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Antal Szerb: Utas és holdvilág (Journey by Moonlight)

The year before this book was published, Szerb published A harmadik torony (The Third Tower: Journeys in Italy), a travelogue of a journey he made in Italy. It is an interesting book and well worth reading, particularly if you are an Italy lover. However, it is very relevant to this book as it clearly is the basis for the travels of the main characters, particularly Mihály, in this book.

Mihály, our hero, had never visited Italy before his thirty-sixth birthday. He had travelled extensively elsewhere but Italy he had always avoided, feeling the time had not yet come, that he was not yet 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. He has only come now as he is on his honeymoon with Erzsi, a woman whom he has managed to take from her previous husband, Zoltán, who was something of a philanderer. Zoltán and Erzsi are both very well-off, while Mihály is comfortably off, helped by the fact that Erzsi has invested heavily in his family’s firm in Budapest (actually in Pest). The book starts with the couple’s arrival in Venice. However, Mihály has had a past life, a rather complicated and disturbing one, and that past is going to catch up with him almost as soon as he arrives in Venice, and haunt him throughout the book.

Things start going wrong early. They return one evening to the hotel and he announces that he is just going off for a quick drink. He stays out all night and Erzsi has to call the police. He wanders round Venice, particularly the poor areas and, even more particularly, around places associated with the dead. Indeed, if there is one key theme to this book it is Mihály’s obsession with the dead and death. The next event is the arrival of János Szepetneki, apparently an old friend though there is clearly some antagonism between the two. Mihály tells Erzsi that János had stolen his gold watch in the past (this is explained, though there is no straightforward explanation) and János tells Mihály that he finds Erzsi thoroughly repulsive.

Mihály then tells the story of how he knew János and the people he mentioned, particularly Ervin and Tamás Ulpius. The long and complicated story is both the basis for the novel and for Mihály’s odd behaviour, essentially depression and obsession with death. As a child, Mihály had become friends with Tamás and his sister, Éva. They were well off, lived in a large house but seemed to have a sort of freedom from convention which Mihály admired but found hard to emulate. Mihály had (and continues to have in this book) a psychological problem. At times, unable to cope, he sees a giant whirlpool before him which he is about to fall into. It was Tamás who rescues him from one of these events and they subsequently become friends. However, their friendship is somewhat strange, in that they play odd games, including games involving sexual humiliation, and they are highly critical of the modern world. Two others join their small group – Ervin, a Jew who later converts to Catholicism, and János Szepetneki. Indeed, at this point, they become both pious and seemingly very interested in religious history. However, the dark side comes to the fore with petty theft and suicide attempts. Inevitably, all of them, Tamás included, seem to fall in love with Éva. We learn that Tamás does kill himself and, at this point, the group breaks up. Mihály goes to work for his father’s firm (which he does not enjoy) and eventually marries Erzsi.

Back in the present, Erzsi and Mihály become separated. Erzsi eventually ends up in Paris but Mihály wanders around Italy, having a series of strange adventures and meeting strange people, not least of which is Father Severinus, a very holy man, who turns out to be Ervin,who has turned to God when he could not have Éva. Death and dying are always present and Szerb superbly portrays a man who is gradually sinking down into the abyss. His obsession with Éva remains and he even meets her a couple of times but that does not help. Zoltán says of him, you are so utterly withdrawn and abstracted that you have no real relationship with anybody or anything, like someone from another planet. He is paranoid, imagining people following him, he has various health issues which do not seem to have a physical cause and he lived in terror of a great number of things. A doctor he befriends say to him there’s no point in your insisting that the dead don’t exist in some form or other. They are what is making you ill. They visit you and suck your life out. Medical science can’t help you with that. A funeral in Gubbio, a strange death-obsessed town where Father Severinus is based, Keats’ grave in Rome and other death obsessions colour the entire novel and Mihály’s actions.

This is generally agreed to be Szerb’s masterpiece and it certainly is. It is a superb book about a man who cannot really cope with life, with relationships, with people and even with himself. It is probably something very Central European – think Kafka as an obvious though by no means the only example. Mihály is clearly a wonderfully drawn character, at times seeming relatively normal and at other times simply unable to deal with life, even the simple aspects of life such as relationships and earning a living. Hungarians consider this one of their classics and we should, too.

Publishing history

First published 1937 by Magveto Konyvkiado
First English translation 2001 by Pushkin Press