Category Archives: Rix, Len (translator)

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

Emerence had never studied Heraclitus, but she knew more about these things than I did.

The Door, by Magda Szabó and translated by Len Rix

I tried. I got to page 69, took a break, picked it up again and pushed on to page 90. After that, I just couldn’t carry on. I couldn’t face yet another page of this crude and unconvincing novel.

The Door came very highly recommended to me, and from people whose judgement I trust. I’m hoping that some of its enthusiasts may make a better case for it in the comments, point out where I went wrong and how I missed its merits. The front and back covers come garlanded with plaudits from serious newspapers, The Daily Telegraph (“A triumph”), The Independent (“Profoundly moving”), and many more. It’s won some serious international prizes.

So, what’s it all about (Alfie)? The narrator is a middle class author. The narrative is her account of how her relationship with her cleaning lady, Emerence, ended in disaster and Emerence’s death – a death for which the narrator blames herself (that’s not a spoiler, it’s a teaser from the first chapter). More than that though, it’s a character and relationship study of these two women (with the shallowly drawn husband having an occasional walk on part).

Character then here is everything, and that’s a problem because while the narrator is credible Emerence is closer to an ambulatory plot device, utterly unconvincing as an actual human being. The other problem with this novel is its portentous and overwrought prose and deeply repetitive structure. Here’s an early quote:

One can tell instinctively what sort of flower a person would be if born a plant, and her genus certainly wasn’t the rose, with its shameless carmine unfolding – the rose is no innocent. I felt immediately that Emerence could never be one, though I still knew nothing about her, or what she would one day become.

That “what she would one day become” is typical of the novel’s style, which makes constant use of heavy hints of dark secrets and loss to follow. Of course, these cryptic references are only required because Szabo is intentionally holding back information so that it can be dramatically revealed later. It’s a writing technique I associate more with boilerplate thrillers and while it can work in serious fiction (Catch-22 pulls it off brilliantly) here it’s bluntly deployed.

I’ll come back to the structural issues. Before that I should say a little more about the plot and themes. The narrator and her husband are both intellectuals, and they need a cleaning lady to free them up from chores which otherwise take up too much of their time

Their answer is to hire an old lady named Emerence who they are told will not work for just anyone, she chooses her employers as much as they choose her. Emerence accepts them though, and they discover that she is no ordinary woman; rather a collection of peculiar requirements and habits who though a marvel in the domestic sphere is also very difficult to share territory with – unfortunate given the narrator works from home.

At first the narrator finds Emerence difficult, impossible even. Emerence shows no desire to make friends, to exchange pleasantries. She is angered by odd things, easily offended. She is though so good a cleaner that though the narrator is sometimes tempted to dismiss her, she always steps back from the brink. Instead, she becomes fascinated with unravelling the mystery of who Emerence is, what made her the person she has become.

Leaving aside the arrogance within the fiction of treating a domestic servant as some kind of anthropological subject (and there’s a credible interpretation that says the narrator’s attitude is as much the book’s subject as the relationship), Szabo is able to use Emerence as a vehicle able to carry the weight of 20th Century Hungarian history. Emerence has lived through a great deal, has been shaped by the country’s traumas, and to understand Emerence one must in part understand Hungary itself.

This is partly what stops Emerence ever really becoming a person. She’s a survivor carrying the burden of history, she’s an impossible presence in the narrator’s home, she’s a set of behaviour patterns which appear inexplicable and which the narrative slowly unravels. She’s all those things, but she isn’t human.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that I read this so soon after Anna Édes. Kosztolányi also explores the relationship between servant and employer, and how employers can see servants as less than truly human. Kosztolányi though writes with insight and above all with empathy, humanity even. There is an equality of subject in Anna Édes, all its characters are equally real. Here that isn’t true. The narrator is real. Emerence is merely interesting.

The book does raise issues about the reliability of its own narration, not in the sense that the narrator is unreliable but rather in that she herself over the book comes to reinterpret and question her own understandings. Frequently the narrator comes to conclusions that she later decides are wrong; she makes assumptions about Emerence which she learns to be untrue. That doesn’t make it better though, because the pattern of event, conclusion, re-evaluation becomes so predictable.

I promised to return to the book’s structural issues, and the worst of them is this repetitive cycle of incident. Emerence says something or carries out some action which makes the narrator furious. The narrator comes to reconsider that comment or action, its motivations, and understands that it and they weren’t as they first appeared. The narrator comes to a new understanding of of Emerence and herself. Rinse and repeat.

It’s a serious issue, but it’s not what ultimately caused me to close the book. It wasn’t the final, fatal flaw. That was the book’s utter seriousness; its utter lack of humour

At one point Emerence tells a possibly untrue story of her childhood featuring beautiful blond “siblings” (a word that rang oddly to me coming from Emerence, supposedly an uneducated peasant woman). Due to Emerence’s lack of care when looking after them they were killed by lightning, at the sight of which Emerence’s mother drowned herself in a well. It’s clear that none of this may be true, but it’s so absurd, so bathetic, that it just threw me right out of the novel. I came close to laughing at it.

In the end I’ve nothing positive to say here. That being so, the best I can do is point you to other reviews which better reflect the wider consensus on it. There’s an excellent one here from Tom at A Common Reader (an excellent blog by the way, and Tom’s opinion is worth taking seriously), and a fairly representative one from the more traditional critical sphere here at The Telegraph (by Tibor Fischer no less). I do suggest you read both, because a great many people (many of them with excellent taste) love this novel and you might be one of them. Not, however, me.

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Filed under Hungarian fiction, Rix, Len (translator), Szabó, Magda

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