So, what exactly made me rush to buy and read this little volume by Antal Szerb? That’s actually a good question, to which I’m not sure I have an answer! I read and loved Szerb’s “The Pendragon Legend” recently, and have “Journey by Moonlight” on Mount TBR – but this book, about a journey Szerb took through Italy in 1936, somehow caught my eye and ended up here and being read quite quickly. I do seem to be rekindling my love of European literature lately, and as I mentioned we are so spoiled with the amount of translated literature available now.

third tower

“The Third Tower” has just been published by Pushkin Press, a beautiful little edition in their trademark covers with French flaps, and lovely paper. At slightly over 100 pages long, with black and white illustrations, it consists of short pieces by Szerb on his travels through Fascist Italy, from Venice via Lake Garda, through Rome, Ravenna and ending up in Trieste. Along the way, as he encounters the landscape of the country, and the people in the midst of their euphoric state of mind following their military successes, he muses on everything from the Spanish Civil War to the sense of change in the air and the beauty of an Italy that he loves. Szerb is very aware of the fact that Germany is on the rise and fears the effect it will have on the rest of the continent:

“Then it occurred to me that I simply must go to Italy – while Italy remains where it is, and while going there is still possible. Who knows for how much longer that will be; indeed, for how much longer I, or any of us, will be able to go anywhere?The way events are moving, no-one will be allowed to set foot outside his own country. The Germans have long found it almost impossible to venture abroad, with a fine of a thousand marks for attempting to visit Austria. The Russians too have been denied this right for a great many years. Foreign travel is not one of life’s basic needs. No doubt the totalitarian state will sooner or later decree that the true patriot is the one that stays at home.”

In many ways Szerb’s physical journey is accompanied by an emotional, spiritual one. He’s an intelligent man, very much aware of his vulnerability but also able to laugh at his own bourgeois prejudices. He’s also a perceptive political commentator, able to observe the Italian public objectively and recognise the closeness of Fascism and Socialism, both driven by the people; whereas in so-called democratic England it is still the elite who rule. He’s a sensitive man, susceptible to the landscape and his surroundings, and he has the gift of capturing the essence of something beautifully in a few words.

“The time will come when the human race, horribly reduced in numbers, will scrabble for a living in the mansions of the world’s great cities like troglodytes in caves.”

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Of course, “Journey by Moonlight” is set in Venice, and Rix’s foreword to this volume points out how the visit to Italy informed the story. I’ve yet to read the novel, but this volume has made me even more keen to pick it up.

“Dostoevsky writes that we should live as if our every minute were the last moments of a man condemned to death; that way, we would grasp the ineffable richness of life. My impressions of Italy always feel like the last visions of a dying man.”

Reading a volume like this is always going to be tinged with the sadness of our knowledge of Szerb’s eventual fate. He was travelling through an Italy (and Europe) that would be forever changed by coming events, and in many ways he seems to be aware of this. As a snapshot of the time, beautifully written and observed, “The Third Tower” is essential reading. It’s a lovely, moving little book and kudos to Pushkin Press for bringing us more of Szerb’s wonderful writing.

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