Category Archives: Antal Szerb

Novel Insights’ Top 12 Books – 2011

I am savouring my last day off work today and feeling a little bit smug to be sat indoors out of the rain with nothing more taxing to do than mull over my favourite books of the past year. Actually, I say it’s not taxing but I started by trying to pick five books, then changed it to ten, and then bumped it up to twelve – whoops! Well that is one for every month – a perfectly good excuse in my opinion. Here they are:

How To Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran

5 stars 5/5

“…challenges all the stupid things that women are told (and tell themselves) with a big bucketful of humour…” Read full review.

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

5 stars 5/5

“…an important book and one that I think is up there with some of the best dystopian novels.” Read full review.

Never Let Me Go

In Love & Trouble, by Alice Walker

5 stars 5/5

“…each time I picked up Alice Walker’s collection of short stories, I felt as if time was suspended and I was transported completely to heat of the Southern America… The richness and vitality of Walker’s writing makes this book an utter pleasure to read.” Read full review.

Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

5 stars 5/5

“The stories sound barmy, and there is a heavy dose of the surreal, but at their heart Petrushevskaya’s tales  are real human experiences of grief, love and loss.” Read full review.

Through the Wall, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Purls of Wisdom, by Jenny Lord

5 stars 5/5

“…a book that I know I will refer to time and time again. I love the informal writing style because it feels just as if a friend is teaching you…” (AKA the book to blame for my knitting obsession in 2011!) Read full review.

Purls of Wisdom: The Book of Knitting

Mr Chartwell, by Rebecca Hunt

4.5 stars4.5/5

“I struggle to think of many other books that convey what is a very serious message with so much originality and seemingly so effortlessly.” Read full review.

Mary Anne, by Daphne du Maurier

4.5 stars4.5/5

“…a book, packed with with witty lines, and a richly described period setting which creates the backdrop for the story of a fascinating protagonist based on du Maurier’s own great-great-grandmother.” Read full review.

The Mermaids Singing, by Val McDermid

4.5 stars4.5/5

“I think that I might have found a new favourite crime writer to add to my list!” Read full review.

The Mermaids Singing

A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis

4 stars4/5

“Of course, this is a sad book to read, but also so beautifully and eloquently written… In an odd way, I believe that this little book could be comforting at a time of loss, if only because of how openly the author shares his experience.” Read full review.

Fateless, by Imre Kertész

4 stars4/5

“… a novel that will stay with me, because it is unique in the way that it addresses the experience of concentration camps. The writing is deceptively simple, and peppered with imaginative ideas…” Read full review.

Fateless, by Imre Kertesz

Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb

4 stars4/5

“…has the qualities that I associate with a real classic… A rich and many-layered story.” Read full review.

Before I go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson

4.5 stars4.5/5

“…smartly plotted, written compellingly and the premise is well-executed.” Read full review.

Before I go to Sleep

A retrospective look at Novel Insights tells me that in 2011 I read a total of 43 books which is a whole 30% lower than last year’s count of 62. I don’t get too hung up about the number of books that I read because I don’t like to over-organise or analyse the things I do for pleasure and for this reason I don’t really make reading resolutions.

That said, I do think that my reading and blogging can be seen as a bit of a barometer of how I’m feeling. While sometimes I read less because I’ve been occupied with nice, fun stuff (including quite a lot of knitting this year!) I have felt quite busy over the past few months and it is one of my resolutions to find a better balance between work and my leisure time.

Well that’s my little bit of naval-gazing over and done with! How was your 2011? Do you have any reading resolutions? What books really stood out for you this year?

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?