Friday, 3 October 2014

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

published 1937

translation by Len Rix, 2000

[Budapest in the 1920s]

Eva somehow or other got herself into the officers’ set. She knew various languages and her manner was somehow not typically Hungarian but more cosmopolitan. I know she was very much in demand. She went, from one day to the next, from a little adolescent girl to a stunning woman…

Eva needed money so that she could make her exquisite appearance among the exquisite people. She was very clever at sewing herself elegant things out of nothing, but even that nothing costs a little something...

[There was] a grand ‘do’ out of doors somewhere, in a then fashionable summer inn… There were several of us present - Eva’s friends, two or three foreign officer, some young inflation-millionaires, some strange women, remarkably daring for those times in their dress and general behaviour…The whole city had [a sense of impermanence], it was in the air. People had a lot of money and they knew that it made no difference: it might vanish from one day to the next. The sense of impending disaster hung over the garden like a chandelier.

observations: Eva is the kind of character you feel has turned up in too many books – the mysterious adorable woman, childhood love of the hero, someone who will pop up in his life at all the wrong times, but always to mess him up, never to make him happy. These characters (always written by men) tend to be annoying, unreal and have no internal consistency. But the rest of the book makes up for her. Journey by Moonlight is, apparently, a modern classic of Hungarian literature. For me, it helped that I had no idea what was going to happen or what kind of book it was. It starts with a Hungarian couple on their honeymoon: ‘the trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.’ Things start to go wrong: Mihaly becomes accidentally (?) separated from his wife by climbing on the wrong train, and we follow him as he wanders around Italy wondering what to do and thinking about his past and the group of friends (as in the passage above) he knew so well many years before in Budapest.

The book is discursive, and often very funny on such subjects as the sentimentality of Italian cooking, and the ‘correct’ size for a hill – ‘tailored to the human form.’

“Do get on with the story” as Erzsi – his wife – says impatiently near the beginning.

You would never know what was coming next – a visit to a monastery, an art student in Perugia, a lie about Leonardo da Vinci. Everything is described wonderfully well, and the translation seems very good. The book is confounding, in a good way.

The book does have similarities with some others: and Eva is like Yvonne in Le Grand Meaulnes, Daisy in The Great Gatsby, and – particularly – Micol in Garden of the Finzi Continis. There was one lovely description relating to her:
Love preserves one moment for ever, the moment of its birth. The beloved never ages. In love’s eye she is always seventeen, her dishevelled hair and light summer frock tousled for the rest of time by the same friendly breeze that blew in the first fatal moment.

-- which made me forgive him for the standard-character-ness of Eva (and her Adam-and-Eve name).

It is a lovely worthwhile book, one that should be better known: it has a European charm and sweetness about it.

The pictures are from a film promotion magazine of the 1920s. 


  1. Glad you enjoyed it, but not one for me I'm afraid.

    1. Maybe one day you'll want a Hungarian book. If so, this is the one...

    2. Nah - BUDAPEST NOIR - Vilmos Kondor, if I ever travel down this road, which is unlikely at the moment.

    3. I shoulda known. Not the name, of course, but the genre...

  2. Moira - It sounds like it's philosophical as much as it is about the plot. Interesting! And I'm already getting a sense that it offers a good sense of the different settings too. I've found with those kinds of books that if you patiently go along for the ride, so to speak, the story can turn out quite well. But please, oh, please don't get me started on characters like Eva.

    1. I think we all recognize the Eva character don't we? (Maybe particularly women do...) But yes it is a good book, and I love a novel that proves you don't have to be humourless and pompous to be a good writer, with a book full of interesting ideas.

  3. I do love that quote about love preserving a moment. I don't know how much I would like this, but might give it a try. The pictures are fantastic. A 1924 movie with Bessie Love and Warner Baxter. I would love to see it but it is silent, and I would rather hear those particular those actors.

    1. It was an unusual, interesting book, and I liked the fact that it had a Hungarian background. So glad you liked the pictures - I loved them so much, and they seemed so right for their rather ephemeral life. They were quite new on Wikimedia (where I get a lot of my photos) and I noticed them immediately, and was so glad they suited this book in style and era!