Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
16 July, 2011
Published by Pushkin Press, Antal Szerb’s literary masterpiece Journey by Moonlight is indeed a masterpiece. I had never heard of the title or author until it was chosen by Polly for book group and I have to admit I inwardly groaned to hear it was an East European title and I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for something dark and heavy. I know, I’m such an ignorant uncultured. But this, Journey by Moonlight, was truly sublime. At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it. I thought it was a confused mixture that reminded me simultaneously of Sandor Marai’s Embers which left me lukewarm and my favourite novel of all time, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Yet this feeling lasted only for a chapter or so and it quickly began to morph into something else.
Mihály is on his honeymoon to Venice with his new wife Erzsi whom he has seduced and stolen away from her first husband Zoltán Pataki. It is his first time in Italy, a country he has often dreamt of as an adolescent with his friends, Támás and Éva, and later their schoolmates János and Ervin. Now 36, Mihály suddenly finds himself in a bout of intense nostalgia and longing for the friends he has lost and, leaving his wife on a train back to Rome, escapes from his world that has lost all meaning. In doing so, he sets about a train of events that will lead him to ponder his life, re-encounter his friends who have all struck out on their individual paths and shake the ghost of Támás once and for all.
This is quite a difficult novel to describe. In some sense it is a bildungsroman but of a 36 year old man who has never really grown up. Mihály, who has always been different, has spent his whole life conforming and has finally reached breaking point upon completing what he has set out to do by making a respectable marriage approved by all. It’s like a version of what happens next to the Generation X of the interwar years. There is a heavy air of melancholia particular to Mittel-European literature that pervades this novel, but Szerb’s skill as a writer keeps a light touch throughout. There are episodes that made me laugh at the absurdity of people, especially those to do with Zoltán, a businessman playboy who has lost the only thing he has ever loved and would do anything to get his beloved wife back, and Mihály’s university friend Rudi Waldheim, a pompous academic who forever lives as though he was still a student even though he is saddled with a wife and child who abhor him for his common ancestry.
In some ways Journey by Moonlight is a love letter to pre-WWII Italy. Yet for a novel written in the 1930s, it felt incredibly modern. There is a lot of history, culture and philosophy, profound thoughts that Mihály has on his journey, but Szerb is a wonderful writer, and his translator Len Rix does him justice, making this a smooth and interesting reading experience. He describes the small, petty cowardices in man, things which we have all experienced and hence recognise in Mihály. It could be middle-age crisis, but it feels like something he has been dragging throughout his life. What I really liked about the novel was the vitality of the characters. They had an intimacy that drew you in, an empathy which kept you hoping that things will work out.
I didn’t know how the ending would have worked out, but after I read the last page, I felt that this novel was complete. In the afterword, Len Rix says that Journey by Moonlight is a novel that every Hungarian school kid is made to read. I can understand why because it is a beautiful and brilliant book. But I’m not sure whether I would have understood it as teenager myself.
However, I will leave you with my favourite quote from the book which left me smiling:
‘In London November isn’t a month,’ he said, ‘it’s a state of mind.’