Tag Archives: Hungarian literature

Katalin Street: Magda Szabo

“In my dreams I call out to them, but they keep on walking, until finally they disappear from sight.” 

Magda Szabo’s wonderful novel, moves from 1934 to 1968 as it follows the fate of three neighbouring Hungarian families who live in Katalin Street. When the book opens in post WWII, surviving members of the families live, communally, not far from their original homes. These surviviors have been washed through various sweeping events: from normality to fascism and now … “social rehousing” under communism in a depressing Budapest flat “on the sixth floor of a relatively new block.” 

No work of literature, and no doctor, had prepared the former residents of Katalin Street for the fierce light that old age would bring to bear on the shadowy, barely-sensed corridor down which they walked in the earlier decades of their lives, or the way it would rearrange their memories and their fears, overturning their earlier moral judgements and system of values.

[…]

But no one had told them that the most frightening thing of all about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. Not wisdom. Not serenity. Not sound judgement. Only the awareness of universal disintegration.

First seen in the 30s, the families are the widowed noble Major Biró and his son Bálint, whose care is overseen by the housekeeper, Mrs Temes; earnest schoolteacher Elekes, his frivolous wife, and their two daughters, Irén and Blanka. Finally there’s the Jewish family, the Helds, with war hero, dentist Dr. Held hoping his medals bring protection for himself, his wife and their only child, the fey, fragile Henriette. After WWII, the Elekes are the only intact family. The Helds have been exterminated, but the ghost of little Henriette lingers over the families, unable to move on, curious about the fates of the people she knew so well.

Katalin street

The novel opens in the 50s with the straggling members of the two surviving families, now three generations deep, living together in the tiny flat with just a few pieces of furniture from their former homes. Mr Elekes, whose belief system has been completely destroyed is taken out for a walk twice daily “as you would a dog.” Blanka, who clearly is disturbed, lives far away on a Greek island, and her strange disconnection isn’t seen as a cause for alarm by her mother-in-law, but the signs of a good “biddable” daughter-in-law. The plot goes back in time to 1934 with some of the story told by Irén and with the narrative also slipping into third person. These characters discover that their morality clashes with ever-changing politics; it’s “no longer safe” to mention friendships or beliefs. A man can be a war hero one day and an enemy of the people the next. A woman can be a good party member one year and a Stalinist informer the next.

If the idea of a ghost as a character puts you off, as it did me, then be reassured. Somehow, in this quiet, melancholic novel, Magda Szabo creates a ghost as a believable character. The surviving characters, haunted, literally and figuratively, cannot move away from their shared pasts, and so it seems perfectly natural that Henriette should remain locked in connection with those she knew in life. She can visit the past and the present, yet unable to help the people she observes, she serves as a witness of the terrible cost these living characters have paid for survival.

In spite of its serious subject matter, there’s a glorious lightness to the novel. Yes, surviving characters are irrevocably destroyed by events that took place, but there’s a playfulness here which pulls the story from depression, and the playfulness is mostly manifested in the ghost of Henriette who is able to visit the home of her past and drop in to visit her loving parents as they go about their daily tasks. Henriette rubs elbows with their ghostly forms but they have the tendency to become disturbingly immature in the presence of their parents.

When they spoke to her they did so as the parents she had known, but if their own parents came looking for them, or if they wanted to be with their parents, they would instantly change and become noisy and boisterous. Mr Held. once so quiet and reserved in his speech, would begin to fret, or shriek with laughter and gabble nonsense;upon which her grandfather whom Henriette would in normal circumstances have been delighted to see, would seize him by the wrists and swing him around until he squealed with joy. Whenever Mrs. Held saw her own parents approaching she would immediately push Henriette away and start to yell, “Mummy, Mummy!” clapping her hands and spinning around.

Henriette shows us an alternate version of time in which the trials of the present are a mere phase. Henriette, who longs to see the people she loved as they once were–happy and optimistic–is perhaps, ultimately, the luckiest character of the lot. The living “ached with longing for the dead,” but at least she can visit the past that the others dream of.

review copy

Translated by Len Rix

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The Burning of the World by Béla Zombory-Moldován

After reading Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear, a fictionalized  account of his experiences in WWI, I read an entirely different account written from the Hungarian view: The Burning of the World: a Memoir of 1914 by Béla Zombory-Moldován. While the narrator in Fear conveys the initial, naïve sentiment that many men looked forward to the war as an “adventure,” a break in their monotonous lives, Béla Zombory-Moldován (Béla from this point on) makes it quite clear that the war arrived as an unwelcome interruption. Fear and The Burning of the World are such completely different books, while still on the same topic of WWI, that they act as good companion books to be read fairly close together. That said, it’s probably inevitable that we identify with one book more than the other.

the burning of the worldBéla, a twenty-nine-year-old artist, and a member of a privileged Austro-Hungarian gentry family, is enjoying himself on holiday on an Adriatic beach, taking a solitary swim and trying to shake off the effects of the wine drunk the night before when he spies someone walking towards him with “some haste.” It’s through this man, the bathing attendant, that Béla receives the startling news that war has been declared and that a list giving “call-updates by year of birth” has been posted to the bathing station wall. The news comes so quickly and so jarringly rips apart Béla’s holiday, that we are almost as shocked as he is, and while the manner in which the news is conveyed may be simple, this is a moment that Béla, and anyone else who survived the war, will clearly never forget.

I stared at the poster as if I had just suffered a stroke, reading it over and over, until I realized that I was just looking at words rather than taking in the meaning.

Although Béla has a few precious days before he must report for duty, he can no longer enjoy his holiday. A page has been turned, and life which previously seemed carefree, can no longer be enjoyed. But Béla isn’t the only one altered by the news. The rhetoric, drama, and nationalism of war has invaded even lunch at the hotel dining room:

The dining room had changed. All the usual convivial noise, larking about and tittering had ceased. The guests had gathered at separate tables according to their nationalities. Groups which had previously spread themselves around now clustered together. Sereghy and his wife had come over to join us. Czechs, Serbs, Croats. Germans–all sat apart. People leaned in together over table and discussed events with animated gestures and low voices.

[..]

Everyone spoke in their mother tongue as is encyphering what they had to say.

The nationalistic segregation spreads, and it’s worse by dinner time. Hungarians who had not previously spoken to Béla join his table, the area no longer feels safe, everyone wants to return home.

There was something almost ostentatious now about the separation of nationalities. The Slavs huddles together. The Germans looked the least concerned: a huge country with a fearsome army.

These unique observations which show the narrator’s world changing with the speed of a natural disaster underscore the idea that the carefree holiday has turned into something completely different–the holidaymakers may be potential enemies. Béla grasps immediately, the flash of the bigger picture, that while some people speculate that the war will be over before it really begins, it may not be so simple:

This war may just be the first act of a global tragedy. It’s as if someone were struggling against an angry sea, while behind his back towers an immense wall of ice, ready to collapse onto him at any moment. This is the socialist revolution which will, one day, fall with full force on nations weakened by war. The war could be the least of our problems. Socialism has been agitating and organizing for the last hundred years. It’s just waiting for the opportunity to take power. Maybe it would be better if it did: one of its basic principles is to put an end to wars of conquest. Maybe it’ll be they who stop this war, if political theory and practice coincide for once.

Given what happened to the Austro-Hungarian empire, this is an interesting comment made by a man “caught up in the maelstrom [of] the fateful year when everything fell apart.” 

Béla returns home to Budapest, says his farewells to his family and his favoured locations. Initially, he wears a “mask” of normality and “confident gaiety” which finally drops. Béla joins the Thirty-First regiment of the Royal Hungarian Army as an ensign and since he’s there early, he witnesses the “torrent of men streaming” in from all over the region. The idiocy begins immediately when the regiment is ordered to make a seventy-five kilometer march, which as it turns out, is right into the Russian lines at Rava Ruska. The mouth to hell opens there in the wood as Béla encounters piles of abandoned rifles, clothing, and the corpses of dead Hungarians. Initially forbidden to dig foxholes “as this ‘leads to cowardice and undermines discipline’ ” Béla ignores that order after the officer who gave it is blown to shreds, and Béla digs in using a tin lid, while other men use their hands.

The term cannon fodder leaps to mind in the sheer insanity of shoving exhausted, inexperienced men right into the line of fire. The sense of chaos reigns, and Béla’s first encounter, almost surreal in its rapid, blinding intensity, is over almost before it begins. Always there’s Béla’s unused sword, part of his natty uniform getting in the way; it’s an incongruous, antiquated and as it turns out inconvenient accessory.

There’s a sense of privilege to Béla’s miraculous tale. Had he not been an officer with a “Slovak lad called Jóska” as a burly batman it seems doubtful he would have survived. As an officer, he fares better–better food, better billets, and throughout it all Jóska acts as Béla’s personal bodyguard ensuring that he gets home, gets food, acting as his feet, arms and legs when Béla is too weak to fend for himself. It’s in Béla’s attitude to Jóska, that the sense of privilege grates. The patronizing divide between classes gapes wide. To Béla, Jóska is a peasant, a “man-child”:

I owed a debt of gratitude to this healthy resourceful lad: though I knew that this personal service had been an opportunity for a bit of bunking-off on his part.

And:

My mother received Jóska without much enthusiasm; she seemed anxious. “Where shall we put him?”

“All he needs is a straw mattress at night, which can be put away somewhere during the day. He’s a good decent lad, and I’ve got a lot to thank him for. Let him rest here for a week as well. Then he’ll go back to the regiment.”

Jóska bathes and attends Béla and on the third day, Béla tells Jóska to return to the regiment.

The Burning of the World, as a memoir, is a much more personal document than Chevallier’s fictionalized account of his WWI experiences.  Whereas Fear is openly anti-war, The Burning of the World is not. Béla shows the chaos, lack of preparation and stupidity of those in command, but his complaints about “armchair generals” are directed towards ineptitude, archaic attitudes and methods of fighting, but he never  bitterly questions the hierarchy of the society in which he lives.  Whereas Chevallier’s narrator Jean notes “those who wanted all this” make public appearances on “palace balconies,” and for Jean, this was the moment when “the first–and last–machine gun should have done its work, emptied its belt of bullets on to that emperor and his advisors.” Similarly he notes, “in the revolution, they sent incompetent generals to the guillotine, an excellent measure.”

The Burning of the World covers a period of about eight months beginning with Béla hearing the “news of Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia” until March 1915 when he reports back to duty after being injured and recuperating. At 184 pages, we are left wishing for more, but the introduction explains what happened to Béla for the rest of the war and beyond.  The book includes some maps, a painting from Béla, and a wonderful photograph of a large group of people on holiday at Novi Vinodolski–“three days before Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia and the start of the first World War. ” It’s peculiar how some people can dominate a photograph, and in this photo, Béla, a man of his time and his class, stands out.

The manuscript for The Burning of the World was found in 2013 “locked away among family papers,” and what a wonderful find this is. Translated and with an introduction by the author’s grandson Peter Zombory-Moldován who notes that “by the end of the war, Austro-Hungarian casualties were almost seven million out of a population (in 1914) of fifty-one million.”

 Review copy/own a copy

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Anna Edes by Dezso Kosztolányi

A few months ago, I finished the marvellous novel Skylark by Dezso Kosztolányi, and so flush with that successful reading experience, I sought out a copy of Anna Edes. My version is published by New Directions and translated by George Szirtes. Szirtes also writes an introduction–much appreciated by this reader. I’d much rather read an intro by the translator than a celebrity ‘guest’ writer as the translators often seem to have a much better knowledge of the subject matter. Anna Edes was Kosztolányi’s last novel, published in 1926.

When the novel begins, it’s a crucial time in Hungarian history. It’s 1919 and the government has changed hands numerous times since the conclusion of WWI. First the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy after the Aster or Chrysanthemum Revolution of 1918 led by Count Károlyi. By March 1919, Károlyi resigned and communist/Bolshevik Béla Kun subsequently ran the Hungarian Soviet Republic until its collapse in August 1919. This is where Anna Edes begins with the sentence  “Béla Kun was fleeing the country in an aeroplane,”  and there’s the added delicious detail that he fled with his pockets “stuffed with sweet pastry.”

Anna Edes is a portrayal of bourgeois life seen mainly through the pitiful treatment of a wretched servant by Mr and Mrs Vizy. When the novel begins Hungary’s social order is shaken to its foundations. It’s the end of the Bolshevik rule and while some people rue this, others anticipate the return of the old social order.  The headline in the communist newspaper warns: “The Proletariat in Danger!” But to the Vizys–an unpleasant couple entrenched in the emptiness of their own pathetic social status, the collapse of Béla Kun’s government is a cause of celebration. Vizy, a minor political official who tried to keep his head low during the purges of the  Béla Kun government, gloats at the departure of the Bolsheviks. The last few months have been difficult. At one point, Mrs Vizy was arrested:

She had been shaking out a tablecloth at the window and they charged her with secretly signalling to counter-revolutionary forces. They had dragged her off to parliament and only allowed her home at midnight, by which time she had been broken body and spirit. The next morning, a young functionary called, who produced a cane from his leather leggings, and proceeded, while insolently strutting about, to requisition two of their rooms, the dining room in which they presently sat and the adjoining drawing room. It was lucky that the system had collapsed before any lodgers had been foisted on them.

Vizy “ruined by the war,” diminished by the communist government, a witness of its bloody excesses, and fearful of the Lenin Lads is euphoric at the defeat of the Bolsheviks, yet still trembles and fumbles for his trade-union card when there’s a knock at the door:

He went quite pale. He stared at the air before him, as if searching for the word he had just uttered, so he might wipe away all trace of it. He waved his hand vaguely, trying to clear some imperceptible fug of smoke.

“I’ll answer it.” He strode with sudden decision into the hall, steeled for the worst. They might be looking for hostages, it might be a house search or state of emergency! He mentally prepared his defence: twenty years in public service, a social conscience, a general sympathy with Marxism though he deplored its excesses.

For the purposes of the novel, the bourgeois representatives of society are the Vizys, their friends and acquaintances–other couples who live in a three-storey house in Budapest. The Vizys live in four rooms on the first floor, and the floor above is divided into two flats, occupied by the Drumas (a solicitor and his wife) and Dr and Mrs Moviszter. The building’s caretaker, who lives in the basement flat, is Ficsor (who considers himself “Red aristocracy“), a man who neglected his work during the Bolshevik period, but who shuffles back to his duties when Béla Kun’s government fails.

In one of the funniest scenes of the book, Ficsor and Vizy confront one another unsure just how the other should be addressed. Should Ficsor be addressed as “Comrade”? Should Vizy be addressed as “your excellency”? These salutary fetishes, which are emblematic of the shifting social order, are crucial. Not only does everyone have to be addressed correctly, but using the proper salutation indicates compliance and submission to the shifting social order–whatever that may be.

 The Vizys, the Drumas, and the  Moviszters are not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but they all have a servant. During the brief Bolshevik period, the servants grew  ‘uppity’ and difficult to manage. As Hungary kisses the Bolshies goodbye, the novel implies that  the traditional roles of master-servant are reverting back to what they once were. During the rule of Béla Kun, Mrs Vizy’s current servant, Katica, grew particularly difficult. The Vizy apartment is untidy, and Katica, who has assignations with a sailor lover, disappears for long periods of time. 

Katica was still with them but only just. She did more or less as she pleased now and they didn’t even ask her to tidy the flat. Mrs Vizy took a perverse joy in watching the dust and dirt gather.

Unhappy with the excesses and laziness of Katica, the Vizys acquire a new maid, Anne Edes, the niece of Ficsor. Anna is a treasure, but the Vizys never acknowledge that. They take pride in giving her even less wages than Katica, and once wooed away from another employer, she’s treated quite badly. She works from four in the morning until late at night, and she sleeps on a makeshift bed in the kitchen. In return for her room and board, the Vizys have a veritable slave. In their eyes she is reduced to a machine–a machine that works harder and requires less maintenance than their previous servants.

The bourgeois women in the novel are obsessed with their servants. During social evenings, the wives compare the excesses and merits of their servants–rather as one might compare other social markers or fetish objects (I’m reminded of a conversation I recently heard in which people compared ‘water features’). Over time it becomes apparent that Mrs Vizy will never be content with any servant, and “it was always the present incumbent she hated most, whose presence it was which most increased the sum of her misery.” In this inherently unhealthy situation, Mrs Vizy finds meaning in her unhappy existence through the productivity of her servant. Kosztolanyi’s tale seems to say that the labour of another perverts the nature of the one who oversees it.

Mrs Vizy views her troubled history with servants as a matter of “luck,” and yet underneath that word lurks an underlying sense of personal failure. She sees Anna’s work ethic as a reflection on her ability to control and influence another–therefore ‘good’ hard-working servants are, to Mrs Vizy, a reflection of the character of their employers. This idea is apparent in social evenings with the bourgeoise women discussing the merits of their respective servants, and the fact that servants are some sort of sub-human species. Mrs Vizy concludes to her friends that Anna has the perfect life:

“Certainly she works hard enough. But what does she want?’ she asked with some annoyance. “She gets food, she gets lodgings. She even gets clothes. She can bank her earnings. What else could she desire in these difficult times? What problems has she? She doesn’t have to maintain this large flat, she doesn’t have to bother her head with what to cook, or how to find the money, she can live without a thought, without a care in the world. I often think that nowadays it is only servants who can live really well.”

The women sighed as though they had all chosen the wrong career, and now regretted that harsh circumstances prevented them from becoming servants.

Skylark possessed a certain joyousness. Perhaps that was mainly due to the bitter-sweet freedom of all the excesses of restaurant meals enjoyed by its characters. While Anna Edes is powerful it’s also a much bleaker tale. This is an exploration of the exploitation of a fairly uninteresting servant girl, pimped out to a form of slavery by her uncle who needs to curry favour with the gentry. Anna’s flat, lifeless qualities (seen from her employers’ perspective) and her willingness to absorb all the demands of her unreasonable employers made for a  less interesting tale. Anna has a spark for a while, but to delve into that too much would spoil the tale. I much preferred Skylark, so it’s probably a good thing that I read it first. Anna Edes illustrates the inherently unhealthy aspect of the master-slave relationship, and its chilling aspects recall the true story of the Papin sisters. After all, a beaten dog will often turn on its so-called master.

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Skylark by Dezso Kosztolanyi

I’m going to admit that I haven’t been the staunchest fan of Hungarian literature. Not that I’ve read that much, but I haven’t been thrilled by what I read. Skylark is the most enjoyable Hungarian novel I’ve read to date. It’s another release from NYRB and I bought my copy because a) it sounded like my sort of thing and b) it’s from NYRB, and I decided to read more of their titles.

The plot is simple enough. Skylark is the improbable nickname given to the only daughter of Akos and Antonia Vajkay. Skylark is middle-aged, dumpy and unattractive, but she is extremely precious to her parents. They all live together in a little home stuffed full of “the ghastly icons of provincial life” in the boring small town of Sarszeg.  Skylark and her mother do the cooking together and generally enjoy each other’s company. Akos is fifty-nine but looks sixty-five, and he’s on early retirement from his job in county administration. Their days are ordered, modest and utterly predictable, and Akos finds that the “last years of his life he spent increasingly preparing for death.” Life has slowly shrunk for Akos:

“He had not moved in society for years. He neither drank nor smoked. Not only his family doctor, Dr Gal, but also the professor he had consulted in Pest had warned against arteriosclerosis and forbidden him from taking alcohol and – more distressingly – from smoking his beloved cigars.

The only passion remaining to him from the past was to sit in his cramped and perpetually damp study, leafing through a volume of Ivan Nagy’s great tome on Hungarian noble families.”

When the book begins, Skylark is going away on holiday for a week to visit an aunt and uncle in the country, and her parents are devastated at the thought of her week-long absence. They simply cannot imagine the days without her, and when she leaves, many tears are shed at the railway station. For the first day the parents imagine Skylark’s journey, anticipating each stage of her adventure. They dread the week ahead asking each other “how will we bear it?” And Akos even hints optimistically “someone might … turn up” for Skylark, now an acknowledged, unattractive old maid.

For the first day, the time drags for Akos and Antonia, and then they reluctantly venture out into town:

“Already some weeks earlier it had been agreed that, for these few days – it was only a week, after all – they wouldn’t cook at home. Skylark, who presided in all culinary matters, recommended the King of Hungary, Sarszeg’s largest restaurant, as the one place where the cuisine was still tolerable.

The three of them detested restaurants  And although they had hardly visited this one, they could talk about it for hours with sneering condescension. The dishwater soups, the tough and gristly meat, the carelessly concocted desserts they served up to the poor unsuspecting bachelors, who had never tasted good home cooking.”

Eating at a restaurant, initially endured as a necessity becomes the event that springboards Akos and his wife back into the vital strains of Sarszeg’s society. Soon all bad habits are resumed. They are courted by some of the town’s most notable flamboyant personalities and find themselves riveted by the town’s intrigue, gossip and scandalous dramas.

Skylark is a bitter-sweet tale–at once it’s joyous and yet also very sad in its examination of the narrowness of our lives and the decisions we make. All families have a unique dynamic, and it often takes being connected to a family unit to understand its pathology.  As Tolstoy notes in Anna Karenina:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  

This quote even fits this seemingly boring little family fraught with its own secret little disappointments. The story begins with the parents known as just mother and father, but as the tale develops they become well-rounded human beings that exist beyond any parental function–indeed with their daughter gone they seem to come to life. But at the same time the story is also sympathetic to Skylark. She’s long past what is considered the marriageable age, and when she’s put in the company of her younger flirtatious cousins she’s in the way. Skylark’s great failed, legendary romance with Geza Cifra  (a man whose “summer pimples bloomed brightly like ripe cherries” ) is examined in all its humourous and yet poignant details.

Not a great deal happens here, and yet at the same time the very smallness of the tale of a crucial week is delivered with a delectably natural precision. The tale dissects the Vajkay family dynamic and peels apart the layers revealing  the refuge and also the crutch the family can provide to its less successful members. In contrast to the Vajkay family is Miklos Ijas, would-be poet and assistant editor of the Sarszeg Gazette. He’s a lonely soul whose family has been decimated by scandal. Tainted by the past, he remains outside of mainstream society, yet he is one of the few people to understand the protective relationship the Vajkays have with their daughter. And he seems to envy the ties between this close-knit family. There’s a sense that we are witnessing a world that will soon disappear. Indeed the novel is set in 1899 and already we can hear the rumblings of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

 The introduction by Peter Esterhazy offers biographical information on the book’s author, Dezso Kosztolanyi. This was welcome as I had never heard of this author before. So thanks once more to NYRB. I enjoy Skylark immensely and found that this good-natured tale grew on me as it continued. Here’s one last quote showing Kosztolanyi’s lively use of language:

“The market seethed in the sweltering heat, humming with noise and ablaze with every imaginable colour. Red peppers shone as brightly as the florid scarlet paint in the paint-shop window across the square. Cabbages displayed their pale-green, silken frills, violet grapes glistened, marrows whitened in the sun, and yellowing melons, already past their best, gave off a sickly choleroid stench.”

 This edition is translated by Richard Aczel

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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.

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