03. 17. 2006. 10:33

A sentimental journey through Italy and France

Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight

There are few things as annoying as barely making the train, only to realize that it is the wrong train going in the wrong direction. For Mihály, the hero of Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, however, such nuisances are inevitable and even necessary as he progresses through his ordeal-like journey in Italy.

True, he is somewhat aghast when a fellow traveller informs him that the train he has managed to climb on in the last moment is not going to Rome. After all, it was only minutes ago that he was sitting on another train with Erzsi, his wife, travelling to Rome on their honeymoon. All he did was to get off for a coffee when they stopped at Terontola. Yet, the initial shock quickly abates, and the fleeting comfort (perhaps pleasure) of barely making the train seems to linger. Mihály is now on his way to Perugia.

It is not an ordinary way for a honeymoon to go wrong, but it is not an ordinary honeymoon either. By the time Mihály resigns himself to staying on the train and continuing his journey alone, he has already become rather estranged from Erzsi (so much so that the night before their departure from Florence to Rome, he secretly took half of their money from her handbag). Still, what could possibly make a newlywed thirty-six-year-old man – otherwise a typical middle-class intellectual with a decent job in his father’s firm – part with his wife in a foreign country? In Mihály’s case, the answer is a gradually growing sense of bewilderment fuelled by drink, unexpected events and nostalgia. From the moment the couple set foot in Italy, Mihály has odd experiences and behaves oddly – disappearing for a whole night in Venice; bumping into János Szepetneky, a highly unlikeable former acquaintance, in Ravenna; receiving a letter from Erzsi’s former husband in Florence; and drinking more and more throughout. Bewilderment is infectious. Erzsi, too, becomes increasingly baffled as the story unfolds. In Venice, she spends the night awake worrying about Mihály, but she receives no proper explanation when he finally returns. In Ravenna, she is confronted by János Szepetneky’s open hostility, followed by Mihály’s long self-revelatory narrative about his past – a story she has never known and has had nothing to do with until then. Although in Florence, her mind is momentarily put to rest by Mihály’s surprisingly cheerful and gentle conduct, the way she jokingly bids him farewell on the train when he decides to get off for a coffee at Terontola – “Do write to me!” – seems to suggest that unconsciously she must be prepared for what follows.

Mihály is an experienced traveller, but he has never been to Italy before. The journey is of special significance to him from the beginning. “Tell me, why do I feel as if I spent part of my youth among these hilltop towns?” he asks at Cortona, just before Terontola, as their train progresses through the Tuscan landscape. The banality of the question is apparent. Even the attentive Erzsi leaves it unanswered. Yet, Mihály is deadly serious; his subsequent quest through Umbria, Tuscany and Rome is but a long testimony to the gravity of his nostalgia. He seems unable to break away from his youth, or rather the memory of the four characters who populate the account of his adolescent life – the Ulpius siblings (Tamás and Éva), Ervin, and János Szepetneky. The story Mihály has to tell about these people is a strange one, focusing as it does on the almost mythical figures of the siblings (especially Tamás Ulpius), and it never really ends. The young Mihály, plagued by physical and mental difficulties (He sees whirlpools around him.), makes close friends with his mysterious classmate, Tamás Ulpius, by chance; and as he becomes a regular visitor at the Ulpius house in the Castle Hill district of Buda, his life is totally transformed. So are the lives of Ervin and János, who join the company later and are similarly attracted to Tamás or Éva or both of them. In due course, the situation changes, and Tamás’s all-too-expected suicide along with Éva’s disappearance puts an end to the legendary friendship of the five young people. However, the mythology of the Ulpius house – whose one-time inhabitants and visitors were themselves attracted to various mythologies – lives on.

The sudden and rather unpleasant meeting with János Szepetneky in Ravenna prompts Mihály to relate this mythology to Erzsi. In the light of his intricate, self-reflexive narrative, it becomes clear that all the oddness in his behaviour so far must be attributed to the experiences behind his story, which – as Erzsi and the readers may well suspect – will inform his actions for the rest of the novel. After his escape, he is constantly confronted by his past as he meets all the major characters of his youth one by one in his aimless wandering through Italy – the place Tamás Ulpius constantly yearned for, but never actually got to. Meanwhile, Erzsi, who, for all her efforts to the contrary, becomes more and more entangled in the reverberations of the strange story, embarks on her own journey and ends up in Paris. The two of them meet once again for a short period of time; yet, their parallel lives point towards very similar conclusions.

The correspondence of Erzsi’s and Mihály’s fates is but one of the strange coincidences around which the novel’s plot is built. In fact, the narrative’s appeal derives partly from its strong grip on the reader’s attention. We are constantly kept in suspense as to whether the happenings are predetermined or mere chance. Besides the elaborate plot-structure, the focused and consistent presentation of the main characters also contributes to the narrative’s strong immediacy. The third person narrator develops all the important figures generously and sympathetically. In addition to the minute descriptions of Mihály’s anxieties, we are amply informed of Erzsi’s vicissitudes, and we receive proportionate accounts of the fates of János Szepetneky, Ervin and even Éva. These two aspects of the novel, taken together with Szerb’s deceptively easy, yet highly refined prose style, make it impossible to sum up the story as exclusively Mihály’s personal tragedy. True, his progress towards some sort of failure is inevitable from the moment he escapes – as if he were suddenly caught in a re-emerging whirlpool of his past – but his potentially tragic story is absorbed in Szerb’s wide and objective epic perspective.

It is customary to refer to Szerb – an assimilated Hungarian Jew who was born in 1901, and who died in a forced-labour camp in 1945 – as the exemplary “man of letters” of his age. His scholarly work and his fiction bear this out precisely. Among other things, he was the author of the hugely influential History of World Literature, and he became the president of the Hungarian Literary Academy at a very early age. Besides having a splendid academic career, he published novels, short stories and essays. The popularity of his work is well attested by the fact that two of his novels, The Pendragon Legend and Journey by Moonlight, were adapted as films in the seventies. The lucid and gracefully natural narrative style of Journey by Moonlight, along with the author’s refreshingly original treatment of highly traditional novelistic themes, has made the book something of a cult document among generations of Hungarian intellectuals. Now that the excellent English translation by Len Rix is available (published by the Pushkin Press in London in 2000), a wider audience may see for themselves how Szerb’s modern sentimental travellers fare.
Miklós Péti
Antal Szerb:Journey by Moonlight
Translated by Len Rix
London: Pushkin Press, 2005

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