I hadn’t intended taking part in Stu’s wonderful Pushkin Press Fortnight, despite a great love of the publisher’s books, simply because I had a pile of other books I was planning to read. However, when I read Annabel’s glowing review of “The Pendragon Legend”, and realised I had a copy lurking on Mount TBR that I’d picked up last year in the Oxfam, I just couldn’t resist….. All other books got put to one side and I instantly became immersed in this wonderful story!

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To be honest, I’m not sure what I can add to Annabel’s excellent review – and I think she’s nailed it with her title! – but here goes! Wikipedia tells us this about Szerb: “Antal Szerb (May 1, 1901, Budapest – January 27, 1945, Balf) was a noted Hungarian scholar and writer. He is recognized as one of the major Hungarian literary personalities of the 20th century.Szerb was born in 1901 to assimilated Jewish parents in Budapest, but baptized Catholic. He studied Hungarian, German and later English, obtaining a doctorate in 1924. From 1924 to 1929 he lived in France and Italy, also spending a year in London, England. Elected President of the Hungarian Literary Academy in 1933 – aged just 32 -, he published his first novel, The Pendragon Legend (which draws upon his personal experience of living in Britain) the following year. His second and best-known work, Utas és holdvilág, known in English as Journey by Moonlight, came out in 1937. He was made a Professor of Literature at the University of Szeged the same year. He was twice awarded the Baumgarten Prize, in 1935 and 1937.

In 1941 he published a History of World Literature which continues to be authoritative today. He also published a volume on novel theory and a book about the history of Hungarian literature. Given numerous chances to escape antisemitic persecution (as late as 1944), he chose to remain in Hungary, where his last novel, a Pirandellian fantasy about a king staging a coup against himself, then having to impersonate himself, Oliver VII, was published in 1942. It was passed off as a translation from the English, as no ‘Jewish’ work could have been printed at the time. Szerb was deported to a concentration camp late in 1944, and was beaten to death there in January 1945, at the age of 43.”

I quote this at length deliberately – as Szerb is another writer we lost thanks to totalitarianism and human brutality, and unless Pushkin Press had published his work I might not have heard of him. So they definitely deserve kudos for bringing his work to the English-speaking world, and additionally in such lovely editions – mine is on thick, creamy paper with texture on one side which is lovely to handle and to read. However, on to the story itself.

The book is narrated by Janos Batky, a young Hungarian scholar who lounges around London in the 1930s, spending much of his time reading in the British Museum Reading Room. Janos is a bit of a dilettante, with enough money to live on so he can amuse himself with his research. At a swanky soiree, he is serendipitously introduced to the Earl of Pendragon, who shares his interests in the occult, the Rosicrucians and the search for eternal life. The Earl has a mysterious history going back hundreds of years and invites our young hero to his castle in Wales for a visit. After Batky has accepted, that’s when things start to go wrong….

I shan’t waste time going into a huge plot summary because in many ways that would spoil the joy of you reading it. However, let’s just say that there are attempts on various characters’ lives, blackmail, poison, murder, ghosts, attempts to raise the dead, plenty of Welsh mysticism, sacrifices, kidnappings, chases, mysterious horsemen, love, hate and a whole lot more. The book is packed with action and never really lets up, which makes it a great read. And Szerb’s characters are just wonderful!

Antal Szerb

Janos Batky is a fabulous character – a mixture of smartness and naivety, quick to acknowledge his failings, often fooled but sometimes surprisingly astute. Apparently he’s based on the author and his time spent living in England. Then there’s Maloney, the engaging and plausible Irishman, who seems to think he can solve anything; Cynthia Pendragon, lady of the manor and representative of highly bred Englishwomen; Osborne, Cynthia’s brother, who is not a man of action but ends up having to become one – and quite likes it! One of my favourites is the larger-than-life (in most ways!) Lene Kretzsch, Amazonian modern woman of many talents, seductress, and definitely the person to call on in a crisis – her snappy come-backs and aplomb in most situations are a joy. And Batky’s explanation of how they met is a delight:

“This was how our friendship began: I set myself on fire and she put me out. I’d been sitting by the hearth with The Times. I’ve never been able to handle English newspapers – apparently one has to be born with the knack of folding these productions into the microscopic dimensions achieved by the natives – and, as I flicked a page over, the entire room filled with newsprint.

Just at that moment, it seems, the young bellboy topped up the fire, rather carelessly. The Times burst into flames, and I took on a resemblance to a Burning Bush. The details escape me. All I know is that in a trice Lene was towering over me, stamping on the blazing pages, sousing me with whatever cups of tea were on hand in the room and tugging at my hair in the belief it was being singed. Then she hauled me off to her room, washed me down, stripped me naked and dressed me in some extremely masculine woman’s garment, which was far too big for me anyway – and all before I could murmur my undying gratitude. Then she gave me a thorough scolding for being so inept.”

There is of course a wicked women, in the form of Eileen St Claire, who really should be more careful where she dabbles… Add in a collection of strange and lunatic Welsh people, some typical thriller-style villains, cranky servants, plus creepy houses and castles – well, what’s not to like?!

This is an unusual book in many ways – Wikipedia describes it as “a philosophical thriller/comedy/murder-mystery/ghost story set first in London and then in Wales”, and to handle all those elements takes no mean talent. And it *is* funny – some of Batky’s comments are a scream! But there are the other sort of screams to, and the book is quite dark in places, hinting at the things we don’t know, and the things it’s better not to know. Szerb pulls all the threads together at the end magnificently, with remarkable command of all this material. I don’t know how it reads in Hungarian, but in this lovely translation by Leonard Rix it reads beautifully in English and I couldn’t put it down!

So I’m definitely with Annabel on this one – “The Pendragon Legend” is one of those books you feel compelled to rush headlong through after the narrator till you reach the end breathless. I’m now very keen to read more of Szerb’s work (apparently more serious than this book) but in the meantime, TPL comes highly recommended!