Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight

I can’t think of a better way to start writing about Antal Szerb’s wonderfully indescribable 1937 novel Journey by Moonlight, which I read in Len Rix’s translation of the original Hungarian Utas és Holdvilág, than to quote a bit of the book, a passage that sums up what’s ailing its main character, Mihály, who’s thirty-six years old:

As he spoke it all came to the surface—everything that since his escape had lived inside him like a repressed instinct: how deeply he felt a failure in his adult, or quasi-adult life, his marriage, his desperation to know where he might start again, what he could expect from the future, how he could get back to his true self. And above all, how he was tortured by nostalgia for his youth and the friends of his youth.

I’ll comment on a few key phrases from these lines, which appear about halfway through the novel…

As he spoke: These lines describe Mihály during a night-time talk, a confession of sorts, at a monastery near Gubbio, Italy, with an old friend from Mihály’s youth, a Jewish man who’s converted to Catholicism and become a monk.

His escape and his marriage: Mihály came to Italy on his honeymoon but “lost” his new wife, Erzsi, during a station stop on a train journey. Oops! Erzsi is a piece of work herself. She left her husband to marry Mihály and she goes to Paris after Mihály’s disappearance, where she runs into a watch-stealing (hmm) old friend of Mihály’s. Erzsi’s ex, who’s a businessman, is so concerned about her that he sends a hilarious and lengthy letter to the honeymooning Mihály, offering advice on Erzsi’s care and feeding. This was one of my favorite passages in the book: items include “Make sure she eats enough,” “Take special care over her manicurists,” “Don’t let her get up too early,” and advice on Erzsi and PMS. The letter is signed “with affectionate greetings and true respect. Zoltán.”

A repressed instinct: One of Mihály’s biggest problems is that he works in the family business and doesn’t feel comfortable about it. Many descriptions and reviews of Journey by Moonlight refer to class, its expectations, and what it represses: the description on the back of my book begins with “Anxious to please his bourgeois father, Mihály…” Class is certainly at the root of Mihály’s angst, though the question of class as such felt far less interesting to me than my next point…

Tortured by nostalgia for his youth and the friends of his youth: Nostalgia is, in my reading, what eats at Mihály most. About twenty pages before the chunk I quoted above, Mihály told his doctor “I know what’s wrong with me… Acute nostalgia. I want to be young again. Is there a cure for that?” The doctor says he doesn’t know of one, then says, “Think of Faust. Don’t hanker after youth.” Later on that same page, the doctor gives Mihály garlic to tie around his neck; Mihály says he’s read Dracula. The doctor, by the way, is just one of several characters that functions almost like a member of Mihály’s personal Greek chorus, people he meets or remeets in his travels.

I found Mihály’s nostalgia most interesting because he yearns for the romanticism, decadence (not in our modern sense of too much cheese or chocolate sauce), and eroticism of his high school years, when he spent lots of time skipping school, drinking alcohol and coffee, talking about Dostoevsky, and otherwise hanging out with a group of friends led by a brother and sister named Tamás and Éva. Their exceptionally close sibling relationship and even Tamás’s death (romanticized), are a long-term source of jealousy for Mihály. It all reminds me (minus the brother-sister dynamics, suicide, and a couple other things) of a favorite Russian novella that I’m translating, Konstantin Vaginov’s Bambocciade, which is also from the 1930s. Though Vaginov’s angle is different—the nostalgia is for the dead and the years before the Russian revolution—both writers quietly use history, whether Italian fascism or Soviet communism, as a backdrop, and both focus largely on youngish people who wander and aren’t quite sure how to handle themselves in their societies.

I know that probably sounds horribly dull, sentimental, and pedantic. To which I can only add that I enjoyed Journey by Moonlight very, very much. Though it felt a tiny bit too long in a few spots, it’s so human, humorous, and filled with cultural memory that I’d recommend it to just about anyone.

Disclaimers: The usual. I’ve enjoyed speaking with Pushkin Press about books in translation. I received a copy of Journey by Moonlight from publisher Pushkin Press. Thank you very much!

Up Next: Inga Ābele’s High Tide, another lovely book that’s difficult to describe. Then Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop.