“The Whole Dreaded Terrorist Army of the Past”: Antal Szerb’s Journey By Moonlight

October 7, 2014 | 2 books mentioned 8 min read

This essay is the introduction to the new NYRB Classics edition of Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb.

In August 1936, the thirty-six-year-old Hungarian writer Antal Szerb—acclaimed both for his fiction and for his influential History of Hungarian Literature—traveled to Italy for what he suspected would be the last time. The journey was a romantic farewell, the coda of a long obsession with the country, its art, its history, its people, its language, its ancient towns, and their narrow back streets. Szerb had lived in Italy as a young man, between 1924 and 1929, and the place had never relinquished its hold on him. “I initially wanted to go to Spain,” he wrote in his 1936 travel journal, “…but it occurred to me that I simply must go to Italy, while Italy remains where it is, and while going there is still possible. Who knows for how much longer that will be; indeed, for how much longer I, or any of us, will be able to go anywhere? The way events are moving, no one will be allowed to set foot outside his own country.” (He may as well have said, particularly no one of Jewish origin; though baptized a Catholic, he was the son of Jewish parents and was conscious of the growing threat Europe’s Jews faced.) His sense of urgency was, of course, prescient: within a few years a trip like the one he undertook in 1936 would indeed have become impossible. But the unusual combination of obsession, urgency, clear-eyed judgment, and foreboding that drew him to Italy helped to shape the brilliant and surprising work he produced on his return to Hungary: Journey by Moonlight, one of the most indelible novels of Szerb’s troubled century.

coverTo seek the origin of a novel in the labyrinth of a writer’s impressions and experiences can be a kind of seductive game. It’s tempting, for example, to think that because Szerb traveled to Italy shortly before he wrote Journey by Moonlight, the path to the novel might be laid bare in his journals (expertly rendered into English by Len Rix, Szerb’s longtime translator, and published as The Third Tower by Pushkin Press). The temptation is heightened by the many parallels between Szerb and his protagonist, Mihály: both are Hungarians belonging to the comfortable middle class; both are aware of and morally offended by their own bourgeois prejudices, yet are unable to alter them; both have been fascinated, almost infatuated, with Italy, or an idea of Italy, since they were teenagers; both experience the journey as a species of time travel, not just into the personal past but also into the ancient history of Italy itself. Mihály, like Szerb, fulfills a passionate youthful dream of seeing the great Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna and, like his creator, finds their splendor all the more striking for its stark contrast to the decayed backwater that Ravenna, once so powerful, has now become. The persistence of beauty, it seems to them both, is inseparable from the specter of death.

Yet for all that, Journey by Moonlight traces a path quite different from the one Szerb followed on his own journey to Italy. The nostalgia that pervades The Third Tower is political, arising from an awareness of Europe’s disastrous shift toward fascism and its disappearing tolerance of individual freedoms and differences of opinion. By contrast, in Journey by Moonlight Mihály is only incidentally aware of Fascist politics and their implications. He does note a suspiciously uniform tone of ecstatic happiness in the Italian newspapers—“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”—and he wonders, along with his fellow foreigners, whether the Italian people really share that sense of indefatigable joy. But he doesn’t dwell on the question. “His instincts told him that in Italy it was all very much the same whoever happened to be in power and whatever the ideas in whose names they ruled. Politics touched only the surface. The people, the vegetative sea of the Italian masses, bore the changing times on their back with astonishing passivity, and lived quite unconnected with their own remarkable history.” In this respect very much unlike Szerb, Mihály is hardly aware of the contemporary situation. His journey is personal, a descent into a private vortex of memory whose powerful pull diverts his life—for a time, at least—from the conventional course he plans to follow at the novel’s outset.

The Third Tower is the vivid chronicle of a trip through a familiar landscape. The tone of the book conveys wonder, but the writing is always under the writer’s control. But Journey by Moonlight is full of surprises, and reads as though it might have been a surprise—an ongoing invitation to invention—to the writer himself. It’s about getting lost both geographically and psychologically; it’s about going away and going out of your mind, or at least thinking about it so much you may as well have. At the novel’s outset, Mihály, recently married to the sophisticated and worldly Erszi—whom he has stolen from an affectionate millionaire—has decided to embrace the trappings of adulthood: a career in business, the responsibilities of marriage, the fathering of children, the satisfaction of his bourgeois desires at the expense of his intellectual and artistic inclinations. That’s the kind of man he wants to be. But it only takes a trip to Ravenna to send him in another direction altogether, and soon he’s confessing to Erszi the dark secrets of his high-school years. Speaking feverishly in the couple’s hotel room, Mihály reveals that as a teenager, he fell under the sway of the brother and sister Tamás and Éva Ulpius, a magnetic and sexually ambiguous pair who shared a room and a fascination with death. Motherless and emotionally estranged from their businessman father, the Ulpiuses grew up in a decaying manse in the Castle District of Buda, looked after by an eccentric grandfather who made intricate clockwork toys, knew everything there was to know about the houses of their ancient quarter, and relished his collection of outlandish and old-fashioned clothes. Into the Ulpius coterie came the contemplative and poetically inclined Ervin, a devout convert from Judaism to Catholicism, along with the competitive and fiery prevaricator János Szépetneki, a rival of Mihály’s since junior high. The adventures of this group—love feuds, intellectual crazes, and suicide attempts, culminating finally in a death—are the heart of Mihály’s emotional life. But it’s only now, on their honeymoon, that he’s spoken of any of this to Erszi.

And now the past comes roaring back into the present—on a motorbike driven by János Szépetneki, the old rival himself. Szépetneki promptly insults Mihály and Erszi at the café table where they’re having ice cream and drinks, and discloses the tantalizing information that Ervin has become a monk cloistered somewhere in Italy. He wants Mihály to help him find Ervin, and though Mihály refuses, it’s clear that the past’s intrusion into the present is just beginning. After an espresso break at a station café on the way to Rome, Mihály, accidentally or on purpose, boards the wrong train and is carried instead toward Perugia, leaving his new bride behind. Under the sway of his own ancient history, he seems indifferent to the marriage that had mattered so much to him only days before. He travels from town to town aimlessly but with a growing sense of panic and pursuit: “It wasn’t so much people that were following him as whole institutions, and the whole dreaded terrorist army of the past.” Finally he ends up in the cemetery of one of these small hill towns, where a vision of Tamás precipitates a nervous breakdown. Far from being the conclusion of the story, this is the embarkation point of a new journey—into the past and into the self, whatever that might turn out to be.

Death is everywhere in Journey by Moonlight, but the novel can hardly be called grim or morbid. A wry, satirical, finely tuned sense of humor, ever alert to the limitations of the human animal, marks its prose, its characterizations, its sensitive chronicling of Mihály’s thoughts and feelings. Szerb is an adventurer on the page; the twists and turns of the plot challenge our sense of what a novel can and ought to be. But he is also an ironist. He shows us that our finest resolves are often motivated by shameful secrets or silly desires, that by fleeing ourselves we end up more self-involved than ever, that our pretensions to maturity mask childish dependencies, and that even the holiest among us is prey to pride. Tragedy, made ridiculous by our quotidian concerns, turns to comedy. Having vowed to kill himself, Mihály runs into a pretty acquaintance who proposes a celebratory dinner. “He suddenly felt ashamed, like a schoolboy caught red-handed,” Szerb writes of Mihály as he loads his wallet with cash, takes up his hat, and sets off into the night, his final farewell note unwritten. “Now he saw nothing sublime in his wish to die. The elevated gave way to the mundane, as always happened.”

For all that, Szerb is seriously intent on mapping the treacherous landscape of desire, whether adolescent or adult—and here again, Mihály’s experience seems to match his own. The writer and poet Peter Hargitai, working on an English translation of Journey by Moonlight in 1988, met with Szerb’s widow, Klára, curious to know whether there had been real-life models for the novel’s characters—particularly for Tamás and Éva, who intrigued him above all the others. In answer, Klára Szerb pointed out a framed photograph on a bookshelf: “a youngish man with a pale, aristocratic, melancholy face.”

“This is Tamás,” Mrs. Szerb said. “My husband’s beloved schoolmate.”

“And Éva? Who is Éva?” I asked.

She held up that very picture. “This is also Éva. Tamás and Éva are one and the same.”

Klára Szerb went on to insist that Hargitai keep the secret of Tamás and Éva’s single biographical precedent until after her death. And there we have a clue, not only to the mysterious androgyny of Tamás and Éva, and to the sexually unconventional nature of Mihály’s relationship with them, but also perhaps to an unresolved chapter from Szerb’s past, one that held mysteries potent enough to give rise to a novel. Of course, as Hargitai points out, the evidence is all there on the page—in the intimate and passionate connection Mihály feels to Tamás, and in the unusual sense of comfort he feels with Éva, unique among his relationships with members of the opposite sex, despite the fact that he knows himself to be in love with her. The evidence is there in the compulsive nature of Mihály’s return to these people and this time in his life; and perhaps it’s there, too, in Mihály’s eventual resurrender to conventionality, a turning away from that which is most terrifying inside the self.

To write about the matters that lie closest to our hearts—the ones that define us, yet still hold a sense of mystery—requires both self-awareness and courage. Szerb brings dark matters to light in these enigmatic and mercurial pages, and he can do so because the darkness is real to him, its expression a matter of urgency. “Dostoevsky writes that we should live as if our every minute were the last moments of a man condemned to death,” he reminds us in The Third Tower. “That way we would grasp the ineffable richness of life. My impressions of Italy always feel like the last visions of a dying man.”

Szerb wrote Journey by Moonlight in a matter of months after his return from Italy. The novel, published in 1937, was awarded the Baumgarten Prize, one of Hungary’s highest literary honors, and quickly found a place in the Hungarian canon. When the war began, however, it was banned, along with all of Szerb’s other books, and he was dismissed from his professorship at the University of Szeged. After the German occupation of Hungary in 1944, he was conscripted into the Munkaszolgálat, the Hungarian forced-labor service, along with many other Hungarian artists and intellectuals. In early 1945, in a work camp at the Hungarian border town of Balf, Szerb met the fate of thousands of other Hungarian men whose religion, parentage, or race branded them as “undesirable”: He was killed and buried in a mass grave.

Journey by Moonlight is still with us, a wonderfully strange and surprising book, haunted by death and yet full of improbable humor—a work of fiction that cuts like a beacon through Szerb’s dark times and now illuminates our own. On every page we feel, as Dostoyevsky would have it, the author’s grasp of the ineffable richness of life.

is the author of the novel The Invisible Bridge, a novel, and How to Breathe Underwater, a collection of stories. Currently at work on a novel about Varian Fry, Orringer is a 2014–15 Guggenheim Fellow and a recent Radcliffe Fellow. Her work has been translated into fifteen languages and widely anthologized, and her first novel is being adapted for film by the director Lajos Koltai. Inquiry into her family history revealed that her grandfather, Andrew Tibor, a Hungarian forced-labor conscript, served at the same camp where Szerb died in 1945.

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