The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb
Antal Szerb is best known for his second novel, Journey by Moonlight, which was published by Pushkin Press and proved something of a success for them. Before that though in 1934 he wrote his wonderful first novel – The Pendragon Legend.
The Pendragon Legend is a hard book to describe. It mixes (and gently lampoons) elements of detective fiction, romance, gothic horror and more in a combination which shouldn’t work but which undoubtedly does. It’s well written, it’s huge fun to read and it’s incredibly playful which just isn’t a word I get to use often enough about books I read.
I didn’t actually buy The Pendragon Legend. My wife bought it after thoroughly enjoying his other work (though she hasn’t had time to read this one yet). Even with it sitting on the shelf the book just didn’t grab me though and it wasn’t until I read William Rycroft’s review of it at his Just William’s Luck blog here that I moved it to the top of my to be read pile.
So, what’s it all about? Well, where to start? The narrator, Janos Bátky, is a scholar of irrelevant subjects currently writing about Seventeenth Century mystics. He is introduced by accident at a party to the reclusive Earl of Gwynedd. The Earl invites Bátky to visit his family seat and to see his library there and Bátky excitedly accepts. The Earl’s family is an ancient one, the ancestral seat is Pendragon Castle in Wales and the Earl’s library promises to have books on Seventeenth Century alchemist Robert Fludd which no other library possesses. For a scholar of the subject it’s an extraordinary opportunity and one that will make Bátky the envy of his scholastic colleagues. That’s no small thing, for as Bátky says:
A colleague’s envy, when all is said and done, is the scholar’s one reward on earth.
Soon however mysterious events begin to occur. Bátky receives a threatening telephone call (the conversation is quoted over at Just William’s Luck, it’s worth reading) and is befriended in the Reading Room of the British Library by an athletic if unlettered young Irishman from Connemara who tells the most extraordinary tall tales and attaches himself to Bátky without delay. Maloney is the Irishman’s name, and it turns out he is heading to Pendragon Castle too in the company of the Earl’s nephew. Bátky is an unworldly sort and though he has some suspicions about his new Connemaran acquaintance the fellow is so likeable that he ends up travelling with him anyway.
From their the plot goes on to feature what may or may not be ghosts, ancient and bewildering customs of the nobility, death threats and assassination attempts, alchemy, Rosicrucians, the Comte de Saint-Germain, Casanova, Satanism, the Philosopher’s Stone, the terrible state of English cuisine and the difficulties of getting a good cup of coffee in Britain. Actually, there’s a lot more than that, but I have to stop the list somewhere…
It sounds cluttered. It sounds too like a Dan Brown plot. But even though it’s only a little over 300 pages (and that in Pushkin’s Gem format so they’re smaller than usual pages) Szerb’s grasp of pace is such that not only is it not in fact cluttered at all but actually there’s space for digressions and romantic subplots and a great deal of gentle observational humour. The plot is slightly Dan Brownian, but Szerb is well aware of how silly it all is and that’s part of the fun. What in a bad writer like Brown is painful here becomes almost a celebration of human eccentricity and folly.
Bátky is an engaging but flawed hero. He’s a terrible snob who is utterly in love with the English (and Welsh) aristocracy. He’s passionate about women, but prefers them beautiful and intellectually unchallenging and is slightly threatened by those who don’t fit his criteria. He’s vain too (at one point he smiles sardonically to himself, then reflects that it’s a wasted gesture as nobody is there to see it). None of these are terrible faults though, rather they’re more in the line of human failings and on the positive side he’s charming, polite, romantic and at times quite brave given he’s hardly a man of action. He’s a European intellectual in love with Britain and the British, as Szerb himself was, but above all he loves books. Here, for the first time, he sees the Earl’s library:
I was filled with the tenderness I always feel – and which nothing can match – when I encounter so many books together. At moments like this I long to wallow, to bathe in them, to savour their wonderful, dusty, old-book odours, to inhale them through my very pores.
The novel’s other characters (all seen through Bátky’s eyes) are affectionate stereotypes. Maloney is an entertaining and adventurous fellow fond of rhetoric and stories. The Earl’s nephew is an Englishman so reserved he cannot comfortably sit next to a woman, let alone talk to one. The Earl’s niece is distinctly Welsh and so a committed romantic. Bátky is helped at times by one of his friends, Lena, a buxom and highly efficient German woman with who has a tendency to take control of situations she finds herself in (again, see William’s blog for some wonderful dialogue describing her). They all embody in a way their countries, as perhaps does Bátky himself. None of it is terribly serious.
As the novel continues dark events occur and hints arise that there may be supernatural forces at work. Dire prophecies are heard and seemingly inexplicable ghostly happenings. Here Bátky and others investigate a voice coming seemingly out of an empty room which a servant believes to be the ghost of a local man:
“How could it be the ghost of old Pierce?” said another. “He’s still alive.”
“It could be his double. It happened to my uncle. It went and got completely drunk down at the Elephant, and the next day he had to pay the whole bill.”
There’s tons of plot, and yet it’s not a plot driven novel. Rather the plot is there because detective novels are plot heavy and that’s one of the genres Szerb is playing with. Equally ghost ridden ancient castles, strange legends and curious inhabitants of remote places are all staples of gothic horror and Szerb plays with that too. Bátky becomes involved with the Earl’s niece, among other women, and his German friend Lena takes a fancy to the Earl’s nephew. There is a perilous conspiracy, misunderstandings and comic escapades, and still there is time for love. It’s extraordinary that Szerb manages to fit it all in so well.
I’m obviously not going to discuss the ending or what’s really going on. I can say though without fear of spoilers that in places the book does dabble in darker territories, like the ancient alchemists and mystics Bátky is so fascinated by. There’s a warmth and humanity and a profound sense that we’re all a little absurd running through this novel, but there’s a recognition too that there are parts of us that aren’t funny at all. Szerb lived at a time when irrational beliefs were once again on the rise. Ideas of German nationalism and racial destiny were live issues, and philosophies that belonged in history books were alive and well and being used for tremendous harm. The Pendragon Legend is a comic novel, but it’s one that recognises that myths can be dangerous things.
I’ll draw this piece to a close with one final quote. In a piece in the Guardian Nicholas Lezard makes a comparison with Waugh (which he rightly warns should not be overextended). Lezard speaks of Waugh and Szerb’s irony and deadpan technique, and I think this description of the Café Royal illustrates just that quality nicely.
The Café Royal is effectively London’s only real café. It aims at Frenchness in every detail. As if the place had been built by Napoleon himself, the grand entrance, the doorman’s cap, and even the cups and spoons are adorned with a capital N crowned with laurel. Coffee is served in glasses; the air is so foul and the chairs so very uncomfortable it’s as if you really were in Paris. It was once the meeting place of the British intelligentsia, and the clientele has remained interesting to this day, consisting mainly of aspiring actresses and clever foreigners.
The Pendragon Necklace is translated by Len Rix who has also translated Szerb’s two other novels for Pushkin Press. It’s a translation so smooth you’d think it was written in English in the first place. It’s a wonderful piece of work, and I’d regard Rix’s name on a book as a distinct recommendation. There’s an interesting interview with him here with a Hungarian literature webzine which is well worth reading.
The Pendragon Legend. Interestingly, mine had a different cover, suggesting that Pushkin may have reissued it in a new format since the copy I read. Tragically, Szerb is yet another author murdered by the Nazis. As I’ve said before with other writers Pushkin Press have helped me discover, they have my thanks for helping bring him back for a new audience.