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.