Journey by Moonlight, Antal Szerb

Published by Pushkin Press in one of their cute, compact 5×7 editions, this is a novel with remarkably strange effects for its modest approach. There weren’t many people writing about pure dissatisfaction in Europe or America in the mid-1930′s, and Len Rix’s very contemporary translation helps, superficially, to unmoor the book from time and place. It reads nothing like Dezso Kosztolanyi’s social realism text Anna Edes, written a decade earlier. The setting hops from Budapest to Rome without incident, and the casual state of business and finances makes it seem as though the Great War never happened. Szerb came from a upper-class Hungarian background, and the novel contains traces of decadence and hints of a sheltered life. But Szerb reads sharper than all this….

Mihaly and Erzsi are a well-to-do but fundamentally lazy couple, and both are happy when they become separated during their honeymoon. Erzsi gets involved with manipulative men who treat her like dirt and nearly make her pine for Mihaly. Mihaly becomes obsessed with slipping into the shadows and divorcing himself from a staid, respectable life, following siblings Tamas (who committed suicide) and Eva, his tormented friends and masters as a teenager. Mihaly whines that he could never be as free as them, because “I was just too petty-bourgeois. At home they had brought me up too much that way, as you know.” Still they cast him in their plays:

I don’t have the slightest instinct for acting. I am incurably self-conscious, and at first I thought I would die when they gave me their grandfather’s red waistcoat so that I could become Pope Alexander the Sixth in a long-running Borgia serial. In time I did get the hang of it. But I never managed to improvise the rich baaroque tapestries they did. On the other hand, I made an excellent sacrificial victim. I was perhaps best at being poisoned and boiled in oil. Often I was just the mob butchered in the atrocities of Ivan the Terrible, and had to rattle my throat and expire twenty-five times in a row, in varying styles. My throat-rattling technique was particularly admired.

Szerb is able to preserve this buoyant tone throughout some dark and morbid incidents, and it’s clear that it is because Mihaly is indeed so petty-bourgeois that he is so invulnerable to the worst of what he walks through. He can’t be truly touched by tormented artists, repentant priests, or manipulative businessmen. His dissatisfaction drives him to consider suicide, but the recognition at the end is that he never even came close. Erszi’s chronicle is similar in her self-delusion but a trace more self-awareness only enables her to make more of a mess of her life. She stumbles through ex-lovers and new lovers with disgust and self-disgust, bravely damning the torpedos and getting nowhere. It’s less vivid than Mihaly’s tale, but it works as counterpoint: Mihaly looks even more hopeless in comparison.

Yet the book is light, with the same sort of bourgeois detachment that Mihaly finds in himself, and Szerb appears to intimate that this is how he himself deals with the world; i.e., that it would be inauthentic of him to deal with weightier topics that are outside of his own experience. Mihaly’s relationship with Tamas is so myopic and worshipful as to bring back memories of Death in Venice, but I respect Szerb’s book more. It holds itself back from pathos as well as romanticism.

Szerb died in the camps. There is nothing in Journey to suggest that he was at all troubled by what was coming; his detachment is greater than the Romanian Mihail Sebastian’s in his Journal, where his aesthetic reveries are constantly interrupted by a creeping panic which eventually balloons. Mihaly, and by extension, Szerb, could not commit to such visceral unease, and the book is one of the few written before the deluge that acknowledges a bourgeois unreality with an unblinkered eye.

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