David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: antal szerb

Books of the Year 2014

I had less time for reading this year than I would have liked. When I selected Drago Jancar’s haunting and beautiful The Tree with No Name for Slate’s Overlooked Books, it was still with the knowledge that I’d read a lot less fiction than I’d wanted. And Antal Szerb’s excellent, though modest Journey by Moonlight is a bit of a cheat, since I read it (and wrote about it) when Pushkin Press published it all the way back in 2003, rather than when NYRB Classics reissued it this year. It’s stayed with me, though, so I can pick it with more certainty than some of the other choices.

Seeing Richard McGuire’s long-gestating Here finally be published bookends my reading the original 8 page version in RAW when I was 13, when it changed my life. I wrote about the original Here in 2003 too.

And Alonso de Ercilla’s 1569 Spanish-Chilean epic The Araucaniad has been an alluring title to me since I read about it in David Quint’s fascinating Epic and Empire in connection with Lucan’s Civil War. Quint described The Araucaniad as one of those rare epics that takes the side of the losers, and it’s one of those artifacts, like Lucan’s Civil War, that doesn’t fit neatly with any common sense of literary history. Its relevance stems from its own grim variation on a theme that is at the heart of so many great epics and books: in Quint’s words, “that those who have been victimized losers in history somehow have the right to become victimizing winners, in turn.” It deserves a new translation.

As with last year, I haven’t read the entirety of some of the nonfiction selections: Chris Wickham is an excellent historian but I’m not going to deny that some of his Annales-ish wonkery had my eyes skimming. And while the biology and physics books are pretty interesting, I can’t say with much certainty that they’re accurate.

If anyone’s curious as to why some book or other made the list, feel free to ask in the comments. Thanks again for reading my work here or elsewhere.

(As always, I do not make any money from these links; they’re just the easiest way to get the thumbnails.)


Contemporaries and Snobs (Modern and Contemporary Poetics)

Price: $33.20

1 used & new available from $33.20

The Tree with No Name (Slovenian Literature)

Price: $6.56

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I Am China: A Novel

Price: $13.99

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All Our Names

Price: $4.99

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Foreign Gods, Inc.

Price: $9.99

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A Voice Full of Cities: The Collected Essays of Robert Kelly

Price: $36.00

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Prae, Vol. 1

Price: $40.00

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The Time Regulation Institute

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The Alp (Swiss Literature)

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The Stories of Jane Gardam

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Harlequin's Millions: A Novel

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Journey by Moonlight (NYRB Classics)

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Midnight in the Century (NYRB Classics)

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Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach

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The Classical Tradition: Art, Literature, Thought

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Inside Paradise Lost: Reading the Designs of Milton's Epic

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Why Is There Philosophy of Mathematics At All?

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A World without Why

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Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away

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From Akhenaten to Moses: Ancient Egypt and Religious Change

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Religio Duplex: How the Enlightenment Reinvented Egyptian Religion

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The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself

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Social Dynamics

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Absolute Music: The History of an Idea

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Common Knowledge?: An Ethnography of Wikipedia

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Science and Emotions after 1945: A Transatlantic Perspective

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Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age

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July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914

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The Logical Must: Wittgenstein on Logic

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After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840–1900

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Arrival of the Fittest: Solving Evolution's Greatest Puzzle

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Pay Any Price

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Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous

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Becoming Mead: The Social Process of Academic Knowledge

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The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics after Napoleon

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Children into Swans: Fairy Tales and the Pagan Imagination

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Earth's Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters

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Forensic Shakespeare (Clarendon Lectures in English)

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The Computing Universe: A Journey through a Revolution

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Self and Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy, and Shame

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In Other Shoes: Music, Metaphor, Empathy, Existence

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Beautiful Darkness

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Dungeon: Twilight – Vol. 4: The End of Dungeon (4)

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Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen

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Incomplete Works

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The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Novel

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The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Novel

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Perfect Nonsense: Chaotic Comics and Goofy Games of George Carlson

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Weapons of Mass Diplomacy

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  • Explicably funny: “Ah, daylight: nature’s sunlamp.” (Thanks, G.)
  • Belgian writer Hugo Claus, who wrote the striking, perplexing, and recently translated Wonder (Archipelago), turns out to have dated Sylvia Kristel for a few years in the 1970s. I found this out while watching a bit of Claude Chabrol’s film Alice, his loose adaptation of Lewis Carroll, which (a) stars Kristel, and (b) looks rather bad. Stick with Jonathan Miller’s incredible Alice, the only version (as far as I know) to have been influenced by William Empson’s essay on Carroll, “The Child as Swain.”
  • I’m very happy to see that the amazing resource Hungarian Literature Online has returned with a new redesign. I voted for Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight in their poll over Esterhazy, Nadas, and Marai, which has currently put it over the edge to lead, though I can’t imagine it’ll win.

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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