Death – and sex – in Venice: Antal Szerb, Journey by Moonlight

Antal Szerb, Journey by Moonlight Pushkin Press 2002; 1937 first publication

Everyone seems to love this novel, from Nicholas Lezard, late of the Guardian, to Len Rix, its gifted translator, who points out in an afterword that every cultivated Hungarian reads and loves it; Journey by Moonlight is to Hungary what Catcher in the Rye is to America, it seems.

Szerb Moonlight coverWhat’s not to like about it? Journey by Moonlight was written by an erudite, sensitive, polyglot academic Hungarian, born to a Jewish family but assimilated into the Catholic faith, who died a brutal death in a Nazi labour camp in 1945. Offered an escape route by concerned friends, he opted instead to share the fate of his fellow Jews and intellectuals in such camps.

Its opening lines are compelling, riffing ironically perhaps on Thomas Mann (and anticipating du Maurier’s ‘Don’t Look Now’, without the genuine dread):

On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.

This is, the deadpan narrator informs us, protagonist Mihály’s first visit to Italy; he’s 36, and on his honeymoon. But ‘he secretly feared [Italy]’, associating it with ‘grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children’. It’s the same

Instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women.

Ok, so far I’m with the fans; this is wittily dry, ironic, funny. The style and tone are poised, laconic, observant and engaging; this voice isn’t fooled by Mihály’s emotional disarray and callow selfishness. There are some terrifically funny asides, like this one about Mihály’s wife, Erszi, as she lies alone in bed brooding anxiously as her husband goes on a drunken situationist dérive through those alluring back-alleys of Venice, like a Beckettian version of Mann’s von Aschenbach:

Women are usually better at lying awake and thinking…She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihály had secrets even from himself, and he did not understand her since it never occurred to him that people other than himself had an inner life in which he might take an interest. And yet they had married because he had decided that they understood each other perfectly, and that, for both, the marriage rested on purely rational foundations and not fleeting passion. For just how long could that fiction be sustained?

It’s often darkly funny like that, with that wry narrative voice dipping into postmodern self-reference and metafiction. What follows is a complex, meandering modernist take on this man-child’s self-conscious ‘journey’ into himself as he strives to reconcile the twin lures of eros and thanatos – death and sex in Venice – and various other points en route to Rome.

There’s a wildly funny sequence after he ‘loses’ Erszi on a train journey (‘not unintentionally’, as the narrator knowingly puts it) in search of himself and his adolescent fantasy friends, and hooks up with a ditzy, sexy American art student called, of all things, Millicent. She asks, for example, who was the Italian artist who painted trees like the ones they had walked past:

“Botticelli,” replied Mihály, and kissed her.

“Ooooh,” she said, with horror on her face. Then she kissed him back.

Just the right number of Os in that ‘Oooh’. As they make love the narrator caustically points out that Mihály’s passion is a pursuit of ‘fantasy and not physiological fact!’

Her healthy mouth was entirely American (oh, the prairies!), the little hairs on her neck were foreign…”Geography is my most potent aphrodisiac,” he thought to himself.

This is closer to Mel Brooks than Mann or Gide – and why not?

But Mihály isn’t a pseudo-cynical mixed-up, grieving teenager like Holden Caulfield, or tortured artist: he’s a grown man of limited talent, from a privileged family, tempted to reject the cosy bourgeois life Erszi represents in order to go off on his spiritual-erotic psychogeographical quest in search of himself and a rebellious, bohemian dream for which our narrator has made it clear he’s just not suited. I’m afraid I found him boring – despite that sophisticated, ironic narrative critique of him.

There’s far too much sub-Freudian stuff like this: ‘Those Etruscans were perfectly aware that dying is an erotic act’, a creepy academic tells Mihály in a particularly over-long section of the novel. This kind of nonsense gives him ‘a frisson’; this was the kind of immature talk he’d loved in his little ménage as a youth in Budapest. The brother and sister at its heart, Éva and Tamás Ulpius, and his fellow acolytes (they reminded me of the characters in Cocteau’s weirdly absurd Les enfants terribles), had got off on enacting gruesome little dramas involving death, murder and suicide. This is what Mihály is longing to rediscover or re-enact in Italy.

Portrait of Szerb in the Pushkin Press edition

Portrait of Szerb in the Pushkin Press edition

Despite the numerous occasions when the novel has some seriously and perceptively funny things to say about the existential angst at the heart of modern life’s darkness (oddly enough there’s little direct reference to the rising fascism in Italy that Mihály pays characteristically little attention to when it bursts through his self-absorption), it doesn’t all hang together.

For example, at one of the tragi-comic climaxes of the narrative, when Mihály’s intention to commit suicide like his revered late friend Tamás is thwarted by a pretty girl whisking him away to be the most badly-chosen godfather ever at a christening, his grumpily whining confusion is brilliantly evoked in looping, free indirect style:

They burst in on him with their precious stupid business, the way people always burst in on him with their precious stupid business when life was sublime and terrible. And sublime and terrible things always happened to him when life was stupid and precious. Life was not an art-form, or rather, it was an extremely mixed genre.

That’s very funny and good, but the novel’s general impact is a bit of a disappointment after its big build-up on the jacket blurb. Maybe I’m just not in the right place, reading it just after going back to work after a long summer break. Maybe reading about a pretentious 36-year-old’s ‘Inbetweeners’ crisis (with a shot of Gide’s immoralists about him, too) came at the wrong time for me. I can appreciate its dark ironies, that aloof, unreliable narrative voice – and the looming threat of fascism that’s always there, even when unstated…  I’d be interested to hear what others think of it.