Thursday, 25 September 2014

'Journey by Moonlight' by Antal Szerb (Review)

While I'm lucky enough to be fairly up to speed on a lot of what's happening in the world of translated fiction, it's impossible to cover everything, and there have been many times when I haven't got around to trying a book others read years ago.  One of those much-praised writers is Hungarian author Antal Szerb, another of those European writers whose reputation Pushkin Press has been trying to restore in the Anglosphere, and the book which has won most praise is his novel Journey by Moonlight.

So, having got there at last, will I be adding my name to the long list of admirers?

Let's just call that a yes...

Journey by Moonlight (translated by Len Rix, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a beautiful, entertaining novel, a book whose pages seem to fly by.  It's the story of a recently-married Hungarian couple, Mihály and Erzsi, who have travelled to Italy for their honeymoon.  However, what should be a happy time quickly turns sour.  In addition to a chance encounter with one of Mihály's old friends, a rather unpleasant meeting, there's the small matter of a mix-up at a small train station - when Mihály gets back on the train, he realises that he and his wife are now bound for different destinations...

From there, the two stories diverge, and we learn about the couple's pasts as they think back to what came before, trying to work out how to move forward.  Szerb sets his stories against a luscious Italian backdrop with a whole cast of wonderfully eccentric, fleshed-out characters, and while the whole novel sails serenely by, there's a sense that everything is exactly as it should be, and that a dramatic denouement is just around the corner :)

Journey by Moonlight is the story of a marriage at cross purposes.  The two ill-matched partners are hoping that marriage will help them to solve their issues; the problem is that each has a very different idea of what their future should hold.  Erzsi, the society lady, is bored and is longing to escape the dull conformity of her previous existence.  Having run away with her lover, she's now married again and beginning to sense that she might have made a huge mistake...

...and she has.  You see, Mihály has his own issues.  While Erzsi has a longing for the bohemian life, her new husband is desperate to move in the other direction and become a more conventional man.  In fact, his choice of Italy for his honeymoon is confirmation of this turn:
"During his protracted years of wandering he had travelled in many lands, and spent long periods in France and England.  But Italy he had always avoided, feeling the time had not yet come, that he was not ready for it.  Italy he associated with grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children, and he secretly feared it, with the same instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women."
p.9 (Pushkin Press, 2013)
He's finally made it to Italy because he believes he's ready to settle down, but it's very unlikely to happen - Mihály is a dreamer incapable of knuckling down to a steady work life.

We soon learn that the roots of his issues lie in the events of his youth, part of which he spent with a group of rather unconventional friends.  The doomed depressive Tamás Ulpius and his beautiful sister Éva, the criminal János Szepetneki and the religious Ervin (later to become a priest) - it's a fascinating group of people, but not one likely to accept the rigours of the nine-to-five.  Mihály's flight to Italy is an attempt to detach himself from the group's influence.  Sadly, it turns out that he can't get away from them, and in a well-plotted story, it all comes full circle.

As mentioned above, Journey by Moonlight is an easy read, and a most enjoyable one.  It's crammed with fascinating anecdotes and wonderful descriptions of Italy (of both the countryside and the famous cities).  It's also a very European book with its scattering of foreign extras, and in scale and detail, it's almost movie-like at times.  As the pages slip by, it's only too easy to see why Mihály is happy to be lost ;)

The effect is heightened by the great writing and the sumptuous translation.  Journey by Moonlight is such an easy book to read, that it was actually far too tempting to just sit back and enjoy and forget to take notes - Len Rix, take a bow.  This pleasure is also enhanced by the frequent light touch the writer utilises:
"I can't begin to describe how simple and natural it was just then to commit suicide.  I was drunk, and at that age drink always produced the feeling in me that nothing mattered.  And that afternoon it freed in me the chained demon that sleeps, I believe, in the depths of everyone's consciousness.  Just think, dying is so much more easy and natural and natural than staying alive..."
"Do get on with the story," said Erzsi impatiently. (p.51)
I enjoyed the occasional comic scenes, such as Mihály's entanglements with Millicent, a rich American art student, and his talks with a *very* English doctor, and these detours prevented the book from slipping into darkness, despite the serious nature of some of the events.

If I were to try to sum the book up, I'd say that it's a novel which looks at how to live a life.  There are many paths to take (priest, thief, worker, socialite, layabout, academic, suicide), examples of which stroll through the pages of the book.  The question is whether Mihály is strong enough to go his own way:
"Oh, Mihály, the world won't tolerate a man giving himself up to nostalgia."
 "It doesn't tolerate it.  It doesn't tolerate any deviation from the norm.  Any desertion or defiance, and sooner or later it turns the Zoltáns on you." (p.247)
As it turns out, it's not quite as easy to live your own life as you'd think...

Journey by Moonlight is a book which has long been championed by virtually everyone in my blogging circles, and it turns out that they were all absolutely right.  It's a book to savour, a book to reread, a great discovery, and I'm very happy that I (belatedly) made the time to read it.  Congratulations to Len Rix and Pushkin Press for bringing Szerb's work into English - and rest assured that there'll be more of his work to come on the blog before too long ;)