I recently revisited one of my favourite books, Journey by Moonlight, one of the best known Hungarian literary works outside Hungary, as well as, according to The Guardian, “the novel most loved by all cultivated Hungarians.” I don’t know what “cultivated” should mean in this context, but it seems true that it is among the favourite novels of many Hungarians.
First published in 1937, its author, Antal Szerb, was also a literary scholar who, by the age of 40, had written a comprehensive study of the histories of Hungarian and world literature – even if his opportunities to publish were restricted by anti-Semitic laws in the last years of his life, before his death in 1945. I also recommend another novel of his, The Pendragon Legend, a mystery novel (and its parody) set in Wales.
The novel follows Mihály, a bourgeois Hungarian businessman on his honeymoon in Italy, yet many figures from his past resurface. He tells his wife, Erzsi, of his former days, how he used to play-act stories with his friends Tamás and Éva Ulpius which often took dark turns in erotic interpretations of death. There are elements of love, regret, suicide as Mihály grapples with his desire to conform to bourgeois respectability which struggles against the rebellious adolescent in him.
Mihály eventually becomes lost in Italy, wandering around Umbria and later moving to Rome. He is reunited with some of his childhood acquaintances, befriends an English doctor called Ellesley and has an affair with an American student. He also meets his old university mater, Rudi Waldheim, now a famous historian of religion in Rome, who tells him about the erotic nature of death – something that resonates well with Mihály’s teenage play-acts.
We also get subtle jokes, travelogues (appropriate of a book entitled Journey by Moonlight), great characters (Rudi Waldheim’s eccentricities are wonderful), detailed descriptions of Mihály’s mental breakdown and an entire subplot of Erzsi’s actions after Mihály leaves her.
I first read this book three or four years ago and while it instantly became my favourite, truth be told, I didn’t remember much of the story, except for the Ulpius subplot and the main idea of someone getting lost during their honeymoon. I reread it a month ago, and it was a joy to rediscover all the subtleties of this beautifully-written novel: contrary to my memories, it isn’t just the story of Mihály reuniting with figures from his past.
At the end of the novel, Mihály returns to Budapest to try to fit in society again – maybe, after 15 years of trying and a life-changing experience in Italy, he will be able to. I remember that I found this conclusion unsatisfying when I first read it. Now I think this is the logical way to round up the novel: with a consideration of whether it’s possible to fit in somewhere you don’t feel you belong.