Throat-Rattling

Gabriele Annan

  • Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix
    Pushkin, 240 pp, £6.99, November 2002, ISBN 1 901285 50 2

In his afterword, Len Rix, the translator of this Hungarian novel, says that its narrative ‘coincides with rising Fascism at home and abroad, and probes the national obsession with suicide’. It was first published in 1937 in Budapest, and its author died in a Nazi labour camp six years later at the age of 43. He was, Rix explains, a cradle Catholic, but ‘his technically Jewish extraction and his lifelong stance against Fascism attracted mounting official persecution.’ All the same, Fascism – and then only the Italian variety – rates just two paragraphs in Journey by Moonlight. On his honeymoon, the hero Mihály (if such an unheroic man can be called a hero) notices that

the Italian papers were always ecstatically happy, as if they were written not by humans but by saints in triumph, just stepped down from a Fra Angelico in order to celebrate the perfect social system. There was always some cause for happiness: some institution was 11 years old, a road had just turned 12 . . . Like all foreigners, Mihály was exercised by the question of whether the people did actually welcome everything as fervently and were as steadily, indefatigably, tirelessly happy, as the papers insisted.

That’s all for Fascism. Suicide is another matter.

Part One, the most engaging section of the novel, is about a gang of teenage schoolfriends and brings to mind other novels of more or less the same period, when adolescence became a subject for fiction-writers: for Alain-Fournier in Le Grand Meaulnes, for Alec Waugh in The Loom of Youth, for Thomas Mann in ‘Tonio Kröger’. Szerb’s group centres on a charismatic brother and sister, Tamás and Eva Ulpius, who live in unstructured bohemian chaos with their father, a grumpy archaeologist. The others – Ervin, a brilliant, sensitive, gentle Jewish convert to Catholicism, János, a born crook and conman, who steals from the rest, and Mihály – congregate in their flat. They are all intelligent, intellectual, and in love with Eva. Eva and Tamás are crazy about acting, and improvise charades on any topic that crops up. ‘Eva loved to be the woman who cheats, betrays and murders men, Tamás and I loved to be the man she cheats, betrays, murders, or utterly humiliates.’

The ‘I’ in this sentence is Mihály. He knows he is a masochist (when, later on, his bride, Erzsi, asks him why he enjoyed being a victim, the answer is: ‘Hmm . . . well, for erotic reasons’); his ‘throat-rattling technique’, he boasts, ‘was particularly admired’. He is being ironic, of course. A gentle irony, quite unaggressive, hangs over the whole novel, shared out between the author and many of his characters. Mihály could be seen as a wimp, and that is how he sees himself. He is self-aware, self-analytical, sophisticated and articulate, and these qualities are shared by most of the other dramatis personae. It makes a nice change from novels that specialise in heroes and heroines who can only grunt, weep or go berserk.

The long first chapter is framed by Mihály’s honeymoon in Italy. At an outdoor café in Ravenna, he feels impelled to tell Erzsi about his schooldays – including his joint suicide attempt with Tamás. It was a failure for both of them. Later on, Tamás tried again, and succeeded. Mihály went out of his mind for a while. Then he decided to change his way of life. ‘I didn’t want to go the way he went. I would become a respectable person. I left the university, trained for my father’s profession . . . and worked hard to become just like everyone else.’ He joined his father’s firm, took up bridge and tennis, learned to drive a car.

Just before Tamás’s suicide, Ervin and Eva, now 20 years old, had fallen in love in a more adult manner. To the others ‘somehow it seemed the fulfilment of the whole meaning of the group.’ But Eva’s disagreeable father threw Ervin out when he asked to marry her. She ‘would willingly have become his mistress . . . but for Ervin the sixth commandment was absolute.’ Eva became a femme fatale shading into poule de luxe. Ervin became a monk. None of the others ever discovered where his monastery was.

At the time of his marriage, Mihály is in his thirties, and Tamás has been dead for 15 years. Mihály still works in his father’s highly successful business, but he feels he should have chosen a more adventurous and creative career and is a disappointment to himself. The honeymoon is his first and Erzsi’s second: he seduced her away from her first husband, a millionaire called Zoltán Pataki. Pataki still adores her. He worries that her accustomed standard of luxury may drop with a husband as practically incompetent as Mihály, so he writes to him offering a monthly cheque. But the lovely, elegant, worldly Erzsi is competent herself; she is the one who manages the traveller’s cheques, tickets and passports on the honeymoon. She has succumbed to Mihály because she wants to reclaim the ‘intellectuality’ she was in danger of losing with Zoltán. On the other hand, she also wants to be ‘her lover’s child’, cosseted and taken care of. On the journey between Florence and Rome, Mihály insists on getting out to have a coffee at a small railway station. He just manages to scramble back onto the train as it starts to move, only to find that it is the wrong train, bound for Perugia, not Rome. And that – casually, strangely, unpredictably, ‘involuntarily but not unintentionally’ – turns out to be the end of his marriage. He sends a telegram to Erzsi in Rome telling her not to look for him.

Erzsi moves on to Paris and settles there for a while with a Hungarian girlfriend who sounds like a lesbian, though no point is made of that. János turns up and introduces her to a rich and charming Iranian. She is tempted, until it dawns on her that János would be literally selling her to her new suitor, and she escapes. Eventually, Pataki reclaims her. Meanwhile, Mihály wanders about on his own in Umbria, suffers a minor nervous breakdown, and wakes up in a hospital in Foligno, in the care of a sympathetic and deeply religious doctor who is half English, so they are able to communicate (being Hungarian, Mihály is multilingual, though Italian is not one of his languages). They become friends, talk about religion, and one day in an outdoor café they are joined by an American student called Millicent Ingram. Mihály starts an affair with her, but though her Jamesian name seems significant, the affair is not. She is just a very funny but quite friendly caricature of a thick, naive American abroad: ‘In the deepest stupidity, there is a kind of dizzying, whirlpool attraction, like death: the pull of the vacuum,’ Mihály discovers. Still, after a bit, he ditches her. One of Szerb’s striking and disturbing habits is to let important turning points creep into the text so stealthily that they might never be noticed; while insignificant seeming episodes, developed in vivid detail, establish environment, social class, moods, atmosphere and psychology.

The doctor thinks that Mihály might feel better if he talked to Father Severinus, a monk in a Gubbio monastery who has a reputation for saintliness. He had once cured a foreign woman who was haunted by a ghost. The monk turns out to be Ervin, the woman Eva, and the ghost Tamás. Too much of a coincidence? This is a naturalistic novel with surreal patches. Its combination of nightmare with cosmopolitan sophistication brings to mind the work of Szerb’s contemporary, the German painter Max Beckmann (whose work was recently on exhibition at Tate Modern). The title, however, refers to a painting Mihály revisits in a dream. It may be

by Salvator Rosa in some museum. The mood of the landscape was ominous and heavy with mortality. Mortality hung over the tiny figure of the traveller, who, leaning on his stick, made his way across the landscape under a brilliant moon. He knew that the traveller had been journeying through that increasingly abandoned landscape, between tumultuous trees and stylised ruins, terrified by tempests and wolves, for an immense period of time, and that he, and no one else in all the world, would roam abroad on such a night, so utterly alone.

The traveller is, of course, Mihály. He now lives in Rome and has just received a letter from the doctor, announcing Severinus’s death from tuberculosis, and his own engagement to Millicent.

Mihály wakes from the moonlit dream when the doorbell rings. It is Eva, now engaged to an Englishman she is about to marry and accompany to India. Mihály has been yearning for her for years, but never managed to find her. (That, too, is not quite convincing.) They talk of Ervin/Severinus. Then he accuses her of having killed Tamás. She denies it, but admits that she did get hold of the necessary pills for him. She helped him die the way he wanted to, and they embraced as he did it: ‘I carried on kissing him until his arm fell away from me. Those weren’t the kisses of a brother and sister, Mihály, it is true.’ Mihály begs her to do for him what she did for Tamás, and she agrees.

They both fail to turn up at the designated rendezvous. Later, he gets a letter from her which says: ‘Tamás’s death was right for Tamás alone. Everyone has to find his own way to die.’ By this time Mihály’s father has turned up to take his son back to Budapest; and does. On the train, Mihály tells himself that he will ‘attempt once more what he had failed to do for 15 years: to conform. Perhaps this time he would succeed. That was his fate. He was giving in.’ That comes in the penultimate paragraph. But in the last one he cheers up again: ‘He too would live: like the rats among the ruins, but nonetheless live. And while there is life there is always the chance that something might happen . . .’

There is a great deal more plot (not the most convincing aspect of the novel), including manipulative appearances by János as he wheels and deals his way in and out of the lives of his childhood friends. In addition to the preoccupation with suicide, there is an underlying interest in social mobility; not upwards and downwards so much as sideways in and out of bohemia: the desire on Erzsi’s part to marry Mihály in order to become less conventional, and his to marry her in order to become more so. The novel has only 236 pages, a tour de force considering the richness it contains: the psychological insights, jokes and bons mots, the discussions of art history, the appreciation of art, the evocative descriptions of landscape, townscapes and ghosts, and quotations from and references to writers of several nationalities – Villon, Goethe, Blake, Rilke, Shelley and Keats among them. (Szerb wrote a History of World Literature, which Rix calls ‘groundbreaking’.) In Rome, Mihály visits Keats’s grave, and reflects on the famous epitaph: ‘Here lies one whose name is writ in water.’ Referring to Keats’s wish to have no name on his tombstone, Mihály finds tears coming to his eyes: ‘So wonderful, so truly English, was the manner of this gentle compromise, this innocent sophistry, that perfectly respected his last wishes but nonetheless announced without ambiguity that it was indeed Keats who lay beneath the stone.’ ‘Innocent sophistry’ would be a good way of describing Szerb’s own manner: sophisticated, ironic, but free from anger or malevolence.

Fourteen pages are devoted to a dazzlingly successful young Austrian academic so that he can lecture Mihály on the perception of death in various cultures, from Etruscan to Aztec. ‘Dying is an erotic process,’ he proclaims, ‘or, if you like, a form of sexual pleasure.’ Everything he says holds one’s interest, but he has no part at all to play in the story. He is a sort of chorus (except that he only appears once), but a fully drawn character just the same: conceited, witty, passionate about his subject, impatient of other people’s opinions, and ridiculous in his self-importance. Szerb’s pleasure in inventing and presenting him is evident – it’s part of his authorial largesse. So much is packed into this novel, not always very neatly, but with an unusual mixture of exuberance, dreaminess – and a casual lightness of touch. It is helped by what reads like a very sympathetic translation.