Some weeks ago, whilst pulling more books I don’t have time to read out of the library, I happened to glance up and notice this novel. It was the author’s name that caught my eye. I’m a sucker for foreign or unusual sounding names. I had until that point never heard of Antal Szerb, or his little masterpiece ‘Journey by Moonlight’.
On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.
Set in Italy and Paris pre-WW2, ‘Journey by Moonlight’ tracks the progress of Mihály, a respectable bourgeois lawyer of Budapest, on his honeymoon with wife Erzsi. Each looking to the other for escape, but for utterly different reasons, their fledging marriage hits the rocks when Mihály accidentally boards the wrong train and loses his wife at the station. Impressed by the sudden moment of freedom, he embarks on a chaotic and bizarre journey chasing his lost bohemian youth in the ruins of Italy.
This tale steeps itself in ghosts. Mihály’s personal drama is played out amongst the ghosts of Italy with its history and depilated monuments. The attempt to recapture his past becomes a search for the ghost of his beloved and charismatic friend Tamás and his alluring sister Evá who, though still alive, is forever just out of reach – a name on someone else’s lips.
It explores where love, desire and death collide in our hearts and minds, with a light touch and a tone that switches between the serious and the playful. Deeply Freudian in places, Szerb explores the notion of humanity’s innate death-wish through the slyly comic viewpoint of Mihály’s inability to decide if he wants to commit suicide. This style of comedy is also used to satirize society at large, with little gems such as:
Their first days were spent quietly enough, between the pleasures of honeymooning and the gentler, less strenuous forms of sightseeing. 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.
One of my favourite touches in this novel was Szerb’s characterization of Mihály and a host of characters from his past and present. Each figure is rendered with minute psychological detail and interspersed humour, and Szerb does not shy away from exposing their flaws and weaknesses. It is a narrative that truly embodies the phrase “it’s the ride, not the destination”. It is a depiction of the poetic soul of a not-so-ordinary man forced to live with the constrictions of his own bourgeoisie mentality. It is a philosophical and emotional journey for Mihály, Erzsi, and the reader themselves.