Monday, April 1, 2013

The Novel in Reverse

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

Szerb's masterpiece is the first novel I can remember reading for some time that appears to move backward: a married couple in Venice falls into the spell of the past, into the torturous memories of the bridegroom, Mihály--a man who wishes, of all things, to have a normal life.  To do so [spoiler alert] he leaves his wife and follows various clues left by a single eccentric episode of his past into, first, a nervous breakdown, and then to a monastery, and finally to Rome where instead of "finding" himself--as any self-respecting fictional hero should do--he loses himself, his wife, his sense of adventure and his love of life.  He goes home to Budapest "to conform"! 

Isn't the usual trajectory of the fictional hero from "up" to "down" (or "down" to "up"), or from happy to sad, or from alive to dead (or, today, from dead to alive)?--but to create a warm-blooded character whose fictional arc is defined by the desire to be boring and by the yearning to overthrow one's nature--this was unsettling.  Generally the novels I most enjoy feature narrators who don't change at all--Proust's Marcel or Musil's Ulrich or any of Bernhard's monomaniacal monologuers--but a character who abandons seduction and ironic self-mockery for earnestness, this was a revelation.  I even thought, with a shudder, of Thomas Merton's Seven Story Mountain, not a cheerful thought by any means. 

Today (Easter Sunday) as I was reading Journey by Moonlight I kept thinking of how good fiction sets expectations and then proceeds to fulfill them while great fiction sets expectations and then proceeds to show how foolish it was for the reader, or the characters, to believe in the notion of fulfilled expectations in the first place.  

Mihály wishes to find happiness in a normal life; his wife, Erzsi has married Mihály believing he will save her from the tedium of conformity; neither one has any idea of why he or she believed their doomed marriage could advance their wishes--Szerb, whose touch is as gentle as any I have ever encountered (perhaps he is an ironist, but I'm not so sure) quietly undoes both Mihály's and Erzsi's illusions about one another, about their mutual acquaintances, about their past and the future to such an extent that, by the end of the book I was thinking how relieved I was that there could exist a world in which no illusions remain, and, at the same time, how surprised I was that any writer would set out to depict such a place.  


As much as I loved this book, I was put off, or perhaps slightly disturbed, by how perfect the pitch of the narrative was--reading Journey by Moonlight was like listening to Schubert lieder--you understand that you're in the presence of genius,and the performance is, let us assume, flawless, but you can't help but wish, ungratefully, for that discordant note that humanizes what is otherwise unearthly.  Whatever my ingratitude for the book's obvious stylistic perfection, I have to say that I was charmed by the intelligence of the author.  Szerb was an intellectual prodigy, a student of languages who "knew everything," and who read everything--in English, French, German, and Italian--a scholar-novelist who wrote his own history of world literature at a young age, a teacher, a man of elegance and breeding.  

In Journey by Moonlight, Szerb has written a book (translated, and I would say perfectly so, by Len Rix--it reads as if written in English) in which not a single word seems out of place, a book so economical, so flawless as to put one more in mind of poets rather than of novelists.

Do I exaggerate?  Here is the passage where Mihály meets his old friend Ervin, now a remarkably (not in degree, but kind) holy Franciscan monk:

"[The Monk] led Mihály into one of the building where lights were still burning. A few minutes later Ervin arrived, no longer in his flowing robes but his brown Franciscan cowl. It now struck Mihály how thoroughly Franciscan Ervin had become, The tonsure gave quite a different look to the face, as if its owner had expunged from his nature every worldliness, every conceivable worldliness, and elevated himself into the air of the Giottos and Fra Angelicos.  And yet, Mihály felt, this was Ervin's true face. From the very first he had been growing towards this face. The tonsure had always been there on his crown. It had simply been hidden by his bushy black hair...There could be no doubt that, however alarming the result, Ervin had found himself."  

"He had been growing towards this face." (!)

And this is the theme of Journey by Moonlight: no matter how alarming the result, there can be no doubt that each of the characters, like each of us, comes to discover that his or her true self--selves that mostly seem inconceivable at the beginning of the book, at the beginning of our lives--are made to appear the inevitable outgrown of apparently insignificant events lodged not so much in the past as in the persistence of our imperfect memory of the past.  A journey by moonlight is bound to go wrong as the light is bent by the water and lost in the shadows.   

Journey by Moonlight is published by Pushkin Press, in London

Antal Szerb was born in Budapest of assimilated Jewish parents in 1901--Szerb became a Roman Catholic. Four of his novels are available in English, and I plan to read them all....Szerb was beaten to death in a concentration camp in 1945.

George Ovitt (April 1, 2013)

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