Tag Archives: Venice

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?

The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson

Sarah, of A Devoted Reader recommended Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion to me when I was looking for books to read  in Venice (you can find my final choices here). I actually didn’t read it on holiday (I was a little ambitious with choosing five books to read on a long weekend!), and didn’t get round to reading it until recently. I think this was partly because I had the impression that it would be quite an ‘odd’ book and I wasn’t quite in the mood for odd books until recently. After reading The Castle of Otranto I thought it would have to work hard to be stranger than that!

And… The Passion is an unusual book, however having finished it I now want to read everything Jeanette Winterson has ever written. What an absolutely wonderful storyteller.

The Passion doesn’t really lend itself easily to a synopsis but I will try to give you a flavour of what it is about without giving the whole story away. It is a book made up of four parts and set during the Napoleonic Wars. In the first part of the story, we are introduced to Henri, a young man who has left his rural home in France to fight for Napoleon. In the second part, we meet the enigmatic Villanelle who is a Venetian boatman’s daughter. At night she dresses as a man and ventures into the seductive world of the Venice casinos.

The story is written in the first person in both instances which means the reader gets their unique perspectives. The reader travels with the characters over vast continents and share their thoughts and their passions.

Throughout the book, Winterson explores many different kinds of ‘passion’. First comes the violent and irrational passion of war-making, out of which she observes that victory is never ‘limited’, either because the loser of a battle will seek revenge or because the victor doesn’t know when to consolidate his gains, gambling even when he is in ‘profit’:

“Victors lose when they are tired of winning, the impulse to gamble the valuable, fabulous thing is too strong.”

Of course this idea of gambling and victory also applies to the passion between lovers whether requited or unrequited. I found Winterson’s discussion of love and passion beautiful and moving. She explores how passion can trap you in her leopard metaphor;

“You might reason that you can easily feed a leopard and that your garden is big enough, but you will know in your dreams at least that no leopard is ever satisfied with what it is given. After nine nights must come ten and every desperate meeting only leaves you desperate for another. There is never enough to eat, never enough garden for your love.”

She also shows the other side of the coin, how love can make a person free:

“To love someone else enough to forget about yourself even for one moment is to be free.”

The idea of passion is developed in so many places in the book even down to the simple pleasure of food, which is even more pronounced for the characters faced with hardship and a harsh environment. I really enjoyed how well this theme was explored and articulated.

Other things I loved in the book… the character of Villanelle. She is a strong woman, sometimes a saviour and also a whore. At times she is wildly feminine and at others androgynous. Her glorious red hair is an outward display of her passionate nature. Of course I relished the descriptions of Venice having fallen in love with it when I visited.

“This is the city of mazes. You may set off from the same place to the same place every day  and never go by the same route. If you do so, it will be by mistake. Your bloodhound nose will not serve you here. Your course in compass reading will fail you.”

“At midnight the bells ring out from every one of their churches and they have a hundred and seven at least. I have tried to count, but it is a living city and no one really knows what buildings are there from one day to the next.”

When I began reading The Passion I didn’t have a clue where it was going, but enjoyed the beautiful magical storytelling elements. I then felt rewarded with a tale that really fulfilled everything I could hope for in a real ‘story’. A fantastic piece of writing in more than one sense of the word.

My Rating:

9 out of 10

Have you read The Passion or any of Winterson’s other novels that you can recommend?

Book Review – Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier

Don't Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne Du MaurierWhen I was compiling my list of books to take on holiday, I was delighted to find that there was a Daphne Du Maurier short story called Don’t Look Now which was set in Venice. In typical Du Maurier style, Don’t Look Now is a little masterpiece of suspense fiction. It drew me in and gave me a short sharp shock that left me decidedly unnerved.

In the story, John and Laura visit Venice to try to find an escape from the pain of the loss of their daughter and to help patch up their relationship. While out for lunch one day they encounter two old women – twins – one of which is blind and appears to have second sight. They make an alarming prophecy. Instead of finding solace on their holiday, John and Laura find themselves entangled in a series of strange events.

Quite simply, Don’t Look Now is one of the creepiest short stories I’ve ever read. I’m sure that it didn’t help that I was in Venice at the time of reading it but I think even without that it would have frightened me.

What I thought was so effective about the story was that the characters of John and Laura were so plausible, their conversations so typical in the way that they joked with each other and then argued over the Twin’s prediction. John takes the rational route, where Laura feels that there could be something in it. Are they really in danger or is Laura just overwrought after the loss of her daughter? It’s actually a pretty sad state of affairs, but Du Maurier is a totally unsentimental author which I think is part of why I love her writing so much.

I’ve only read one of the other stories from this compilation, (Not After Midnight) which I thought was good but nothing like Don’t Look Now. I would totally sanction buying the book just for this one tale though as I haven’t found as suspenseful short story since I read Sophie Hannah’s The Octopus Nest from The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets.

Don’t read Don’t Look Now if you’re easily spooked!

Have you read any really good short stories recently?

Book Review – The Haunted Hotel, by Wilkie Collins

Haunted Hotel Wilkie Collins Don’t you just love this cover? I read this on my iPhone Eucalyptus App so I didn’t have the pleasure of having the lovely Penguin copy, but I might tempted to buy it.

I chose The Haunted Hotel as one of my Venice Reads and as I usually find with Wilkie Collins novels, it didn’t disappoint.

The Haunted Hotel is a sort of ghost story-come-mystery. The tale opens in England, where a wild-eyed Countess Narona visits Doctor Wybrow in a state of distress, convinced that she is going mad. Her husband-to-be, Lord Montbarry has jilted his kind-hearted fiancé, Agnes for her. The Countess is convinced that Agnes will somehow bring about her downfall. After the marriage, the Countess and Lord Montbarry move to Venice where they stay in a decaying palace. The plot thickens when Lord Montbarry dies, leaving £10,000 insurance money which is claimed by his widow, and simultaneously the wife of Montbarry’s close servant, a courier named Ferrari, receives an anonymous note containing £1,000. The courier has also mysteriously disappeared. The palace is later turned into a fashionable hotel where ghostly goings on occur in room number 13A.

As with many of Collins’s novels, The Haunted Hotel has a strong theme of destiny. The book opens with a satisfying sense of doom and the suggestion that something gruesome is yet to occur. Despite being a comparatively short novel at 240 pages it felt surprisingly in-depth. Collins spends time setting the scene and building up the suspense carefully. I have to admit that there were a couple of points at which I found myself losing concentration in the middle part of the book and wondering where it was all going, but this was more than made up for by the last third of the book which was genuinely creepy!

If you’ve read my comments on Armadale and The Moonstone, it will come as no surprise that I’m a bit of fan of Wilkie Collins, especially in the way that he dramatises his characters, for example in his description of the Countess:

“Every human creature, with the slightest claim to a place in society, knew the Countess Narona. An adventuress with a European reputation of the blackest possible colour- such was the general description of the woman with the deathlike complexion and the glittering eyes.”

His sharp descriptions of comic (Mrs Ferrari) or sadly unattractive (Mrs. Rolland) comments are also very witty.

“A person of unblemished character, evidently – but not without visible drawbacks. Big bushy eyebrows, an awfully deep and solemn voice, a harsh unbending manner, a complete absence in her figure of the undulating lines characteristic of the sex, presented Virtue in this excellent person under its least alluring aspect. Strangers, on a first introduction to her, were accustomed to wonder why she was not a man.”

I loved the narrative voice, especially at the end of the novel where I felt a bit as if I was listening to a proper ghost-story.

Collins also manages to combine humour and mystery with sensitive moments. There is a passage where Agnes is discussing the pain of being jilted that demonstrates poignantly the pain of love lost.

I’m starting to feel that there is a bit of a rather dark theme to the books I’ve read which are set in Venice (Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, Don’t Look Nowby Daphne DuMaurier and Miss Garnet’s Angel by Sally Vickers). It seems to be the setting for unusual happenings, with danger lurking under the surface. The sense of an unsettling atmosphere is used to great effect in The Haunted Hotel. It is the kind of book that I would call a ‘proper old-fashioned ghost-story’ and well worth a try when you fancy something spooky to read.

Venice: A literary list

At the beginning of January I put up a post about my wonderful Christmas present – a trip to Venice, and after I asked other bibliophiles for their recommendations of what to read on holiday, I was nearly as excited about my final choices as the trip itself! Thank you everyone who helped out with my holiday list!

I couldn’t reduce the list to anything less than five, but as they are mostly novellas or short stories. Here they are:

Don’t Look Now & Other Stories – Daphne Du Maurier (Review here)

Death in Venice – Thomas Mann (Review here)

Death a la Fenice – Donna Leon

The Haunted Hotel – Wilkie Collins (Review here)

The Passion – Jeanette Winters (Review here)

Book ideas for a trip to Venice?

*Update: As this is an old post, you can visit the final list of chosen recommendations here, with reviews.

I was given the most wonderful Christmas present this year by my boyfriend who booked us a trip to Venice at the end of January!



J.M.W Turner, The Dogana and San Giorgio Maggiore, 1834


I actually had a little weep when I opened my envelope and discovered the destination. This was made all the more exciting by some successful misdirection as my boyfriend printed out red-herring travel details for a trip to York on the erm… Megabus. A trip to York would be fun, but Venice is infinitely more exciting! I went to Florence when I was 16 and have had a hankering to go back to Italy ever since.

So I thought wouldn’t it be wonderful to take along a book set in Venice? I found an exhaustive list here, however it’s a little overwhelming and I’m not sure where to start! The one that springs to mind is The Wings of the Dove by Henry James, but I’d quite like to find something actually about Italians in Venice, rather than English people in Venice. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts especially if you can suggest something with a bit of intrigue, and maybe murder – something a little dramatic!

Any ideas?