Antal Szerb’s “Journey by Moonlight”

Reviewed by Carla Baricz

Image of Antal Szerb’s “Journey by Moonlight”

In the epigraph to his best-known poem, The Waste Land, T. S. Eliot cites Petronius’s picaresque novel, The Satyricon. More specifically, he reproduces the Roman satirist’s story of the Cumaean Sibyl: “Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβυλλα τί θέλεις: respondebat illa: άποθανειν θέλω” (“Once I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her: “Sibyl, what do you want?” she replied: “I want to die.”) Apollo had employed the Sibyl as a prophetess, as a mouth through which the truth could be spoken. So Eliot, too, uses her as a mouth—the mouth (of hell) by means of which one descends, in the first part of his poetic underworld, “The Burial of the Dead,” into the ground.

Antal Szerb performs a similar journey of descent in Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág), written in 1937, in the midst of another war. In this case, however, the land of the dead is not the wasteland of Europe’s ruined culture but the hinterland of one’s own memory, of one’s own lost youth and the tragedies that characterized it. This phantasmal, complex novel of ideas takes place in a “wild, precipitous landscape” in which

mortality hung over the tiny figure [of the narrator], 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 stylized ruins, terrified by tempests and wolves, for an immense period of time, and that he, and no-one else in all the world, would come abroad on such a night, so utterly alone.

At times, this landscape of the past is tinged with eroticism: “You yearn for someone, maniacally, mortally, to the verges of hell and death. You look for them everywhere, pursue them, to no avail, and your life wastes away in nostalgia.” At other times, it becomes a menacing Charybdian whirlpool that threatens to engulf the narrator:

In the deepest stupidity there is a kind of dizzying, whirlpool attraction, like death: the pull of the vacuum. [. . .] Now he saw that this little adventure, his return to the vagabond years, was merely a transition, a step leading him downward, and backward, into the past, into private history. [. . .] Then it happened. The ground opened up around a deep well, and again he stood before the whirlpool.

The fraught candor and eloquent savageness of Journey by Moonlight arises from Szerb’s decision to adopt this perilous vantage point at “Hell’s Gate,” on the verge of the whirlpool that comes to symbolize the desire for oblivion. The protagonist, Mihály, a middle-aged Hungarian intellectual working for his father’s firm in Budapest, a man who is safely ensconced in the bourgeois world of profit management, lawn tennis, and afternoon picnics on the Danube, takes a honeymoon trip to Italy with his new wife, Erzi. His marriage is the capstone project of the middle-class respectability he has worked so hard to achieve. Nevertheless, when the novel opens on the couple’s first night in Venice, Mihály already hankers after the freedom that he knew in his youth, a freedom that his marriage—like all of the other choices he has made as an adult—categorically denies him. After leaving the hotel in search of a drink, Mihály wanders through the back streets of a city that he begins to experience as a dark underworld, losing himself not just geographically but temporally: “What was the strange attraction, the peculiar ecstasy, that seized him among the back-alleys? Why did it feel like finally coming home? [. . .] Perhaps there is an adolescent longing to live in such a closed world [. . .].” In the underworld of these Venetian backstreets, which in his Italian travelogue, The Third Tower (written in 1936), Szerb would describe as embodying “my dreams, my moods of nostalgia [. . .] the deepest ecstasy I have ever known,” Mihály begins to encounter the dead.

As in Eliot’s poem, this haunting and haunted novel is marked by the burials of individuals who, in Eliot’s words, “beg[in] to sprout.” What Mihály discovers in Italy, among the ruins, is that the past lives on in the shadow of the present, and that the formative experiences of one’s life can never be truly left behind. Whether alive or dead, Mihály’s childhood friends, whose stories he recounts to Erzi on the second night of their honeymoon, seek him out. They are not the “undead,” in Bram Stoker’s understanding of the term. Nor are they living proof of “the resurrection of the body,” as the dead are in Szerb’s first novel, The Pendragon Legend (1934). Rather, they are memories come to life. This is because in this fraught, stirring meditation on human impermanence, the past—and the dead who mark its distance from the present—stands in for a lost life, for a lost paradise.

For Szerb’s protagonist, death resembles a sort of homecoming, the only means of returning to the time when “[. . .] his youth beat within him with such intensity.” As Waldheim, one of Mihály’s friends, puts it: “if we read The Odyssey aright, it speaks of nothing else. [. . .] Ulysses nostalgia for and his journey back to Ithaca perhaps represent the nostalgia for non-being [. . .].” Szerb reinforces this idea by alluding to the journey of Immram Brain maic Fehail, the eighth-century Irish hero who traveled to the Lands of the Blessed. When Brain returns home, he realizes that hundreds of years have passed, and that now he is nothing more than a legend. He has kept his youth, but in doing so he has forgone the normal progression of a human life. He sees his companion turn to dust upon setting foot on the shores of his homeland and realizes that were he to truly return home and step off the boat into a present that is no longer his own, he too would die. In Journey by Moonlight, Szerb closely follows the implications of this myth which has many counterparts in world folklore. In order to return home, to the world of one’s youth, one must die.

Death and the impossible desire to return “home” to the world he knew as a young man are inextricably linked in Mihály’s mind. Szerb underscores this idea by turning Mihály’s adolescence into a series of mock or practice deaths that betray a desire for an even more distant home—Paradise. As a young boy, Mihály befriended a charismatic brother and sister pair—Tamás Ulpius and his sister Éva—as well as Ervin, a precocious Jewish Marxist-in-the-making who converted to Catholicism, and János Szepetneki, a classroom rival. Together, the group formed a brotherhood united by a “renunc[iation of] the objective world” and the bourgeois “tyranny of facts,” as well as by an unwavering devotion to Éva. This mysterious, charismatic Eve-like figure who forms an implied erotic triangle with Tamás and Mihály, organizes the improvised theatrical performances that the group puts on, “bits of history” that

culminated in scenes of violent death. Day after day, Tamás and Éva strangled, poisoned, stabbed or boiled one another in oil. [. . .] Éva loved to be the woman who cheats, betrays and murders men, Tamás and I [Mihály] loved to be the man she cheats, betrays, murders, or utterly humiliates. [. . .] In the tragedies we played we were always killed and dying. That’s all they were ever about.

The plays that the group puts on are in fact one play, the Biblical story of the fall that Eve brought about by convincing Adam to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Éva/Eve presides over all the “bits of history,” which add up to the greater story of mortality.

Szerb’s novel has rightly become a cult classic in Hungary, a book read by all Hungarian students in much the same way that American students read J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Mihály is every young adult who cannot leave behind an adolescence that seems to have contained more life and to have promised more than the quotidian drudgery of adulthood could ever offer. “I know what’s wrong with me,” Mihály explains. “Acute nostalgia. I want to be young again. Is there a cure for that?”

In some ways, this great masterpiece of high modernism is about the nostalgia of Szerb’s own generation for a past that, in the midst of war, seemed irrecoverable. Written just a few years before Antal Szerb was transported to a work camp, where as Julie Orringer puts it, Szerb “met the fate of thousands of other Hungarian men whose religion, parentage, or race branded them as ‘undesirable,’” it is a bildungsroman of the twentieth century itself. In translator Len Rix’s gifted hands, it becomes a powerful and poignant testament to Antal Szerb’s learning and speaks to his many accomplishments: president of the Hungarian Literary Academy by the age of thirty-two, full professor at Szeged University by the time he published Journey by Moonlight, two-time winner of the Baumgarten Prize (1935, 1937), brilliant literary scholar (An Outline of English Literature (1929), History of Hungarian Literature (1934), History of World Literature (3 vols., 1934)) and talented translator of writers and critics such as J. Huizinga, R. B. Sheridan, P. G. Wodehouse, and Henry Walpole.

At its heart, Szerb’s narrative is a remarkable, painstaking study of a man’s fascination with his own mortality. Szerb fantastically reimagines Dante’s vision of paradise as a cure for nostalgia that involves the ultimate erotic vision: one’s own death. Mihály must decide whether this vision of death can be sustained to its bitter end, or whether, like Dante’s protagonist, he must eventually return to earth. Should Mihály accept the directions of the “pale and melancholy” shade of Tamás, his Virgil-like guide who appears to him in a nighttime vision outside the town of Spoleto, and follow him “by the weak light of the stars?” Should he follow the Beatrice-like Éva to his own death? Or should he return to the whole “punitive middle class establishment” and go on living “never after his own inclination but as he was expected to?” Journey by Moonlight does not succumb to the easy promise that Mihály’s future life will be better than his lost youth. All that Mihály can look forward to are more years of drudgery in his father’s firm. However, neither did Dante promise that what followed the ecstatic revelation would be anything but harsh exile: “And you will know how salty is the taste / of others’ bread, how hard the road that takes / you down and up the stairs of others’ homes.” Written in the darkest years of the war, this tortured, wry, impassioned novel asks its readers to answer the same question that children posed to the Sibyl: “Sibyl, what do you want?”