Kevin Doalty Brophy reviews his favourite psychological novel and describes its inspirations from the works of Dostoyevsky and Woolf.
Published in 1937, Journey By Moonlight is Antal Szerb’s masterpiece pertaining to nostalgia-induced ennui. It is during his honeymoon in Venice with his beautiful wife Erzsi that the protagonist, Mihály, comes to terms with the degree of freedom he has lost to the social mores of adulthood he cannot escape. Yearning to somehow return to his adolescence, Mihály is compelled to reveal to Erzsi the details of his past that he has kept from her.
As if awakening the spirits of the past, an unexpected encounter with a previous friend and rebel, János, in Ravenna, commences an adventure. After abandoning Erzsi at a train station, Mihály goes off in search of his devoutly religious friend, Ervin in a desperate bid to reconcile his conflicting feelings for the past and present. This is merely a stepping-stone to finding the elusive and mysterious Éva, who Mihály was hopelessly in love with as a teenager and is the only one capable of illuminating his way in life.
“Szerb’s style is whimsical and deft. Perhaps most compelling of all are the characters themselves, fully realised and endlessly intriguing”
The language employed in the Pushkin Press edition, translated from the original Hungarian by Len Rix, is masterful. The pacing itself is marvellous, with unpredictable twists and turns to keep the reader engaged. Szerb’s style is whimsical and deft. Perhaps most compelling of all are the characters themselves, fully realised and endlessly intriguing.
Regarded as a seminal text of magical realism and modernism, a pinnacle of twentieth-century Hungarian literature, I prefer instead to view it as a spiritual successor to Freud and Jung, Schnitzler and Breton, because Journey By Moonlight is, fundamentally, a towering work of psychoanalytical surrealism. In the case of Journey By Moonlight, Szerb crafted a psychological novel on par with the oeuvres of Dostoyevsky and Woolf.
“At the crux of the novel is a psychological case study of Mihály as he reckons with his own impermanence.”
Journey By Moonlight blurs the lines between fact and fiction, dreams and reality. At the crux of the novel is a psychological case study of Mihály as he reckons with his own impermanence. His yearning for Éva transcends infatuation – the mystery of her character, the conflation of sexual allure with the promise of death, represents his difficult choice: to continue living his life or submit himself to oblivion? Journey By Moonlight posits that to go on living can possibly contribute to a redemption of the finitude of consciousness.