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.