Journey by Moonlight, Antal Szerb

4 stars4/5

Ever felt that you wanted to escape from your life? In Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, Mihaly does exactly this when he and his wife Erszi are accidentally parted on their honeymoon in Italy. The Hungarian couple seek romance in Venice but end up separated and on thier own individual journeys of discovery.

Pushkin Press, 2002 paperback edition, 240 pages - personal library

Mihaly wanders through the Italian countryside bumping into new acquaintances and indulging his nostalgic side by constantly ruminating on past friendships. In his adolesence, Mihaly becomes close to the brother and sister of the eccentric Ulpius family whose intense relationship and romantic bohemian lifestyle hold a fascinating appeal to him as a young ‘bourgeois’. Fate leads him to cross paths with more than one ghost from his past and it seems as if he can’t escape from his memories no matter how deep into the Italian countryside he strays. Erszi on the other hand who seemed to me amazingly tolerant, discovers herself in Paris to be quite capable and suprises herself by developing a new outlook that is completely averse to the decadence of her surroundings.

I loved the fact that while Mihaly is constantly philosophising about the purpose of his life, Erzsi is getting on with hers! The quality of Szerb’s writing (beautifully translated by Len Rix) is wonderful. A couple of favourite quotes for your delectation:

“In London November isn’t a month,” he said “it’s a state of mind.” (Page 81)

“Is there any man who wouldn’t respond to the dulcet tones of an unknown woman on the telephone? If women knew men they would ask us for everything over the telephone in unfamiliar voices.” (Page 81)

(On his own condition) “Some sort of sporadic catapleptic apodictitis.” “Acute nostalgia.” (Page 97)

I was impressed by how real and well-defined the characters of Erzsi and Millicent were (Millicent is a young American who Mihaly dismisses as stupid, but who seemed quite bright to me). Published in 1937, I was surprised at how modern this book feels, perhaps because of the candid way that human emotions and entanglements are described.

Mihaly is the real star of the novel though. He is simultanously pathetic and endearing, which gives the novel a tragi-comic flavour. He is full of pompous opinions that resulted in more than one out-loud chuckle from me as I read along. He’s a character you’ll be frustrated or amused by depending on your point of view! My fellow book-grouper Reading Matters found him too passive and raises an interesting question in her review about his melancholic state could actually be depression (her excellent review is here).

I discovered Journey by Moonlight when I was looking for something to read on a trip to Budapest, and am really pleased that I did. Incidentally it doesn’t feature much about Hungary at all except in exploring the background and mentality of the people in it, and Venice features even less (despite the cover) so don’t get a copy expecting a portrait of The City of Romance!

Journey by Moonlight has the qualities that I associate with a real classic as it is a book with alot of depth to it. Szerb explores many themes, amongst them the complexities of sexual versus platonic love, personal discovery, fear and obsession with death and the appeal of romance and mysticism against the pull of borgeouis comforts.  Journey by Moonlight is also a more substantial read than it looks – I felt as if in those 240 pages I’d really been on a bit of an epic journey with Mihaly and all the other characters. A rich and many-layered story.

Has anyone else come across Szerb’s writing before? In some aspects this novel reminded me a little of Sandor Marai’s Embers. I wonder if this is a theme in Hungarian literature or perhaps these books are the exception?

10 responses to “Journey by Moonlight, Antal Szerb

  1. I’m intrigued. I saw Kim’s review and now seeing yours it sounds quite an unusual and interesting read. One for the wishlist rather than rushing out to get. My only thing with it is… Why didn’t he go and find his wife?

  2. I’m planning to read this book very soon. I really didn’t know what to expect from it so I enjoyed your review. Thanks!

  3. Great review, Polly! And thanks for linking to mine.
    I found this a kind of frustrating read — too uneven and Mihaly’s passivity annoyed me — but it was a great book for discussion.
    I’ve read a few Hungarian novels now, and I’m prone to think they tend to be too navel-gazing and intellectual for me.

    • There is an inordinate amount of belly-button fluff examination isn’t there? I think he’s just the kind of character you simultaneously want to slap and laugh at!

  4. Pingback: Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb « chasing bawa

  5. I really enjoyed your review. This book has been on my radar for a while and I even walked past an old £1 copy of it in my local second hand book shop – now I really wish I hadn’t! I liked Embers overall although can relate to the navel gazing comment and appreciate not having too much of that – definitely going to look out for Journey by Moonlight now – thanks for reviewing it 0:)

  6. Pingback: Novel Insights’ Top 12 Books – 2011 | Novel Insights

  7. I enjoyed Embers, so I’ve popped this on my wish list! 😀

    • Ooh, it’s quite different from Embers and also completely not set in Hungary but I found it a very entertaining read. Hope you like it too 🙂

  8. Pingback: Eline Vere by Louis Couperus | Novel Insights

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