Tuesday 1 June 2010

'The really important things usually lie in the distant past.'

Journey By Moonlight 
by Antal Szerb

I usually make the mistake of reading an author's established masterpiece first, leaving myself slightly disappointed when I catch up on their admirable but non-masterpiece back catalogue. Not so with Szerb though, whose romp with the occult in The Pendragon Legend provided me with such fun, and me safe in the knowledge that this book, for which he receives the plaudits, was safely ensconced on the TBR pile. This is certainly a more serious work, although it has its fair share of absurdities, and Szerb's intelligence and wit are both showcased well in a book which looks at the amazing power of nostalgia and its ability to shape the destiny of the future.

We begin with a honeymooning couple in, of course, Venice. Mihály and Erzsi are finally putting a respectable sheen of legitimacy on their relationship, which began when Erzsi was married to another man, with that most conventional of Italian holidays. The first few days are pleasant enough, filled with 'the pleasures of honeymooning and the gentler, less strenuous forms of sightseeing' but Mihály has a wandering soul and when he pops out for what he assures his wife will be just a quick drink he loses himself metaphorically amongst the back alleys, returning sheepishly at dawn with little in the way of explanation. This almost sleep-walking spirit will be important later but first there is the arrival of an unexpected emissary from the past. In Ravenna the couple bump into Janos Szepetneki who makes quite an entrance on his motorbike, clad in leathers and goggles, dumbfounding Mihály with the news that he may have traced Ervin, another past acquaintance, before finishing their tense exchange with a parting shot par excellence:

'Your wife, by the way, is a thoroughly repulsive woman.'

Mihály has some explaining to do and Szerb duly obliges. We learn of his school days where he suffered from sickness 'in mind and body'; depression, hallucinations and worst of all: the whirlpool.

Yes, I really mean whirlpool. Every so often I would have the sensation that the ground was opening beside me, and I was standing on the brink of a terrifying vortex. You mustn't take the whirlpool literally. I never actually saw it; it wasn't a vision. I just knew there was a whirlpool there...when this whirlpool sensation got hold of me I didn't dare move, I couldn't speak a word, and I really believed it was the end of everything.

One particularly bad episode is arrested when Tamás Ulpius simply lays his hand on his shoulder and the two boys become best friends. Mihály then gets to know the rest of the Ulpius family. Tamás is incredibly close to his sister Eva, the two of them caught up in an eccentric household of 'non-stop theatre, a perpetual commedia dell'arte' where their frequent dramatisations end in scenes of violent death. Mihály is soon absorbed into the company, desperate to spend as much time within the household in spite of his discomfort at being part of the theatrics. Into this group come Ervin and Janos, both there for Eva, and in a short section where all of this history is related by Mihály to his young bride Szerb sketches brilliantly the complicated relationships within the 'Ulpius menage'. All the game playing becomes far more serious after the attempted suicide of Tamás.

In the tragedies we played we were always killing and dying. That's all they were ever about. Tamás was always preoccupied with dying. But try to understand, if it's at all possible: not death, annihilation, oblivion, but the act of dying. There are people who commit murder again and again from an 'irresistible urge', to savour the heady excitement of killing. The same irresistible urge drew Tamás towards the supreme ecstasy of his own final passing away...I understood him completely. For years we never said another word about what happened. We just knew that each understood the other.

All of this reminiscence sets Mihály on an obsessive train of thought, certainly a different train for when the couple make a stop en route to Rome Mihály's impulsive leap onto the platform for a coffee leads to him jumping back onto the wrong train thus separating himself from Erzsi. Rather than linking up together at the earliest opportunity he uses it as the first step on his journey back into the past to confront those figures from his past, those figures that include himself.

The physical journey is matched by the mental one and along with a degree of mental and physical  deterioration Mihály is always aware of what his real ailment is. "Acute nostalgia. I want to be young again. Is there a cure for that?". That delving into the past unearths the thing that had always connected the younger Mihály and Tamas, their almost erotic attraction to death, and on his travels Szerb is able to demonstrate his keen intelligence with discussions on both religious history and the cultural significance of death-cults and suicide. It's all connected to the whirlpool as he makes clear when discussing the 'death yearning' with former university friend Rudi Waldheim, now a world famous classical philologist and religious historian.

"Do you recognise this feeling. A man is walking on a wet pavement and slips. His one leg collapses under him, and he starts to fall backwards. At the precise moment when I lose my balance, I am filled with a sudden ecstasy. Of course it lasts only a second, then I automatically jerk back my leg, recover my balance, and rejoice in the fact that I didn't fall. But that one moment! For just one moment I was suddenly released from the oppressive laws of equilibrium. I was free. I began to fly off into annihilating freedom...
Do you recognise this feeling?"
   "I know rather more about this whole business than you think"
Szerb's writing is filled with those witty one liners ('In London November isn't a month...it's a state of mind.') and longer passages of great erudition, beautiful descriptions of Italy that lend an air of the travelogue to the narrative and moments where our certainty about what is happening is taken away by tiredness, alcohol or the fragile mental state of Mihály. It is a great novel that hides many of its secrets so effectively that, much as Nicholas Lezard did when reviewing it for the Guardian, I found myself as I turned the last page wanting to turn straight back to the first and begin again.


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