- David Savill
Novel Thoughts: Antal Szerb - Journey By Moonlight (1937, Pushkin Press 2001)
Updated: Jul 20, 2022
Starting in May 2022, novel thoughts is a blog of my immediate reactions to reading a novel. This is not a critical review or recommendation, but the first thoughts I write down as a working novelist, and after reading a book. They have a focus on technique. I thought students and other writers might enjoy them if I made them public.
Journey By Moonlight is a Hungarian classic, as stubbornly taught in Hungarian schools, as Tess of the D’urbervilles in England. Wildly different in tone and technique, it is interesting that both ‘school’ texts share a preoccupation with the agency of womankind, and the question of fate. Szerb’s world is more godless and existential than Hardy’s. It is one of those books that has remained patiently on my shelves for years, waiting for me to find the right frame of mind to finish. Twice, I’ve been lured by the seductive, opening passages, describing a honeymooning couple’s travels in Italy, only to be stopped by several, turgid chapters where one of the novel’s two protagonists launches into an interrupted monologue about his childhood relationships. (God, does it go on!). This section forms a novella and is a lesson in how, no matter how crucial to plotting, it is difficult to interest some readers in the past of a character, when the narrative journey of the present is calling more urgently. The monologue technique is typical of this novel. Although published in 1937, it has its stylistic feet planted firmly in the 19th century, a time when novelistic technique had more in common with the stage than the cinema. Journey By Moonlight does pursue descriptive travelogue, but is largely organised in static scenes where characters adopting different reactions to the same circumstances meet to expose and challenge their decisions. No realism here, but a series of disquisitions. This is a novel of ideas, and although its style is antique, those ideas are born on the eve of fascism and holocaust, and could be seen as a precursor to the philosophical novels of Sartre and Camus. The incitement to action, is the petit-bourgeoise conformity of early twentieth century Pest – something that feels little removed from the suffocating atmosphere of Chekov’s petit-bourgeoise Moscow. Considering its publication date, the details of modernity do not intrude much in Szerb’s fictional world. His interest is in ageless questions. A man’s nervous breakdown leads him to end a marriage – that great product of social sacrifice and conformity – so woman and man are set free to pursue the instincts of lust and death. Lust is pursued in Paris by the woman. Death in Italy by the man. So often, the European novel finds its animus in our adventures through the land of the ‘other’. When the characters are not declaiming on their relationships, fates and love, they are thinking feverishly. The narrative technique lies in expounding those thoughts, something that was already outmoded in the commercial novel of the period. It is another 19th century habit, and requires a genuinely philosophical author to pull it off – a writer as diligent and thoughtful in the style of the essay, as they are with the tricks of fiction. I suspect Szerb was something of the essayist at heart, and see that he did publish essays. Fortunately, he has the ability to follow the complete circumference of his character’s spiralling thoughts. I’m glad I reached the end, as the concluding chapters offer elegant and memorable ideas that have been hard won by its tragi-comic characters. A reminder that the 'work' of reading novels can pay-off. This precis makes the novel sound more challenging and darker than it is. Szerb – whose fascinating and tragic life in the dark heart of the 1930’s and 40’s is worth knowing about – manages to pursue the darkness in his characters minds with a wit and irony which also owes much to Chekhov.