshoper in the tale) but I meant that the ant’s working life must have been easier and more enjoyable with the grasshoper singing around.

  19. I ve only read journey by moonlight by him which I liked but maybe didn’t love as much as much as other people do so this will only get read if it crosses my path second hand at some point ,all the best stu

  20. Emma, true, though the fable makes no recognition of that. I work long hours, if the taxes I pay in consequence help support some grasshopper local theatre group or whatever (which they don’t really, I wish they did) then I’m fine with that. I’m part of a society, and a society is more than mere self-interest.

    Stu, I’d suggest again trying The Pendragon Legend first, but it may be he’s not your author. There has to be a chemistry between reader and book, and sometimes we just don’t connect. If you do read it though I look forward to your review.

  21. Pingback: That Was The Year That Was: 2012 | Pechorin’s Journal

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