Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

“Your wife, by the way, is a throughly repulsive woman.”

journey by moonlight Journey by Moonlight by Hungarian author Antal Szerb is a strange tale of obsession, troubled relationships, and quests for answers and fulfillment. While on his honeymoon, the main character, respectably married Mihaly feels the lull of beckoning conventionality, but he’s also abruptly and unexpectedly confronted by the seductive lure of unconventionality when he meets a man from his past. Unsettled and discontent, Mihaly sets himself adrift in Italy on a quest to ‘find’ himself.

36-year-old Mihaly and his bride, Erzsi are honeymooning in Italy. Erzsi was married to the much older, very wealthy Zoltan, but left him after a passionate affair with Mihaly. This unconventional beginning to their relationship now over, they look forward to a new life together. But while the honeymoon should be a happy occasion, there’s immediately a sense that something bad is going to happen in Italy with the book’s opening sentences: 

“On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back alleys.”

Three events disrupt the couple’s new life together. At first Mihaly and Erzsi do the traditional tourist/honeymoon things, but then one evening, Mihaly, under the guise of ‘needing a drink’ ventures forth from the hotel alone. Abandoning Erzsi, he wanders the back alleys of Venice, and while he satisfies his curiosity, the all-night wandering foreshadows what is to follow–as a figurative and then a literal gap between Mihaly and Erzsi emerges. Mihaly’s night-time adventures create a “strange ecstasy” and convince him to silently acknowledge that there are some things he can never share with Erzsi.

The second disruptive event takes place a few days after Mihaly’s all-night adventure. Mihaly and his bride are sitting in an outdoor cafe when an old friend named Janos makes a dramatic entrance and exit into their lives. Janos, who’s more than a bit hostile insults Erzsi, implies that somehow Mihaly has betrayed his long term friends, and then mentions that their mutual friend Ervin is now rumoured to be in an Umbrian monastery. Janos departs as abruptly as he arrived, and naturally Erzsi begins to question Mihaly.

Mihaly tells the tale of his close friendships with Janos, Ervin, the beautiful Eva, and her brother Tamas. At one point in their lives they were inseparable and as children they played bizzare disturbing games, organising plays which “culminated in scenes of violent death. Day after day, Tamas and Eva strangled, poisoned, stabbed or boiled one another in oil.” Janos and Mihaly began to join in these games, and Mihaly admits he “enjoyed being the sacrificial victim”:

“After a while, I would dig up these stories myself, so I could be the victim according to my taste. For example, Eva would be an Apache girl (the cinema had begun to channel her fantasy–there were films about them at the time) and would lure me into her camp. She would get me drunk, then they would rob me and murder me. Or, the same thing done historically, say, Judith and Holfernes. That story I really adored. Or I would be a Russian general, Eva  a spy. She puts me to sleep and steals the plans of campaign. Tamas is the heroic assistant. He chases after Eva, recovering the secret plans. But Eva frequently neutralises him, and the Russians suffer horrific losses. That sort of story would take shape as the game developed. It’s interesting that Tamas and Eva really enjoyed these games. It’s only me that’s still embarressed by them, and even now I speak of them with some shame. They never did. Eva loved to be the woman who cheats, betrays and murders men, Tamas and I loved to be the man she cheats, betrays, murders, or utterly humiliates…”

This sort of statement is no small revelation to make to one’s new bride, but Mihaly doesn’t stop to consider the wisdom of making a confession of sorts to Erzsi. And there’s more…Eva it seems served as a ringleader for this ad-hoc gang as they stole to get the things they wanted. Gradually their games and plays took on an even more serious dimension with planned suicides, death obsession, suicide attempts and then…a suicide.

While Mihaly denies even a simple “innocent flirtation” with Eva, the reality is that he’s obsessed with her, and of course, Erzsi isn’t fooled for a moment. And then the third disruptive event takes place when Erzsi’s ex-husband, Zoltan sends a cleverly-worded letter to Mihaly that results in Mihaly’s flight and abandonment of his new bride. What follows is Mihaly’s quest for his lost youth, answers to the meaning of life, a search for the unconventional, and a final fulfillment of his death fantasies. This is all, of course, very absurd, and if Larry in Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge got his search for the meaning of life right, then Mihaly gets it all horribly wrong.

Someone should have told Mihaly that basically–wherever you go…well there you are.

Eva and Janos–a couple of opportunistic grifters drift in and out of the novel as elusive, unconventional ideals pursued by Mihaly as he desperately tries to abandon his bourgeois, conventional self. When considering the bizzare relationships between the original five friends, Mihaly seems horribly out-of-place, for he’s much too grounded in conventionality to keep pace with Tamas, Eva, Janos, and even Ervin. Lacking a strong sense of self, and devoid of devilry, Mihaly feels inadequate when he compares himself to the others in the group. His desire to be one of the group translates to a desire to be like them, but the fact that Mihaly is made of entirely different fibre doesn’t seem to deter him–at least not in the beginning of his quest.

Journey By Moonlight is framed by its two strong female characters–Eva and Erzsi. While both women dominate the men in their lives to one degree or another, they are opposites. Eva is cruel and cold while Erzsi is loving and generous. Dumped in Italy, Erzsi goes on her own inner journey to enlightenment and fulfillment, and the novel’s conclusion says a great deal about the underlying absurdity and comedy of the human condition.

I’ll be honest and say that it took me a while to warm up to the novel, and I think, in retrospect this was because I was rather annoyed by the wankerisms of its main character, Mihaly and I felt somewhat impatient with his absurd, self-obsessed wallowings. As the story develops, however, the absurdity of Mihaly’s actions becomes increasingly relevant as the novel makes it perfectly clear just what Mihaly’s desperate quest truly means.

According to Pushkin Press translator Len Rix, author Antal Szerb died in a forced labour camp in Balf, Hungary in 1945 at the age of 43–another literary light snuffed out by the Nazis.



Filed under Szerb Antal

6 responses to “Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

  1. Nick

    I don’t really know why, but this book doesn’t tempt me. Maybe I’m just still too young for that kind of story.

  2. I read glowing reviews of the book that made me want to read it.

    The book’s larger meaning–to me at least–didn’t become clear until I’d read a fair portion of it. Up until that point, the story just seemed to be about these self-absorbed people flailing around in Europe. Then the absurdities became apparent and I enjoyed the tale a lot more.

    I really prefer intense character studies–like Kuprin’s The Duel, for example.

  3. I own this one, but haven’t read it yet, though I’ve read a fair few of his contemporaries (most of whom, like him, one way or another lost their lives to the Nazis).

    It’s on my TBR, but I own more than one Szerb (my wife likes him) and I’m not sure this will be the first I turn to.

  4. leroyhunter

    Speaking of Hungarian writers (per my comment on your Skylark review) I recently read this. I liked it, overall, but I think it was oversold to me by The Guardian’s Nicholas Lezard, who seems to idolise Szerb. I wouldn’t put it in the first rank of novels, but I’m glad I read it and will probably read his other stuff in time.

    Agree totally with your frustrtaions about Mihaly – as the book progressed I pined for Erzsi when she was off-page. A lot of the Tamas / Eva stuff struck me as longuer, which I suppose shows that the personal touchstones & obsessions of personality are precisely that – personal, and often incapable of being fully understood by others.

  5. I can’t remember how I came across this one, but it reinforced the not-always-identifying-with-Hungarian- literature idea. I read Embers as well, heard so much glowing (sly joke there) stuff about it, but again it was a story that didn’t do a lot for me except to make me frustrated with the characters.

  6. Your review gives a great overview of the novel. It’s hard to write about, isn’t it?
    Oddly, this reminded me of The Bell Jar, probably because of the struggle to break from conventions.
    I think I liked it better than you, even if I usually don’t have much patience with characters like Mihaly.

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