Antal Szerb, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hungary, Italy, literary fiction, Publisher, Pushkin Press, Setting, Venice

‘Journey by Moonlight’ by Antal Szerb


Fiction – paperback; Pushkin Press; 240 pages; 2010. Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix.

Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight has been on my wishlist since November 2007 when I spotted it in my local Waterstone’s. At the time I was looking for novels set in Venice, and this one seemed to fit the bill perfectly. So I was delighted when it was chosen as the July read for the book group to which I belong.

Sadly, Venice only plays a minor role in the story, much of which is set in other parts of Italy, including Perugia, Florence and Rome.

It deals with a Hungarian couple, Mihály and Erzsi, who get married following a one-year affair in which Erzsi leaves her husband. By all accounts they should be madly in love, yet the cracks are beginning to show when they go on their honeymoon to Venice. For a start, Mihály, keen to explore the city’s secret alleyways, stays out all night, without telling his new wife. Then, when he meets an old school friend, who is appallingly rude about Erzsi to her face, he gets lost in a world of nostalgia that only serves to strain their relationship further.

Things go from bad to worse when he gets on the wrong train, having disembarked for coffee en route from Florence to Rome, leaving Erzsi behind. I don’t think it is a plot spoiler to say the marriage is effectively over, but it is how both parties deal with the outfall that makes up the bulk of the novel. While most of the narrative follows Mihály’s quest to come to terms with his past, we do get fleeting glimpses of Erzsi’s new life.

Yet the book is frustrating, because the narrative is so uneven, and the (meagre) plot is littered with far too many coincidences to be believable.

But the novel’s strength lies in its intellectual ruminations on death, not just the physical ending of life, but on the loss of youth and how we grieve for past lives and experiences which can never be recaptured. For Mihály, a man from a privileged background, it is almost as if has never learnt to do anything or decide anything for himself; he’s been swept along by other people, including a dominant father, and he has never figured out where he truly belongs, other than in the past, where he felt “alive” amongst his childhood friends, a set of intriguing siblings, Éva and Tamás.

In fact, Mihály might be in his mid-30s but he seems alarmingly adolescent in his inability to grow up and get on with his life. And there are elements of his passivity, his ennui, which suggest to me that he might be suffering from undiagnosed depression.

But lest you think Journey by Moonlight suffers under the weight of its own pretensions, the novel has some comic, often absurd moments. And Szerb, who wrote this book in 1937, isn’t afraid to poke fun at his characters. Indeed, he seems to relish making some of them, such as János, who is accused of being a pick-pocket, a little bit dastardly.

While I cannot pretend to love this book as much as others — the reviews on the blurb from The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement make it sound like a masterpiece — it’s an interesting story about a lost soul trying to find his way in life.

12 thoughts on “‘Journey by Moonlight’ by Antal Szerb”

  1. I was just going to say the same as Kailana and Kevin – I LOVE that cover! I’m the sort of person who would buy the book just so it would look pretty on my shelf 😉
    I am still curious enough to give this a whirl I think – thanks for the review, Kim.


  2. Kaliana, Kevin & The Book Whisperer, I agree it’s a lovely cover, but we discussed in our book group that it was false advertising: only a very small fraction of the novel is set in Venice, and there is absolutely no reference to a horse! We reckon the person who designed it hadn’t bothered to read the book.


  3. Will be interested in hearing what you think of it, Trevor. It wasn’t a book for me, but the others in my group really loved it and rated it much higher than me. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood for it.


  4. I love books set in Venice, too, but haven’t read any for quite a while. Never did read the Russo, although it was on my wishlist for a bit. I take it that you weren’t a fan?


  5. I’ve come to the conclusion that Hungarian literature really isn’t for me. I’ve read a few novels now and they just seem to be too navel-gazing and introspective for me, and too many characters have existential crises! Or maybe I’m just reading the wrong Hungarian novels???


  6. This will be a gross oversimplification, but I tend to feel that there are two basic kinds of Hungarian novels nowadays: there are the navel-gazing and/or unbearably, intimidatingly postmodern ones (and mind you, I love postmodern literature, but I always feel that I’m simply not up to Hungarian postmodern authors such as Péter Esterházy or Péter Nádas, even though I’m Hungarian), and there are the stupid mass-produced works by a couple of women novelists who used to write for glossy magazines then turned into writers and publish two bestselling novels per year on average.
    So even if you asked me to recommend a contemporary or 20th-century Hungarian author who is definitely worth your time, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with an answer.
    So it’s no wonder that you feel that Hungarian literature isn’t your thing – even if Antal Szerb is not a contemporary of course. 🙂
    And I’m not proud of this, but I also often feel that the literature of my own country is not really mine.


  7. Speaking of beautiful covers…
    As we all know, “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”
    I found this to be especially true recently after buying The Girl in the Blue Beret, by noted short story author, Bobbie Ann Mason.
    I loved the cover and was thrilled to see the design credit attributed to Anna Bauer at Random House. (Anna was an exceptional student in my class a few years back at Parsons School of Design, where I am a Professor).
    The book earned four stars on Amazon and a number of positive reviews, including one from The NY Times which concludes: “The Girl in the Blue Beret” is a work of remarkable empathy.” The Washington Post reviewer wrote: “Mason has plumbed the moral dimensions of national conflict in the lives of individual participants and produced a deeply moving, relevant novel.”
    For me, however, it was all downhill after the cover.
    In fact, I suggest that you bypass this novel altogether.
    While the story is interesting enough if you like this sort of topic, which I do, (American pilot shot down in WW2 revisits his war years as he faces retirement), Mason’s writing style made me cringe.
    Filled with cliches, trite words and irritating repetitions (where was the editor?), I was distracted throughout by the writer’s “catchy” style, more suitable to a magazine article.
    The moral: beware of beautiful covers!


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