“ON THE TRAIN everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back alleys.” This is our introduction to Mihaly a Hungarian businessman on his honeymoon in Venice. Mihaly has married his wife Erzi to escape from an adolescent rebellious nature and into the arms of conformity, part of the problem faced is his newly wed bride has married him as an attempt to escape the bourgeois conformity of her life prior to meeting him. As stated in the opening lines, the trouble began with those alleys, as one night Mihaly feeling out of sorts, meanders away from the hotel they are staying at and into those alleys and is still wandering at daybreak. This is like a trial run for what happens later. As not long into the honeymoon Mihaly goes AWOL (accidently enters the wrong train), this is followed by a series of misadventures across Italy as his past catches up with him.
We then follow the journey both of these individuals make, with Erzi heading off to Paris to visit an old friend and a series of characters, one of which is the man she left to marry Mihaly, at one point she seems to be offered as part of a business transaction involving a wealthy Persian. Whilst Mihaly wallows in a combination of self-pity, nostalgia and a sense of confusion that has him bouncing from point to point, bumping into people from his past.
Mihaly as a character shouldn’t inspire our sympathy, apart from his treatment of his bride, he is self-absorbed to the extent that he appears to believe no one else has an inner live, he’s vain, withdrawn, has a combination of amorality & yet appears to be guilt ridden, in fact it’s quite hard to find many redeeming features at all and yet you’ll laugh at him, with him - you’ll want to shake him up just to wake him up, and then pick him up when he falls – as he will.
This is one of those books that although a lot happens, nothing really changes, it was first published in 1937. According to Nicholas Lezard, it is "one of the greatest works of modern European literature”. In some ways it reminds me of the writing of Henry Green, it has that sharp bright intellect, but is warmer, funnier and wears it’s intelligence lightly.
Antal Szerb (May 1, 1901, Budapest - January 27, 1945,) was a noted Hungarian scholar and writer. He is recognized as one of the major Hungarian literary personalities of the 20th century. He was born to assimilated Jewish parents, but baptized Catholic. He studied Hungarian, German and later English, obtaining a doctorate in 1924. From 1924 to 1929 he lived in France and Italy, also spending a year in London, England.
As a student he published essays on Georg Trakl and Stefan George, and quickly established a formidable reputation as a scholar, writing erudite studies of William Blake and Henrik Ibsen among other works. Elected President of the Hungarian Literary Academy in 1933 - aged just 32 -, he published his first novel, The Pendragon Legend, the following year. His second and best-known work Journey by Moonlight, came out in 1937. He was made a Professor of Literature at the University of Szeged the same year. He was twice awarded the Baumgarten Prize, (1935 and 1937).
In 1941 he published a History of World Literature which continues to be authoritative today. He also published a volume on novel theory and a book about the history of Hungarian literature. Given numerous chances to escape anti-Semitic persecution (as late as 1944), he chose to remain in Hungary, where his last novel, Oliver VII, was published in 1942. It was passed off as a translation from the English, as no 'Jewish' work could have been printed at the time. Szerb was deported to a concentration camp late in 1944, and was beaten to death there in January 1945, at the age of 43.