Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb: Book Review

Firstly, this is the kind of book I wish I’d read when I was younger. When Mihaly talks about the pains of growing up: his awkwardness, his disassociation with his family and his joyous discovery of a different dynamic in his friends Tamas and Eva, I thought it was such an insightful take on adolescence. I loved the way in which he told it to his new wife, Erzsi and the way in which he idolises what has passed.

“I have to tell you these things from the past because they are so important. The really important things usually lie in the distant past. And until you know about them, if you forgive me saying so, you will always be to some extent a mere newcomer in my life.”

Mihaly’s reverence for the past is what comes shining through in the novel and how it distorts his present and future.

Early on he describes his character so:

“For me the deepest truth was the things suffused with the lives of many generations…”

It’s fascinating to walk with Mihaly on his honeymoon and see how absent he is from his surroundings, almost a ghost inhabiting the present moment. Incidentally, I think Mihaly is the ideal travelling companion. (Yes, he may leave his wife on a train, but everywhere he looks the historic monuments are alive and there is a dream-like quality to his narrative and journey where anything is possible).

“They had passed beyond the threshold of dreams, the habitual hour of sleep. Now distinctions were becoming blurred, rational morality was in retreat as they surrendered themselves to the night.”

In amongst the romanticism, there is a grounding realism.

“On the hill young Roman boys, late descendants of the quirites, were playing at soldiers, hurling shards at one another, fragment of pottery two thousand years old, without a trace of emotion.

‘That’s Italy,’ thought Mihaly. ‘They pelt one another with history. Two thousand years are as natural to them as the smell of village manure.'”

His voice is amusingly cynical throughout as he reacts to characters he meets:

“Even Millicent’s stupidity was attractive. In the deepest stupidity there is a kind of dizzying, whirlpool attraction, like death: the pull of the vacuum.”

Or on his friend, who becomes a monk:

“…he had dug up from his soul the very roots of anything that might flower into those feelings that bind people together.”

One of my favourite scenes was the one in which Mihaly and his old college friend, Waldheim discuss the way in which life and death are bound together, this truth better known to Ancient cultures than in the present day:

“…for the archaic peoples nothing was more immediately apparent than death and the dead, I mean actual dead people, whose mysterious para-existence, fate and vengeful fury constantly preoccupied them. They had a tremendous horror of death and the dead. But then of course in their minds everything was more ambiguous than it is for us. Opposites sat much closer.The fear of death and the desire for death were intimately juxtaposed in their minds, and the fear was often a form of desire, the desire a form of fear.”

This age old struggle between how we relate to life and death and handle the two is what accompanies Mihaly throughout the novel and his journey. And we, like him, can only observe the present through the eyes of our past; a dichotomy that could take a whole lifetime to ponder.

(Image courtesy of A photograph of a porta dei morti(door of the dead). Folklore in Gubbio says that this second door was to remove any who died in the house. There’s a great bit about these doors in Gubbio in the book.)

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