Life was not an art-form, or rather, it was an extremely mixed genre.

Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb and translated by Len Rix

Some books are too subtle to be easily reviewed. You lose them as you try to describe them. They slip away, leaving just a vague sense that you haven’t done them justice.

Antal Szerb is one of the 20th Century’s great writers. His The Pendragon Legend is one of the funniest shaggy dog tales ever committed to print and his Oliver VII is easily one of my favourite novels, featuring as its main character a king who ends up as incognito head of the resistance to his own reign. Szerb writes with intelligence, empathy, a gentle but very funny wit and an acute sense of the absurd.

JourneyJourney2 journey-by-moonlight-antal-szerb

The blue cover is the one I have on Kindle. The creamy-brown cover is an earlier one from Pushkin which I love, and the one with the photo of Venice is again I think very good and is the cover I have on my physical copy.

The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.

Mihály is on honeymoon in Venice with his new bride Erzsi. He’s a dreamer whose family are pressing him hard to settle down and to take a responsible role in the family business. He married Erzsi in part as she seemed a solid bourgeois who would help him adapt to what’s expected of him. It didn’t occur to him that she might have married him for what he is, not what his family want him to be.

She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihály had secrets even from himself, and he did not understand her since it never occurred to him that people other than himself had an inner life in which he might take an interest. And yet they had married because he had decided that they understood each other perfectly, and that, for both, the marriage rested on purely rational foundations and not fleeting passion. For just how long could that fiction be sustained?

Erzsi is on her second marriage. She’s more experienced than Mihály, more worldly. When he wanders off one evening into the back-streets of Venice, not returning until the next day, she gets her first hint that there may be serious issues in store for them and that their mutual fiction might not be a lasting one. Things get worse when they run into Janos – a roguishly attractive childhood friend of Mihaly’s who stirs up old memories of adolescence.

Mihály tries to explain his past to Erzsi, but the more he does so the clearer it becomes that it still has a hold over his life that he barely understands and doesn’t particularly want to escape. When the time comes for the newlyweds to travel on Mihály gets briefly off their train to buy some supplies. He then “involuntarily, but not unintentionally” gets back on the wrong train. Now Erzsi’s en route to Paris on her own while Mihály bumbles across Italy in a meandering quest for he’s not quite sure what.

You start off as Mr X, who happens to be an engineer, and sooner or later you’re just an engineer who happens to be called Mr X.

At first it seemed to me there was a danger that Szerb would fall into that old trap of portraying a thoughtful and artistically sensitive man held back by a sensible yet dull wife. What follows though is vastly more interesting and intricate than that.

Before his departure Mihály told Erzsi of how his adolescent circle revolved around morbidly erotic role-plays led by the Ulpius siblings Eva and Tamas. The boys were all sexually obsessed with Eva and their little group broke up on the eventual suicide of Tamas. It’s clear to Erzsi that Mihály’s still fixated both on Eva and on the mystery of Tamas’ suicide. The result is that when he wanders off she’s not losing him to Italy – she’s losing him to nostalgia.

Mihály meanwhile comes to discover that as the old joke goes the past isn’t what it used to be. While he’s not a first person narrator he does still manage to be terribly unreliable, comically so. It’s perhaps natural given his insular nature that he doesn’t understand other people very well and mistakes much of what’s going on around him, but it’s more surprising to discover that he doesn’t understand himself terribly well either.

“I know what’s wrong with me,” he told the doctor. “Acute nostalgia. I want to be young again. Is there a cure for that?”

Mihály’s quest takes him across Italy to an encounter with one of his old friends who’s since become a particularly holy monk; to a series of missed and partial encounters with Eva; to further run-ins with Janos; and to an affair with an American tourist named Millicent (“‘Millicent,’ he said. ‘There’s someone in the world actually called Millicent!'”). As his money runs out he comes increasingly to realise that “There’s no cure for nostalgia” and the prospects of him ever returning to Erzsi become ever slighter.

The focus of the novel then shifts to Erzsi’s viewpoint. She too is adrift: nobody expects to be cut loose on their honeymoon. The difference is that while Mihály may be content to drift downwards into a morass of memory, Erzsi is made of firmer stuff.

All her life she had been the model of a good girl, adored by her nannies and fräuleins, her father’s pride and joy, the best pupil in the form, sent abroad to academic competitions. Her whole life had been sheltered and ordered, the good bourgeois life consecrated to a sternly supervised moral order. In due course she married a wealthy man, dressed elegantly, took on a grand house and presided over it as a model housewife. She always wore the identical hat sported by every other woman of the same rank in society. She took her summer holidays where fashion dictated, held the same opinions about theatrical productions, uttered the turns of phrase currently de rigueur. In everything she was a conformist, as Mihály would say. Then she began to get bored.

Erzsi married Mihály so he could save her from the very conventionality he wanted her to lend him. They never understood each other, but she at least is capable of understanding that and she soon realises too that she doesn’t actually need him as she’s perfectly capable of saving herself. Mihály is a weak man. His obsession with his past allows him to evade his present and is part of a wider lack of interest in the outside world. As an adolescent he was never quite as decadent as his friends, and now as an adult he yearns after something he thinks he lost but that was never really his.

Journey then is a novel of reversals. Nobody here is quite as we first expect them, something that’s true not only of Mihály and Erzsi but of many of the supporting characters too. Mihály can be irritatingly wet at times, but he’s not a villain. He is, literally, lost and if he’s perhaps less than he seems then Erzsi in turn is more. It’s the reader as much as anyone else who journeys by moonlight, and what seems one thing when seen through shadows from a distance can reveal itself to be something quite different close up.

Journey is a slower starter than either Pendragon or Oliver. Mihály isn’t always the most engaging protagonist and Szerb is right to ensure that he’s not therefore the only viewpoint character. Adolescent games however sophisticated are still fundamentally immature, and Mihály’s quest is deeply self-indulgent and ultimately rather selfish.

Despite those initial concerns, as it develops Journey shows such sympathy for its characters and by extension for all of us that it’s a hard novel not to love. Mihály and Erzsi are flawed and so are we. Their troubles and adventures are absurd and so are ours. Szerb was a kind man. He wrote a kind book.

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

Journey has been widely reviewed. I’d draw your attention to Tom’s review at A Common Reader, here; Guy’s review at His Futile Preoccupations here; and Kaggsy’s review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here. Nick Lezard’s review at the Guardian is also worth reading and can be found here.

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24 Comments

Filed under Hungarian fiction, Pushkin Press, Rix, Len (translator), Szerb, Antal

24 responses to “Life was not an art-form, or rather, it was an extremely mixed genre.

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Very thoughtful review, Max, and I know exactly what you mean in your first sentence. I think you’ve done this book justice – and Szerb is indeed a very subtle writer. Thinking back, I really liked the fact he took this book where I didn’t expect. I loved “Pendragon” too – in fact I really must read more of him! 🙂

  2. I struggled a bit with this one to be honest. I left too long between reading the book and writing the review which made it harder to capture. Szerb is a surprising writer I think. Oliver VII is my favourite so if you’ve not read that yet you’ve definitely at least one treat left.

  3. One of my all-time favorite books! Nice review.

  4. It’s great isn’t it? Did you write a review? If so please do link to it.

    It’s full of the most amazing one-liners, something I tried to bring out with the italicised paragraph breaks as I just couldn’t resist including a few of them. So warm and so funny.

  5. I find that the more I like a book, the harder it is to review.

  6. Great review of a wonderful novel, Max. I love your commentary on it being a novel of reversals. As you say, the reader also goes on their own journey by moonlight, navigating the various shifts in perspective along the way.

    I really must thank you for putting me on to Szerb in the first place as it was your enthusiasm for Oliver VII that prompted me to pick him up. I started with Pendragon, then Journey (both of which I loved, especially Journey), and I have a collection of his stories (Love in a Bottle) just waiting to be read. You’ve also reminded me that I need to get hold of a copy of Oliver, too – it seems to have slipped through the net!

  7. Interesting to think back on this one. I’d like to reread it, but looking at Guy’s review I see I commented that I was a little underwhelmed overall. I have Oliver VII on the shelf, so am looking forward to that.

  8. That makes a certain sense Cathy. You want after all for others to see quite why it’s so good, but somehow you end up just holding them by the lapel saying “read it, read it!” in a slightly overemphatic voice.

    Jacqui, I have Love in a Bottle too. Not sure when I’ll get to it yet, but I certainly shall. I think Oliver VII is probably my favourite, but he doesn’t seem to have written a bad book.

    Ian, perhaps because Mihaly is an underwhelming character and his obsession with his own past does become slightly self-indulgent?

  9. I tried unsuccessfully to read this novel half a dozen times in an English translation under the anodyne title The Traveler, then in an idle moment picked up the Len Rix translation last week and hardly put it down until I’d finished. What a novel! Szerb has a marvelously subtle style, shot through with tenderness and humor and something rather dark woven into its romantic qualities. I found it a constantly surprising book, with a frankness about desire that I’ve come to associate with other Hungarian literature I’ve read. Also fascinating: the adolescent death games Mihály recounts, and which end up having such a hold on him. And on top of it all, Journey by Moonlight provides a terrific tour of Italy! Now I’m eager to try your recommendations for Szerb’s other works.

  10. The good news is they’re all Len Rix translations. Obviously I can’t speak to the accuracy, but from what I’ve read of why Szerb is prized I’ve every reason to believe he captures the originals well. Subtle, tender, humour and a dark thread running through romance. Spot on.

  11. Oh, and I meant to mention that the NYRB edition has quite a nice cover image. As for The Traveler, the cover is as banal as the title.

  12. Eric P

    This is a book with which I was a bit underwhelmed, but I suspected at the time the problem was really with me. (Sometimes you read a book at a time when you are too stressed or preoccupied by other issues.) That still describes my life at the moment, so I will probably hold off for quite a while, but I will give it another go. The other two books by Szerb sound quite promising, so I’ll try to check them out.

  13. Eric, I think one could get underwhelmed with some of the more self-indulgent aspects of Mihály. Obviously I did like this one, but even so I think I prefer both Pendragon Legend and Oliver VII.

  14. Eric P

    What I liked about your review is how you show how attention must be paid to both members of the wedding party, though I suspect I mostly focused on Mihaly when I read it the first time through. He reminds me a fair bit of the main character of Alain-Fourier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, though arguably Meaulnes never gets over his longing for the past. Mihaly comes a bit closer to overcoming this fatal nostalgia. To extend the theme a bit, my favorite story from Dinesen’s Winter’s Tales is “The Young Man with the Carnation” who seems to learn as much in one night as Mihaly does in a whole journey across Europe.

  15. Great review, Max. This novel is hard to pin down and I struggled with my billet. There are many aspects to this novel that I can’t cover them all in one post.

    PS: I have a French translation and an English one by Peter Hargitai. I thought he was the only translator of this novel. Apparently not.

  16. Pingback: Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb | Book Around The Corner

  17. I struggled too Emma. It’s a tricky one. I’ll leave a comment at yours.

  18. I’m afraid there’s a serious problem with this title. “Journey by Moonlight” is being investigated for literary piracy. Below is part of a communique with the publisher — Pushkin Press:. Thanks for calling it to my attention:
    Dear Gesche Ipsen:
    Sorry, I forgot the link of two pages from the 1990 “Hungarian Heritage Review.”Dhttp://www.approaching-my-literature.com/HHR1990.html

    I have been preparing a new translation (retranslation) of “Utas es holdvilag for the 7oth Anniversary American edition when I started a comprehensive comparative look at Mr. Rix’s version. I came up with a list of some 70 problem areas. Here are two examples that cannot be explained away as accidental, since Mr. Rix ignored the original and followed my “mistranslation.”
    1. Original Hungarian(Magveto Kiado) page 192 “filmszeru jelensegek” — literally “cinematic scenes” or “scenes with cinematic potential.”
    My 1994 book: “the film-types” (page 153)
    Mr. Rix ebook: “the actress-types” (page 139 ebook)

    2. Original Hungarian:page 197 “megokolatlan es erthetetlen” (literally– “causeless and unintelligible”
    My 1994 book: page 158 “without reason or rhyme”
    Mr. Rix: page 142 “without rhyme or reason”

    I’m not so much worried about Mr. Rix translating the original meaning of “His courage abandoned him” as “He lost heart.” page 151 which I had also translated in the English idiom. But the problem is, there are just too many phrases that I recognize as my own. I know Mr. does not speak Hungarian,otherwise he would not have translated “sajto barok(literally “media barons”) as “cheese barons,”and I realize he had help of a midwife or a committee. An investigation into the process of the translation would surely come to light through deposing ARTISJUS and the parties involved, and to what extent did the translator(s) rely on my version. (I happen to know one). Should it come to court, I would seek both compensatory and punitive damages. My son, Peter P. Hargitai, is Hiring Partner at Holland and Knight and I do hope I will not have to make use of his free services. I’m elderly myself, and I feel I have been cheated.
    Tell me this: Why does Pushkin Press refer to my version “The Traveler” as “Journey by Moonlight?” in Julie Orringer’s intro? Because the literal translation is “Traveler and the Moonlight,” and Julie knows this because she’s perfectly bilingual in English and Hungarian. Pushkin Press’s greed will be their undoing. It’s karma.

  19. Peter,

    Thanks for the comment. I can’t of course speak to any possibilities of plagiarism as I don’t have the background facts and don’t speak Hungarian, but I hope you and Pushkin are able to settle your differences.

    Wherever any fault may lie, I doubt Pushkin are greedy. They specialise in publishing 20th Century central European fiction in translation. In the UK market they could probably make more money I suspect if they all got jobs at McDonalds. There’s just not that much money to be made from publishing that sort of fiction – it’s a labour of love. If they’ve got it wrong in this instance I don’t see it being because of the big money to be made from Szerb translations (which is a shame, as Szerb deserves bestseller status and I’d love to see him more widely read).

    I followed your link by the way. The first three paras of your translation and the Rix one I have do seem to vary a fair bit. I appreciate though I’m simply not qualified to meaningfully comment in this area and I accept there could be later parallels of phrasing which you would want to better understand.

  20. For those following at home, Hungarian literature online describes the differences between the two translations as follows:

    “[Hargitai’s] translation of Szerb’s novel (the original Hungarian title of the book is Traveler and Moonlight) dates from 1988. Since then, another – British – translation was made by Len Rix in 2002. The two translations differ in style: while Rix’s is more contemporary, Hargitai’s version tries to convey a sense of Szerb’s sophisticated language, reminiscent of the language of Thomas Mann.”

    Source: http://www.hlo.hu/news/antal_szerb_and_attila_jozsef_in_english

    The Hargitai translation is incredibly cheap on kindle. 99p in the UK (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Traveler-Moonlight-Antal-Szerb-ebook/dp/B01BWCLA5S?ie=UTF8&keywords=Traveler%20and%20the%20Moonlight&qid=1459332524&ref_=sr_1_1_twi_kin_1&sr=8-1) and $1.42 in the US (http://www.amazon.com/Traveler-Moonlight-Antal-Szerb-ebook/dp/B01BWCLA5S/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1456195731&sr=1-8&keywords=Peter+Hargitai).

    I’d suggest reading the Rix and the Hargitai personally, and perhaps somewhere between the two Szerb will peek out to those of us who don’t read Hungarian.

  21. Pingback: Love in a Bottle by Antal Szerb (tr. Len Rix) | JacquiWine's Journal

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  23. Max: thanks for the tip in your comment on my post about Journey about this review here. I think you’ve pointed out some aspects of the novel which I tended not to highlight, like the symmetries in plot and characterisation. I’m sure I didn’t do it full justice, but I’d like to think it wasn’t just a shallow reaction against Mihaly’s immaturity – though that did irritate a little; it was more to do with the overall effect of the novel – it seemed more style (which is amazing) than substance, whereas Mann’s DIV or the Grand Meaulnes, mentioned in an earlier comment, have what seems to me a more authentic elegiac quality. But I will read one of the others you mention a try at some point. Wouldn’t do if we all agreed, would it?!

  24. I think if one lacks sympathy with a novel that’s the thing to focus on. It would be odd to explore the wallpaper while not liking the furniture as it were.

    Style over substance may not be that unfair, particularly compared to Mann or (from what I know of it) the Grand Meaulnes. Szerb is a gentle and affectionate writer so I don’t think he’s aiming for that level of heft.

    Much as I did like this it’s still my least favourite of his three. And yes, it wouldn’t do at all!

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