"Hmmm," said Ellesley. "Certainly, but not one I can tell you about. Think of Faust. Don't hanker after youth."
So that whole plan where I was going to spend December writing about my favourite reads of 2012 went rather spectacularly awry. Moving house (and visiting friends and relatives over Christmas), it turns out, sucks up quite a lot of your time and energy; I've done a lot of pinging back and forth between Oxford, Newcastle, Saddleworth and Somerset recently, but very little reading or blogging.
Anyway, happy new year, everyone! I'm aiming to get my best of 2012, and my 2013 reading resolutions, up some time over the weekend. Meanwhile, another excellent novel I read in translation last year was Antal Szerb's (1901-45) acerbic but luminous Journey by Moonlight (1937; translated from the original Hungarian by Len Rix, 2000).
Since it's the story of an over-privileged young(ish) man's pre-War directionless angst, it was perhaps inevitable that Journey by Moonlight would remind me of a couple of other Central European novels I've read (and, as my posts will attest, not much enjoyed) recently: Embers (1942), by Szerb's countryman and contemporary Sándor Márai, and to a lesser extent Severin's Journey Into the Dark (1914) by Paul Leppin. But where Márai and Leppin make their protagonists' self-important gloom the centre of their respective novels, overshadowing any other theme or character that threatens to borrow the spotlight for even a few pages, Szerb manages a delicate, skilful balancing act between portraying his lead character sympathetically, and skewering his more solipsistic excesses. In other words, he remembers that there are other people in the world, with their own desires and concerns, besides oh-so-sensitive Mihály.
I think it's fair to say that Szerb had me by the third paragraph of the first page. 36-year-old Mihály, we're told, has - over "protracted years of wandering" - visited a great many countries, "[b]ut Italy he had always avoided, feeling the time had not yet come, that he was not yet ready for it". So far, so eyeroll; yet another poor little rich boy convinced he's the first person ever to have thoughts, and forced - forced! - to travel to lovely places and drink a lot of expensive wine. (Okay, so the last part was my perhaps slightly biased and unfair guess, rather than something directly stated in the first three paragraphs.) But then Szerb glosses Mihály's sense of unreadiness as follows:
Italy he associated with grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children, and he secretly feared it, with the same instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women.
This made me grin: a fear of strong sunlight, and of the non-specific "scent of flowers", sounds a welcome, amusing note of bathos and silliness in a sentence garlanded with such grave terms and phrases as "instinctive" and "the fathering of children". It's a far cry from Embers' pomposity. In case we weren't certain Szerb was maintaining a knowing distance from his protagonist's overblown assessment of himself, we're soon also told that,
Like all highly intelligent and self-critical people, Mihály and Erzsi strove to find the correct middle way between snobbery and its reverse. They did not weary themselves to death 'doing' everything prescribed by Baedeker; still less did they wish to be bracketed with those who return home to boast, "The museums? Never went near them," and gaze triumphantly at one another.
And, when Mihály decides he needs a drink, his thought process goes like this:
he reasoned that, Venice being effectively Greece, here surely he might find some Samian, or perhaps Mavrodaphne, since he wasn't yet quite au fait with the wines of Italy.
Oh, look, I was right about the wine, after all! (No middle way between snobbery and its reverse for me...)
Mihály has come to Italy on his honeymoon, having recently married a young woman named Erzsi. Szerb makes it clear from the outset that the marriage might not have the most secure foundations, and pleasingly - and unlike the other novels cited above - in doing so he gives his female lead a voice, too (albeit one that is, at least in this first instance, swiftly subsumed by the omniscient narration):
She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihály 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 how long could that fiction be sustained?
I'm not sure whether the remark about Mihály's solipsism ("it never occurred to him...") is meant to be Erzsi's observation or not, but either way it's a bullseye that took me quite by surprise on first reading. This combination of po-faced pontification about General Principles of Human Interaction, and the snarky undermining of same, soon emerged as a pattern of the novel and was something that I found very refreshing. And the irony, moreover, allows a fuller picture of the characters to coalesce: if anything, I found myself developing a better and more sympathetic understanding of Mihály's emotional problems, precisely because the narrative so often lets his idiocy show. Szerb shows Mihály's concerns and ideas to be largely petty and childish, and in doing so he makes him more pitiable than arrogant.
The story is essentially a portrait of the disintegration of Mihály and Erzsi's marriage, under the twin pressures of Mihály's self-involved inability to move beyond the high passions of his past, and Erzsi's growing desire to explore her own high passions, prompted partly by having to sit in their hotel room and listen to Mihály recount his past to her for chapters on end. A short sample of the latter gives a clear sense of its tone, I think:
"Even in those days old things attracted me more than new ones. For me the deepest truth was found only in things suffused with the lives of many generations, which hold the past as permanently as mason Kelemen's wife buried in the high tower of Deva.
"I'm putting this rather well, don't you think? Perhaps it's this excellent bottle of Sangiovese..."
What makes the novel so fluidly readable and involving is Szerb's consistently light touch in the telling. The whole thing sparkles with irony, sometimes gentle, sometimes less so. Mihály is the most frequently lampooned, both by the narrative and - as in the above quotation - by his own words, but no-one is immune (thus Erzsi's pretensions are also punctured in the Baedeker passage, quoted further up this post). Minor characters tend to appear normal before suddenly ballooning into nitwittery; witness one blowhard's hot tip for Mihály on how to pick up the ladies, which even he himself doesn't seem to actually believe:
"You really can't imagine how useful religious history can be for getting around women. They eat it out of my hand. Mind you, I fear you could probably do the same with differential calculus or double-entry bookkeeping, so long as you talked about it with the proper intensity. They never listen to what you actually say. Or if they do listen, they never understand. All the same they can sometimes have you on. Sometimes they really are almost human. Never mind. I love them."
In a different novel this - or Mihály's assumption that Erszi is basically too stupid to understand the emotional and intellectual undercurrents of the story of his past because he just lives at a higher level than she does - might indicate the sum total of attitudes towards women. But Journey by Moonlight ironises its men even as they deliver sweeping statements about womankind, and allows female characters to talk back. Thus Erzsi, living a newly single life in Paris, shoots down one rather passive-aggressive semi-chat-up line by pointing out that women are not, in fact, interchangeable:
"If a woman attracts me, all I think is that I want her to know it. Then she responds or she doesn't. But women usually respond."
"I'm not 'women'."
Major characters, like Erzsi, also have their ironies. While Erzsi is perceptive about Mihály's faults, she is also shown to have singularly poor taste in men; she has a bad habit of falling for brooding types who vacillate between trying to control her and ignoring her in favour of their manpain, but she repeatedly assumes that the problem is that they were not deep and brooding enough, rather than finding manpain attractive in the first place.
Erzsi's ex, Zoltán - another heavily ironised character - writes a hilariously paternalistic and patronising letter to Mihály offering advice on how best to take care of Erzsi (including such gems as making sure she dresses warmly in winter, and "I beg you to take careful note of Erzsi's times of the month"), for all the world as if she's a particularly fragile pet. There is a ring of truth, however, to Zoltán's suggestion that Erzsi secretly enjoys the drama of the apparent rivalry between him and Mihály: she thrills to being the centre of neurotic male attention. There is an empowerment in this for her, especially once she is on her own in Paris, but it is not a healthy one so long as it draws her to the same sorts of angsty men-children:
She was fully aware that she really did attract János Szepetneki: that he desired her body, in a hungry, adolescent way, devoid of adult restraint, single-mindedly, obscenely. And this so delighted her that through her whole being the blood moved faster under the skin, as if she had been drinking. She wasn't used to this raw instinctuality.
Éva and Tamás, the intense friends of Mihály's youth, are the characters who loom largest in the novel. Both are glamorously horrible, larger-than-life figures who live in privileged abandon, ostentatiously ignorant of conventional social behaviour - including, explicitly, gender norms - and apparently unable to grasp concepts like cost, harm, or the suffering of others. They flirt with edgy things like theft ("The pair of them were so cut off from the real world [...] they simply had no idea what were the permitted and what the forbidden ways to raise money") and are cartoonishly obsessed with death. They frequently stage plays of their own devising, for no audience other than themselves, whose plots invariable revolve around them murdering each other. With a characteristic borderline sociopathy, this attitude bleeds through into real life; when their grandfather dies, and Mihály praises Éva for her devotion in "staying up whole nights at his bedside", Éva's off-handed response is that it was really "interesting [...] to watch someone die."
The pair provide Mihály with exactly what he wants, and precisely what he doesn't need: he is drawn to them like a moth to flame, and their pampered irresponsibility basically ruins him for adulthood for ever after. That isn't quite how he explains it, of course: he sees his lasting crush on Éva (which he calls, revealingly, an "exulting humiliation"), and his definitely-not-a-crush, no sir on Tamás ("you [...] think there was some unhealthy homoerotic bond between us, which simply wasn't the case", he tells Erzsi), as symptomatic of the very deepest and most meaningful connection human beings can have. For him, Éva and Tamás's comfortable disdain for all that is worldly represents a freedom he spends his life trying to attain - despite the fact that Tamás eventually expresses this freedom by killing himself. (Deep, man.)
Mihály's continued attachment to the experiences he had years ago with Éva and Tamás is problematised and ironised, rather than elevated to a universal truth that shows how our hero just feels things more deeply than mere mortals do (hello again, my problems with Embers): it is the reason he is basically unable to form adult relationships with anyone, after all. But Szerb never loses sight of the intensity of this longing and these feelings for Mihály. These feelings are objectively ridiculous, but they are also also real to him, and damaging. A key example is a suicide attempt by Mihály and Tamás, which ends with the pair having their stomachs pumped. For all the emo posturing of the original event, and the faux-intellectualising of the way he describes it to Erzsi, it's not hard to see how and why Mihály never managed to move past it:
"That was a strange night. We were somewhat embarrassed in each other's company. I was thrilled because I had committed suicide - what a great feeling! - and happy to be still alive. I felt a delicious fatigue. We all loved one another deeply. The staying awake was a great self-sacrificing gesture of friendship, and wonderfully in keeping with our curious with our current mood of intense friendship and religious fervour. We were all in a state of shock. We engaged in long Dostoyevskian conversations, and drank one black coffee after another. It was the sort of night typical of youth."
Youth gifted this event its intensity; subsequent, corrosive nostalgia has ensured it never lost its sheen for him. Mihály cannot bear to grow up, because to do so is to betray his feelings for a boy who killed himself before he could grow up. Here and elsewhere, Mihály is haunted by the sense that he cannot measure up to (what he sees as) his friends' freedom: he is, as he puts it, too bourgeois. Too "dogged", where they were always effortless.
Funny as all the irony is, it escapes being mean-spirited because it is always leavened with generosity, and with an affectionate regard for the felt reality of the characters' ways of seeing the world, even when by any rational standards those feelings are overblown and ludicrous. Indeed, as noted above, in many ways the use of irony makes Mihály more pitiable, not less, because it highlights how adolescent and run-of-the-mill his existential angst really is; Mihály's tragedy is his inability and unwillingness to grow out of the sixth-form poetry mindset.
This interplay of irony and generosity is best seen in the way that at least some of the characters learn and change in response to the events of the novel. So while Mihály talks himself into believing that his marriage is over before it actually is ("By the time he got back to the hotel, after a long rambling walk, it seemed inevitable to him that she would, one day, leave him [...] To a certain extent he took comfort in the inevitable, and when they sat down to dinner he could already, a little, look upon her as a lovely fragment of his past" - again, both sad and funny at the same time: you complete twit, Mihály), and remains stuck in a suicidal rut without ever being able to bring himself to take that last step, Erzsi manages to move on and grow up:
Towards dawn Erzsi woke and thought:
"Mihály hasn't changed, but I have. Once he stood for the great adventure, rebellion, the stranger, the man of mystery. I now know he just passively lets outside forces carry him along. He's no tiger. Or at least, there are people far more remarkable than he is. János Szepetneki. And the ones I haven't yet met. [...] I'm cured of him."
Sort of, anyway. János, after all, is the chap who chats her up in Paris by telling her he knows what women think better than they do, and that attraction to 'mystery' is exactly the thing that landed her in trouble in the first place. Nonetheless, there aren't many early-twentieth-century novels in which the protagonist's love interest ends the novel by declaring herself 'cured' of our hero...