Wednesday, 17 October 2007

The Lethal Twilight

It is not normal for a story that concerns itself mainly with death and suicide to be humorous but in the novels of Antal Szerb the abnormal is, well, normal.

Szerb was born in Hungary l901, into a family of Jewish descent, although practising Catholics. An intellectual, respected as a writer, historian and playwright, he was published during his life on Ibsen, Blake, and histories of English and World Literatures. After the German occupation of Hungary in 1944 Szerb was considered a Jew under the anti-Jewish laws prevalent in Hungary in the early 1940s, and sacked from his job as a teacher. He was recruited to a forced labour camp and died in such a camp, at Balf, in 1945 just as the war was ending.

But there is nothing of the awful difficulties of his own life in his two novels, The Pendragon Legend and Journey by Moonlight.

The Pendragon Legend is set in Pendragon Castle in Wales, the seat of the Earl of Gwynedd, where shadows loom in flickering torchlight and ghostly hooves are heard on fogbound roads. Here an inheritance is at stake, a murder committed, unspeakable things lie hidden in the depths of the black lake, the whole seeming to parody the gothic and romantic genres in a way which rivals Jane Austen. But it would be a mistake to assume this positively gleeful genre hopping story is just satire. Pendragon Castle is filled with unreliable narrators in an unreliable landscape, and not all the ghosts are imaginary.

But it is Journey by Moonlight which is considered Szerb’s masterpiece.

Mihály the hero narrator of Journey by Moonlight, an Hungarian intellectual, like his creator, is travelling through Italy with his new wife Erszi, on honeymoon. The book’s events are prefigured within its first few pages, as Mihály wanders alone among the back-alleys of Venice searching for the sweet taste of Samian wine, finding a peculiar attraction in this closed world “where …ten paces infringe a boundary, decades are spent around a shabby table, whole lives in an armchair…”. Never quite finding his glass of wine despite passing numerous bars, Mikaly realises that he has walked the whole night. It is nearly morning and now he finds himself on the Fondamenta Nuova, staring at the burial island.

The Italian landscape plays its part to perfection in this story : here are no incense filled churches, vineyards or Tuscan olive groves, but rooms seen through the doors of the dead, inhabited by ghosts, dreams, everywhere the lethal twilight; in Venice, stalking the streets of Rome, in the black hooded figures of funeral mourners, the medieval alleys of Gubbio.

He constantly visits the past or is visited by it in his memories, searching his mind for the comforting bohemian adolescence in the house of the grand but impoverished Ulpius family in Budapest; carrying his love for his childhood friend Èva Ulpius with him like a gothic dream, inextricably tied up with the death by suicide of Èva’s brother Tamás.

And always present, half reality, half impossible paradox, Mihaly’s disastrous marriage to Erszi – a woman he has married in a desperate bid for what he considers bourgeois normality, the very normality which his wife in her turn is trying to escape by marrying an intellectual.

But despite the constant symbolism and otherworldliness, there is irony, humour and a sort of wry self-admonition. During much of the book, Mihaly is ill, lost, asleep, drunk or a mixture of all four at once, when he is not marvelling at the landscape or weeping at the grave of Keats. Despite his shabby treatment of poor Erszi, Mihály manages to retain our sympathy as he wanders from hilltop town to hilltop town in his search, this journey which is about leaving adolescence behind, or trying to, the choices we have the courage to make, or those we have not the will to resist.

In his unsettled frame of mind, he sees omens everywhere, of death, of mourning. Here, Mihály attends a party at the American Archaeological Institute in Rome to which he has been invited by a friend. He hears chanting nearby:

Now he could hear quite distinctly that the voices beyond the wall were singing, and there were several of them probably men ,intoning a dirge unlike anything ever heard in which certain distinct but unintelligible sounds rhythmically occurred. There was a profound desolation in the song, something not quite human, from a different order of experience, something reminiscent of the howling of animals on long dark nights, some ancient grief from the great age of trees, from the era of the umbrella pines…and he thought, this is how one would mourn for the death of a God

Seeing no value in the present, yet justifiably nervous of returning to Budapest and trying to reclaim his past – especially as the latter would involve confessing to his family the ruination of his marriage - Mihaly rejects the idea of returning to work in his father’s firm. Yet he can find nothing with which to replace what he perceives as bourgeois values of work, wife, children, except an unreal world peopled with ghosts.

“What did the shade of Achilles say,?” he pondered, ‘ I would rather be a cotter in my father’s house than a prince among the dead..’ For me, it’s the reverse. I’d rather be a cotter here, among the dead, than a prince at home, in my father’s house. Only, I’d need to know what exactly a cotter is …”

In Gubbio and Ravenna, he meets again old friends from his days in Budapest, all have moved on to other lives. Ervin, now a devout Francsican monk; János Szepetneki, a confidence trickster; the supremely moral and the amoral, but both figures having a confidence and certainty that Mihály can only envy as he drifts on shifting psychological ground, eventually coming to the conclusion that his journey may have only one resolution.

Amongst his many troubles, or perhaps as a result of them, Mihály, suffers from a form of agoraphobia in which the ground opens into a whirlpool beneath his feet and he feels himself disappearing. Reading the novels of Antal Szerb seemed to me to offer a similar experience.

It is only thanks to recent translations by Len Rix that these two books have become available to the English speaking world. They are a wonderful insight into a pre-war culture of middle-European intelligentsia. And the courage of a man who, despite the fear which overshadowed Europe at the time he was writing, could still find this encouragement for his autobiographical hero.

We carry within ourselves the direction our lives will take. Within ourselves burn the timeless, fateful stars.

The Pendragon Legend, Antal Szerb (1934). English translation Len Rix, Pushkin Press 2006

Journey by Moonlight, Antal Szerb (1937) English Translation Len Rix, Pushkin Press 2002


Rob said...

Interesting. Especially as I'd never heard of Szerb before, and now I've read about him twice in as many days. Here, and over at Harry's Heraclitean Fire blog - here:

Frances said...

Thanks Rob. What a great name for a blog. I'm going to look now.