As anger sparks at the recent actions of the Hungarian far right Jobbik party, whose members have erected a statue of the Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy at a church in Budapest, it is worth remembering the voice of one of those many Hungarians persecuted under Horthy’s rule. Antal Szerb, author of the stunning Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág) was one of around half a million Hungarian Jews to be deported to concentration camps, such as Balf, where he died aged forty-three. Unsurprisingly for a writer of the time and the place in which Szerb found himself, much of Journey by Moonlight revolves around death. What makes it extraordinary is the curiosity, sensuality and generosity with which it considers life.
Roughly speaking, Journey concerns the adventures of one couple separated on their honeymoon: disparate Mihaly, tormented by nostalgia for the astonishment of youth and wracked with guilt at his inability to mature into bourgeois adulthood; and sheltered Erszi, longing to flirt with the passions of the bohemian lifestyle, but held back by her own straightjacketing respectability. Their quests of self-discovery lead them on separate flights across Italy and throughout Paris, negotiating on their way their understanding of love, sex, art and the precarious nature of civilization.
Szerb’s writing is preoccupied with that elusive sense of wonder – of what it means to really be alive and aware of it. His story unfurls itself in a haunting world of moonlit gardens over whose walls rise the voices of monks, in the back-alleys of Venice, in an attic of clockwork toys just dimly remembered from childhood. What all his images share is an ability to de-familiarize a world which the demands of civilized, adult life so often renders banal and bureaucratic. Journey by Moonlight reminds us what a strange and marvellous place that world can be.
This fascination with the world also comes across in Szerb’s connoisseur’s appreciation of the good life. The novel abounds in good wine, good sex and sumptuous settings. Lest this makes it sound dangerously like a forerunner of Eat, Pray, Love, however, Journey always retains too sharp an eye for reality to stray into the realms of guru-ish self-help. Szerb acknowledges the seedy side of bohemia as much as the allure; acknowledges too the futility and exhaustion of trying to feel alive all of the time. Most penetratingly, though, he sees that the converse of the desire for a meaningful life is the desire for a meaningful death – that moments of destruction can also be moments of ecstasy. This dark realization is one of the book’s central themes – and one that Julia Roberts might find harder to sell.
Journey by Moonlight invites us to remember life’s moments of rapture, while never letting us forget that they are only moments; temporary and fleeting. Affirmative but not sentimental, it treads the fine line of relishing in culture and material pleasures without becoming pretentious. When one considers the circumstances in which Szerb died this becomes a triumph – pleasure and an appreciation of the complex experience of being human is everything the Nazis tried to deny their victims. Hungarians aghast at the bold statement of the Horthy statue might take comfort in Journey’s subtler articulacy.