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Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

March 5, 2016 24 comments

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb (1937) Translated by Peter Hargitai. French title: Le voyageur et le clair de lune. (Translated by Natalia Zaremba-Huzsvai and Charles Zaremba.)

Preamble: Although all the quotes I inserted in this billet come from the English translation by Peter Hargitai, I have read Journey by Moonlight in French. This English translation dates back to 2015 and its actual title is Traveler and the Moonlight, which is the same as in French. (Le voyageur et le clair de lune). Since Szerb’s novel is better known under Journey by Moonlight, I’ll refer to it under this title in my billet.

The practical life is a myth, a bluff, invented by idiots as a consolation for being impotent as intellectuals.

SZERB_voyageurJourney by Moonlight starts in Venice where Erzsi and Mihály have just arrived from Budapest. They’re on their honeymoon and Mihály is a bit wary. It’s his first time in Italy and we learn from the first page that he has lived in France and England, travelled a lot but avoided Italy like the plague because it was a country for grown-ups. So he thinks. And now that he’s married, he’s an adult and he should be protected against Italy’s power of attraction.

Erzsi and Mihály leave Venice for Ravenna and Mihály’s past catches up with him in the form of János Szepetneki, one of his old classmates. Suddenly, his youth resurfaces and Mihály reveals to Erzsi a whole part of his past that she’s unware of. As an adolescent, Mihály suffered from what I’ll call panic attacks. It lasted until he became friends with Tamás Ulpius, who seemed to have the power to prevent the attacks from happening. Tamás and his sister Éva are free spirits, living in a strange household. Their mother is dead, their father is very strict and their eccentric grand-father encourages their weird activities. There is no schedule in this house and Tomas and Éva do as they please. They love theatre and keep playing dramatic deaths. They have a fusional relationship. Mihály is drawn to their world. He comes from a close-knit bourgeois family. His father owns a small company and the atmosphere at home is loving but conformist. Mihály finds it smothering and he’s madly attracted to the Ulpius lifestyle. They represent freedom. But despite his efforts, Mihály doesn’t really fit in, he feels like a fraud:

“At the same time, I didn’t feel quite right about Tamás and Éva. I felt like I was betraying them. What they regarded as natural and free was for me a difficult, agonizing rebellion. I was too bourgeois. I was raised that way, as you well know. I had to take a deep breath the first time I allowed my cigarette ashes to fall to the floor. Tamás and Éva couldn’t imagine otherwise. The few times I mustered the courage to skip school with Tamás, I suffered from stomach cramps the entire day. My nature was such that I’d get up early, sleep at night, and eat lunch at lunchtime and supper at supper time. I’d prefer to eat my meals from a plate, and I’d never start with dessert. I like order, and I’m terrified of policemen. I tried to conceal from Tamás and Éva a part of me that was order-loving, conscientious and petite bourgeois. Of course they saw right through the roles I was playing, even had opinions on the subject, but were polite enough not to bring it up with me, and kindly looked the other way whenever I tried to save money or had an attack of orderliness.

It’s not easy to leave your background behind and yet adolescence is really the time to question one’s education. Later, another student joins them and the group dynamic changes and Ervin is also an outsider.

Mihály relates his high-school years with Tamás and Éva and explains to Erzsi that Tamás is dead, that he committed suicide a few years before, that Éva got married and disappeared and that the rumour says that Ervin has become a monk. They didn’t keep in touch. Mihály never knew the exact circumstances of Tamás’s death and he never recovered from it. He tried to close the door of his past:

What had his life been like these last fifteen years? He was educated in his profession both at home and abroad. Not the profession of his choosing but the one conferred on him by his family, his father, his father’s company, which did not interest him but which he joined nevertheless. He struggled to learn amusements appropriate for a young aspiring partner of the company. To play bridge. To ski. To drive a car. He bent over backwards to become entangled in adventures of the heart appropriate for a company man, found Erzsi, and entered into a relationship with her which would elicit in society just the right amount of gossip, appropriate to an up-and-coming partner of a prestigious company. And, finally, he married a beautiful, intelligent and wealthy woman with whom he had carried on an affair and whose reputation of carrying on affairs was a notable advantage, befitting a wife of an aspiring partner. Who knows, another year and he may become a full partner. Attitudes about identity, about who one is and what one does go through a hardening process that cuts to the inner core of one’s being until it becomes callous beyond recognition. One starts out as so and so who happens to work as an engineer, and with time he is an engineer and who he really is no longer matters.

He thought he had moved on, that his marriage to Erzsi had sealed the door to this part of himself who yearned for a freer life. He tried to leave his past behind and grow up. The problem is he didn’t move on, he tried really hard to fit the designated mould. The encounter with Janos acts as a catalyst and Mihály unfolds from his mould, he breaks free and he rebounds back to his former self after being compressed.

He leaves Erzsi behind and starts a journey through Italy, revisiting his past, trying to find himself and to put the past to rest. He’s on a travel and on a journey, the French is more convenient here because “voyage” covers both meanings.

Journey by Moonlight is a picaresque novel. We follow Mihály in Italy and Erzsi in France. Mihály needs to find Ervin and Éva. But both have their past resurfacing and meddling into their present. For Erzsi, it’s in the form of her ex-husband who wants her back, even if she left him for Mihály. She had a comfortable life but she wanted to step out of conformity and marrying Mihály was a way to do it.

With just about everything, she’d been a conformist, as Mihály would point out. But then she got bored. Bored to the point of mind-numbing neurosis, and that’s when she sought out Mihály, sensing that he at least was a man, an individual who resisted the insufferable taboos inherent in social boundaries and their rock-solid walls. She believed that with Mihály she could scale those walls, beyond which were wild thickets and forbidden pastures that spread far toward an exotic horizon. But, as it turned out, Mihály was actually conforming through her, using her as a means to become respectable, and he’d only rarely break out and wander off to graze among those forbidden pastures, usually when he got fed up with following the herd and retreated back as far as the thickets.

They had found a middle ground in Budapest but change the setting, add Janos as a deus ex-machina and the fragile balance shatters. What’s as the end of this journey? Will Mihály find his peace of mind? Will Erzsi and Mihály go through a parallel journey or will they meet midway?

Journey by Moonlight is a thoughtful novel about identity, the weight of family expectations and the force of ingrained education. One’s education grounds them. Most of the time, it’s in a positive way. Sometimes, it fills one’s shoes with lead and prevent them from soaring and being themselves. It could be a sad book but it’s not, thanks to Szerb’s subtle sense of humour.

Pataki read somewhere that the only difference between a married man and a bachelor was that the married man could always count on someone to dine with.

It breaks the tension and puts the characters’ inner turmoil in perspective. What is their angst in the grand scheme of things? Nothing. His sense of humour also appears in descriptions:

That was Italy for you, he thought. Pelting each other with history. Two thousand years as natural to them as the smell of dung in a village.

Journey by Moonlight is also a wonderful tribute to Italy. Szerb is cosmopolitan, cultured and a humanist who lived in several European countries. His novel makes you touch the concept of “Europeanity”. He points out clichés but always with affection. About London:

He loved wallowing in London’s melancholy climate, its damp, foggy mist, loyal companion to solitude and the spleen. “London in November is not so much a month,” he said, “as a condition of the soul.”

And about the French:

Finding themselves alone in their first-class compartment, they were soon kissing as ardently as the French. For both, this was left over from their years of study in Paris.

Szerb shows local quirks but indirectly puts forward our common culture, the Europe built by art and intellectuals. The three first parts of the novel start with a quote by a poet. Mihály visits Keats’s grave in Rome. Journey by Moonlight was published in 1937, in troubled times for Europe. Italy, Germany and Spain were run by dictators. Eastern European countries were fragile after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In Szerb, I sense a man of peace, an intellectual who would promote unity against division. In times of Brexit and of the migrant crisis, he’d urge us to remember who we are and that there is indeed such an impalpable thing as European identity. It’s that  something that made our Australian guest gush over the phone “Oh my gosh, they’re so European!”

I’ll end this billet with a book recommendation: if you loved Journey by Moonlight, then there’s a good chance that you’ll like Les Enchanteurs by Romain Gary.

For other reviews, find Max’s here and Guy’s here.

PS: Szerb was Jewish. He died in 1945, executed by the Nazis. As usual, my French copy came with no comments of any sort. My English copy has a fascinating afterword by Peter Hargitai. He’s a translator of this novel into English and he paid for its publication. That’s how important it is for him. He was acquainted to Szerb’s widow and taught this novel for years to American students. He wanted to honour Szerb’s memory. His afterword gives a brilliant explanation of the novel and he also reminds us of the horrible fate of Hungarian Jews. (See my billet about Fateless by Imre Kertesz here)

PPS: Don’t ask me anything about the French cover, I’m clueless.

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