And yet again I fling myself into a book! I was searching around for something to take to London with me recently to read on the train; that’s always tricky because you don’t want a particularly nice edition knocking around in your bag all day getting bashed. Fortunately I had a spare copy of this Szerb (as I somehow managed to pick up two after my enthusiastic reading of his “Pendragon Legend” earlier this year) so it seemed the ideal train read!

Antal Szerb is another Pushkin Press find, and I was provoked into picking “Pendragon” up after reading Annabel’s enthusiastic review. “Journey by Moonlight” seems to be reckoned very highly from what I saw online so I approached it with high hopes – and I wasn’t disappointed, although it wasn’t quite what I expected (but then neither was my last Szerb!)

JBM opens with Mihaly, a bourgeois Hungarian businessman, on honeymoon in Italy with his wife Erszi. It is her second marriage but his first, and the story begins with hints of things going wrong. Mihaly wanders off and gets lost; he and Erszi seem to be slightly at odds about where they’re going, what they’re doing and life in general.

“She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihaly had secrets even from himself, and he did not understand her since it never occurred to him that people other than himself had an inner life in which he might take an interest. And yet they had married because he had decided that they understood each other perfectly, and that, for both, the marriage rested on purely rational foundations and not fleeting passion. For just how long could that fiction be sustained?”

Suddenly, a figure from Mihaly’s past turns up abruptly, delivers a message, insults Erszi and leaves. This prompts Mihaly to tell his wife about his youth – a wild time when he mixed with the strange Urpius children, Tamas and Eva. Dark secrets are revealed and then Mihaly manages to take the wrong train, lose Erszi and end up lost in Italy – a situation he seems not unhappy about. Erszi somehow washes up in Paris, still hankered after by her ex-husband, but also pursued by Mihaly’s friend. Meanwhile, Mihaly befriends an American woman and an English doctor, revisits elements from his past, confronts them and faces death.

Does that sound a little dazzling and overwhelming? Perhaps – but I think I’m learning to expect the unexpected from Szerb, because people and events will come flying into the story unannounced and it still carries on making a perfect kind of sense. Szerb is wonderful at literary effects – as Nicholas Lezard pointed out in his laudatory review in The Guardian, the arrival of the old friend at the beginning is “one of fiction’s great entrances”.


There are echoes here of other things I’ve read, particularly Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles” which seems to be mirrored (intentionally or not) in the antics of Tamas and Eva, and in their dark side. The characters are alive and vibrant, as are the settings, and Szerb gets us inside Mihaly’s head quite brilliantly. He’s not an author that seems to go for the usual solutions – in fact, one of the joys of the book is finding out how Mihaly and Erszi, as well as most of the others, are not at all like we initially think, or how they think they are. Mihaly’s worst enemy all the way through seems to be his imagination and his warped perceptions of things.

“Our civilisation presents us with a marvellous mental machinery designed to help us forget, for most of our lives, that one day we too will die. In time we manage to push death out of our consciousness, just as we have done with the existence of God. That’s what civilisation does.”

It’s a roller-coaster ride of a book, with perceptions and understandings switching and changing. Szerb is a wonderful storyteller and this is the kind of book I’d like to go back to and re-read, now that I know the ending, to pick up all the little hints and significances throughout. Again, as with Pendragon, he almost seems to be mixing genres and presenting us with very unlikely heroes and heroines. Both Mihaly and Erszi are flawed, but still protagonists you can care about. I’m growing to love Szerb’s work the more of him I read – and the delightful thing is, there are still several other volumes available from Pushkin Press… 🙂