07. 12. 2006. 14:07

Culture as satire

Antal Szerb: The Pendragon Legend

The events within the castle and the pursuit of the MS are saturated in a tone of frivolity, where the chief topoi and motifs of European culture are turned inside out with an elegant and nonchalant sleight of a hand, a silk-gloved one. As an added bonus, the attentive reader gains a tremendous wealth of erudition in this totally pain-free process.

The author
Antal Szerb (1901–1945) was not known to the Hungarian public as first and foremost a novelist for a long time. Although his prose works were noted, he was best known and appreciated as a literary historian.  As the most important figure in this field during the interwar period, his influence reached well into the subsequent decades.
István Bibó described Hungarian history as a process of “belated development”, and the cultural milieu was defined by the same paradigm as society in general. A permanent confrontation prevailed between Western-oriented proponents of “homeland and progress” and those believing it was a matter of choice: either homeland or progress. Efforts at modernisation were constantly frustrated by patriarchal, traditionalist forces. Most of us are acquainted with the political aspects of debates that follow alongside social theory and practice. In literature, we can find the same motifs recurring. We can categorize these motifs roughly by their three distinguishing features or trends.
One of these trends is the conservative ethos of the political establishment held fast by its feudal roots. In literature, its correlative was the nationalist romanticism of quasi-bourgeois literature, articulated by the periodical Új idok (New Times) and earmarked by Ferenc Herczeg. The second trend was peasant literature, fed by the idea of the people, which also had a heavy political relevance. The third trend in the cultural-political field was the modernism of artists and intellectuals clustered around the periodical Nyugat (West) which – nomen est omen – aimed to catch up with the trends and experimental waves then extant in Western Europe. (It is incumbent here also to mention the Hungarian avant-garde, with the caveat that after the short-lived communist revolution of 1919, its main representatives emigrated. A few of them were later to return and – we are thinking here mainly of Lajos Kassák – to establish significant but short-lived periodicals.)
In this intellectual force field, representatives of critical, essayistic, and aesthetics-oriented thinking appear, according to the lines sketched out above. The position occupied by Antal Szerb was unique in that he belonged to a tradition, then extremely narrow in Hungary, though still fresh even in Western European thought. It is usually referred to as cultural or intellectual history, in the wake of 19th century German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey. Szerb was prominent mainly through his literary histories and essays. The History of World Literature and The History of Hungarian Literature follow neither the schemes of a Hegelian-Marxist, nor those of a plebeian, nor even those of an aristocratic ideology (neither progress, nor loss of value). Instead, they measure the various literary manifestations of the human spirit partly by the influence they achieved in the specific context of their age, and partly by the significance they attained in spite of the historical limitations of their times. Szerb was committed to and spellbound by “being measured by books”, to use Lévinas' expression about the Jewish tradition. His tragic death, "naturally", was brought about by the very movement that burnt books.
The work
The Pendragon Legend is a literary scholar’s book through and through. Some time in the 1920’s or 30’s, its hero János Bátky goes to England and there meets one Owen Pendragon, Earl of Gwynedd, who instantly turns out to be a soul mate. Both men are fanatic about 17th century English mystics, Bátky’s is particularly preoccupied by "alchemists, the secret of the homunculus, the influence of minerals and amulets, and Fludd's natural philosophy in which he proves the existence of God from the barometer". After this "everyday" social situation, the story takes unexpected twists and turns to sweep our hero, enriched with new friends, to the castle of the Earl in a wildly romantic Wales. 
The story takes but a few lines to retune entirely our polished, snobbish, over-civilised hearing in an attempt to adapt to the macabre sublimity of its subject matter. The tone in which Bátky narrates the story, a wavelength that is not difficult to get in tune with, sounds like the parody of an English social novel or a guided tour of P. G. Wodehouse land. At the same time, the language is enriched by echoes of Frigyes Karinthy, a contemporary of Szerb's, a brilliant poet, satirist and author of humorous prose. His parodic gallery of contemporary Hungarian and foreign authors, Így írtok ti (That's How You Write!) is particularly noticeably present beneath the surface of Szerb’s prose.
From this point on, The Pendragon Legend turns into a crime cum ghost cum historical cum horror cum mystical satire and novelistic parody. The events within the castle and the pursuit of the MS are saturated in a tone of frivolity, where the chief topoi and motifs of European culture are turned inside out with an elegant and nonchalant sleight of a hand, a silk-gloved one. As an added bonus, the attentive reader gains a tremendous wealth of erudition in this totally pain-free process.
Szerb does not himself evade the distorting mirror he sets out for others. It is easy to identify the bespectacled, thin little geek who steps into the library and at the sight of the laden shelves is overcome by an arousal that exceeds even his admiration for the fair sex. 
Szerb also shows a broad panorama of European culture, just as he does in his essays. This time, however, he understates the sublime tones, like the great dramatists. Heroes become clowns; drama turns into comedy on his stage. The Rosicrucians, Dante, Descartes, the mystics, and the entire Renaissance opposition of the occult versus the rational – all march through the pages. He refrains from distorting or altering the various characters from cultural history. It is only the tone of voice, the way he creates distance by sidelong steps, the slight shifts of perspective and modified proportions of shade and light that cause some of his figures to expand and others to shrink.
European tradition (and by this we mean innumerable shades of culture, including aspects of behaviour and details in the world of objects) turn into a colourful parade, a bright carnival under Szerb’s pen. 
In all fairness, it could be said that we are dealing with a picaresque novel. The dominant characteristic of The Pendragon Legend is the sense of a revolving stage with alternating characters and venues, with scenery changing in front of our eyes. Yet, this is more than a mere jeu d’esprit. In line with the abovementioned Karinthy, who said that humour was no joking matter, this novel is mainly to do once again with the so eminently European attitude, which insists that distance, self-reflecting wit, irony and absurdity are indispensable criteria for experience and understanding the self.
Lajos Jánossy

Translated by Orsolya Frank

A Hungarian in Wales: The Guardian's review on The Pendragon Legend
Antal Szerb: The Pendragon Legend
Translated by Len Rix
London: Pushkin Press, 2006

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