Antal Szerb: A Pendragon-legenda (The Pendragon Legend)
The hero/narrator of this novel is János Bátky, a Hungarian who lives in London (as Szerb did for a short while). At the start of the novel, the year is 1933 and Bátky is thirty-two and, though he does not need the money his occupation is to assist elderly Englishmen in the pursuit of their intellectual whims. He is also an intellectual himself is and is currently studying English mystics of the seventeenth century. One day he reluctantly accepts an invitation to a party, where he is introduced to the Earl of Gwynedd, an eccentric Welsh peer. (Most people in this book, by the way, are eccentric, confirming firmly to the continental stereotype that the British (which, in this book, includes the Welsh and Irish) are all somewhat peculiar). It turns out that the Earl is also interested in seventeenth century English mystics (though, as he points out to Bátky, foreigners study, the British merely have hobbies) with a special interest in Robert Fludd. As a result of this shared interest, the Earl invites Bátky to his castle in Wales, to look at some books he has on the subject. This turns out to be quite unusual, as the Earl is a recluse and normally does not allow anyone access to his library.
Bátky receives a formal invitation a few days later but, in the meantime, learn a lot more about the Earl and his family. For example, there is the story that he was to marry a Dublin prostitute but then she changed her mind and married a millionaire, called Roscoe, best friend of the Earl’s father. There is also a rumour that he carries out strange experiments on animals at his castle. Other rumours surface before Bátky is to make the journey. He also learns that the Pendragons, the family name of the Earl, have a colourful history. In particular, Asaph Pendragon was a Rosicrucian, friend of Robert Fludd and involved in witchcraft and alchemy. Asaph’s ghost now rides around the countryside on a horse at night.
However, there is more to happen. Bátky receive a phone call, warning him off the visit. While in the British Museum Reading Room, he meets an eccentric Irishman (yes, they are all eccentric) from Connemara, called Maloney, who regales him with various tales but does not seem to have heard of Hungary. Maloney seems to want to become friendly and soon introduces Bátky to Osborne Pendragon, son of the Earl. Maloney tells Bátky that Roscoe’s will had stated that if he died an unnatural death, all his estate would go to the Earl and not to his wife, as he feared his wife was going to poison him. Bátky is intrigued by all of this and even more intrigued when, en route, he meets Eileen Saint Claire, whom he has met before. His friend Cristofoli, a poet, had tried and failed to woo her three years previously. She now gives him a mysterious package to give to the Earl but must not tell the Earl who gave it to him.
From here on in, things get more and more mysterious. From giant axolotls to the Midnight Rider, from an attempt to shoot the Earl when he is in a locked room, to a mad Welsh prophet, from the body of Christian Rosenkreuz, which has not decayed since death to mysterious trapdoors in the castle, it all becomes very amusing but a bit Hollywood spoof ghost story. Many of the characters are not what they seem and there are plots and counter-plots galore. Bátky seems to be having a whale of a time, jumping in and out of the beds of various women, as well as seeing rare manuscripts.
Szerb is having a wonderful time mocking everyone. He mocks the English, Welsh and Irish but also mocks the Germans (Her apparel was in interestingly bad taste, the sort of thing that would go down well in Berlin) and even the Hungarians. The book itself is a parody of various genres – the Gothic novel, the ghost story, the romantic novel, the innocent-abroad novel, the English country-house novel and others. Bátky himself might come over as the hero but he seems more interested in seeing rare manuscripts and getting into bed with attractive women, even if they pose some risk to him. At the same time, he always seems to be a few steps behind the villains, frequently falling into their traps and only escaping less from his ingenuity and more from luck. It is enormous fun as we get lost, at times, with what is going on, who all the bad guys really are, who is dead and who is alive, who is ghost and who is real and whether the individual are villains or not, but you will never be bored with the fast pace and complicated plot of this novel.
First published 1934 by Franklin Társulat
First English translation 2006 by Pushkin Press