Central & Eastern Europe / Satellite Review / Travel / Literature

Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

Višnja Vukašinović looks back at a classic modernist novel about holidays gone horribly wrong.

Antal Szerb

As with so many travellers who arrive in Italy with a suitcase full of nostalgia, Mihály has to face up to the ghosts of his past.

There’s a key scene in Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film Journey to Italy in which Ingrid Bergman, her eyes welling with tears, observes the petrified bodies of two lovers emerging slowly from the dust of Pompeii. Overcome by the sight of an antique couple that had faced death together, Bergman’s character Katharine Joyce flees from the archeological site to which her husband has brought her. Up until now the Joyces had succeeded in keeping their eight-year-old marriage alive by hiding behind everyday rituals, but their trip to Italy forces them to face up to the truth: there is little left that they actually have in common. Each of them will deal with this in their own way. Katharine through melancholic reflections on past loves, her husband by seeking the embrace of easy women and somewhat heavier Italian wine. It’s the trip to Pompeii that brings things to a head, and culminates in the decision to seek a divorce immediately on their return home. The sight of the petrified lovers is more than Mrs Joyce can bear, and the Pompeii experience proves fatal to the marriage.

Journey to Italy is Rossellini’s cinematic take on a theme well known in literature. For centuries, it seems, people have been travelling to the Mediterranean in order to immerse themselves in its sublime art and metaphysical landscapes, only to come face to face with a degree of self-knowledge they had so far managed to avoid. Beginning with the honeymoon of just-wed Budapest couple Mihály and Erszi, Antal Szerb’s novel Journey by Moonlight describes one such trip.

First published in 1937, Journey by Moonlight is the modernist version of a road already travelled by Goethe, Byron, Henry James and DH Lawrence. It’s a novel that has experienced a deserved revival over the last two decades thanks to a spate of international translations, receiving rave reviews from those keen to hail Szerb as one of Central Europe’s greatest “undiscovered” authors.

Antal Szerb was born in Budapest in 1901 to an assimilated Jewish family. After studying German, Hungarian and English he rose quickly to prominence both as a translator of world classics and a versatile cultural historian. He became president of the Hungarian Literary Society aged 32, and after a year-long scholarship in England wrote his first novel, The Pendragon Legend, in 1934. Journey by Moonlight (Utas és holdvilág) followed in 1937. His History of World Literature, published in 1941, brought him no small degree of intellectual fame, although it was soon taken off the shelves due to Szerb’s Jewish background. Despite several attempts by friends to secure his escape, he was sent to Balf concentration camp in 1944, where he was beaten to death by guards in January 1945.

Journey by Moonlight opens in Venice, where 36-year-old Hungarian industrialist Mihály has just arrived on honeymoon with new wife Erzsi. Initially at least, the couple seem to be in perfect harmony, spending their first few days in soothing inactivity. “As is fitting for very intelligent and above all self-critical people, Mihály and Erzsi sought an exact middle way between snobbery and anti-snobbery. They didn’t tire themselves out trying to do everything that was recommended in the guidebook, but even less did they want to be like those people who, upon arriving home, proudly declare ‘of course we didn’t go to any museums’. “ The author makes it clear that we are about to join the company of “very intelligent and above all self-critical people”, characteristics which no doubt also distinguish the ideal readers of Szerb’s books.

The trip to the Mediterranean, rather like marriage itself, is something that Mihály has been putting off for years, despite having already seen a great deal of the rest of Europe. And as with so many other travellers who arrive on the Apennine peninsula with a suitcase full of nostalgia, the main protagonist has to face up to the ghosts of his past. A chance meeting with an old school friend in Ravenna, the couple’s next stop after smooching around Venice, nudges the new groom into telling his wife more about his past. His tale concerns Tamás and Éva Ulpius, the charismatic, extremely eccentric siblings with whom Mihály formed an inseparable threesome until a tragic event broke them apart. One of their favourite activities had been dreaming up small performances in which they acted out grandiose deaths. This obsession ultimately led Tamás to suicide, after which his ravishing sister disappeared without trace. Even though Mihály thought he had forgotten all about these friends, their memory lurked beneath the surface of his busy bourgeois life. The space for reflection offered by the Italian trip, coupled with the realization that his marriage to Erszi might have been a bit too hasty, combine to render these memories unmanageably vivid.

The shock discovery that Journey by Moonlight is not your average straw-hatted holiday novel occurs when Mihály suddenly and seemingly without premeditation abandons his wife in the middle of the honeymoon, hopping off their train at a provincial railway station and boarding another one going in the opposite direction. The shock is compounded by the fact that the central characters never seem to go home, wandering aimlessly through an Italy that is at the same time a metaphor for their memories, yearnings, and regrets.

What ensues is an inventive and intelligently written thriller, situated rather craftily in a country which supplies enough in terms of atmosphere to be almost a character in its own right. The bustling melancholy of Rome, where Mihály finally makes some sense of the things that have been driving him on, makes the perfect backdrop to the main protagonist’s psychological drama.

In many ways Journey by Moonlight anticipates the work of Ian McEwan in The Comfort of Strangers and Patricia Highsmith in The Talented Mister Ripley, both of which use the Mediterranean landscape as a backdrop for exploring the darker side of human nature. Mihály is a traveller through history, his own as well as the history served up by the Italian landscape. The moonlight embodies the sinister light cast onto his life by his memories.

Szerb seems to anticipate the seductive but vacuous promise of the modern travelling life, endlessly sold to us by guidebooks, bloggers and weekend newspapers, in which the mere act of changing location is an end in itself. Whether trying to find our true self or running away from ever having to face up to it, we frequently end up thinking that facing an open road will somehow make things better. The woozy melancholy of the failed honeymoon that never ends becomes the main point of Mihály’s life, and it is his settled existence at home, in Budapest, going to work, running a business, that begins to look like a fantasy world to which he cannot return. 


There are two English versions of Journey by Moonlight currently in print, courtesy of Pushkin Press (translated by Len Rix), and Alma Books (translated by Peter V. Czipott).

VIŠNJA VUKAŠINOVIĆ is an award-winning film and literature critic living in Zagreb. A well as writing regular commentaries for the Third Programme of Croatian National Radio, she is the organizer of the film programme at Zagreb’s Močvara club. She is currently writing a history of Croatian documentary films 1945-1991.

The Alma Books edition of Journey by Moonlight