Between Being and Nothingness

Lesley Chamberlain is the author of, most recently, "The Secret Artist: A Close Reading of Sigmund Freud" and "Nietzsche in Turin."

Ayoung European professional before World War II, a businessman of some kind or a banker, senses something missing in his life and tries to escape his fate as a member of the grande bourgeoisie. The story is familiar from early 20th century literature, from Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks" and Italo Svevo's "Zeno's Conscience," and Antal Szerb's "Journey by Moonlight" belongs among these great ironic charmers. Published in 1937, it is here rediscovered for the English-speaking world.

Szerb was born in 1901, the son of a cultivated Budapest Catholic family of Jewish descent. A polyglot, Szerb became a renowned and loved scholar of world literature. He published several novels before, as a result of his blood and a lifelong opposition to fascism, he died in a forced-labor camp in 1945.

"Journey by Moonlight" is a kind of travelogue, exploring a still well-heeled, upper-class, self-confident Europe before World War II. At the same time, through symbolism, it presents bourgeois life as a spiritual trap. The cultivated protagonist Mihaly is enchanted by old Europe, but through his passion for ancient religions and a compulsive desire to confront death, in which he is guided by his reading of Dante, he is driven to "drop out." Had he been born 20 years earlier, Szerb could have written a novel in which World War I marked the collapse of the old world.

But what his generation knew firsthand was more the spiritual crisis when middle-class capitalist life rebuilt itself. In the novel, Mihaly and his friends Tamas and Eva were too young and too self-absorbed by decadence to notice the war. They experimented with religious idealism and the supernatural and fell in love with one another. Later, obsessed with self-sacrifice, they grew into adults who embodied the Freudian death wish.

Mihaly marries Erzsi, an exciting and attractive woman of his own class, to get away from his death wish, and the opening of the novel finds the couple on honeymoon in Italy. As they move from Venice to Ravenna, Mihaly tells the story of his youth. Still so powerful, it induces him to leave his wife and wander about "this country ... created out of nostalgia, by kings and poets. Italy is the earthly paradise, but only as Dante saw it; the earthly paradise on the peak of Mount Purgatory, a mere stopping place on a journey, a supernatural airport where spirits take off from, the distant circles of heaven, when Beatrice lifts her veil, and the soul 'feels the great power of the old yearning.'"

But Erzsi rather resembles her husband psychologically and when she tracks him down, she understands only too well: "Oh, Mihaly, the world won't tolerate a man giving himself up to nostalgia." In fact, Mihaly and Erzsi have the same needs, hence their unsuitability as a couple. In a memorable solitary scene, Erzsi longs but fails to throw off the sexual inhibitions of a decent woman. Mihaly does not quite fail as an anti-bourgeois, but he undergoes a spiritual conversion, through loyalty to his father, which makes the prospect of a rooted life bearable.

As I was reading this book, I couldn't help thinking not only of Mann and Svevo and Freud but also of the communism that was waiting for Hungary, waiting to sweep away the old bourgeoisie after 1945. And I thought of the great Hungarian critic Georg Lukacs who, 16 years older than Szerb, came from a similar professional background, which he renounced. Lukacs, like Szerb's Mihaly, was driven by an anti-bourgeois quest, but it took a political direction. He became a communist and probably was the greatest communist critic of world literature in the 1920s. Deluded about Stalin, he nevertheless theorized the growth and collapse of high bourgeois life, as seen through the institution of the novel, and this was his greatest accomplishment.

Szerb's novel, at home in the mountains of Umbria, among the classical ruins of Rome and in Paris and in Budapest and rich in its praise for England, is a gentler way than Lukacs' of returning to an extraordinary junction in Western civilization. It lures us today because it exudes a lost aesthetic order we still search Europe for.

Despite political tensions, to be bourgeois/anti-bourgeois between the wars still entailed the cosmopolitan ideal of world citizenship. Europe offered a civilization which had not grown too large and in which small city and rural life were compatible. This is Szerb's imaginative world. So with Mihaly we shiver inside the thick walls of cool, dark, mysterious peasant dwellings and then return happily to our small, erotic, old-fashioned hotels, later to review our poetic worldview in the delicious impersonal solitude of a cafe with good coffee. Mihaly's eccentricity is to line up death as the ultimate of life's erotic charms. But I'm not sure translator Len Rix, who, apart from a sprinkling of anachronisms, has produced a fine, readable text, is right to call him "daft" and "adolescent." Rix gets it right when he says Mihaly possesses exceptional intelligence of the heart.

Another, greater novel, like Mann's "The Magic Mountain," would have balanced Mihaly's nostalgia with the weight of historical reality. But what Szerb delivers is the spiritual message which, in the 1910s and 1920s, seduced a Lukacs and, quite different, a Mihaly. "The academics had taught him that there are degrees of Being, and that only the Perfect was wholly, truly alive." One has to work at being alive, and both good and bad institutions get in the way. Lukacs envisaged getting rid of the capitalist institutions. But neither communism nor the grand bourgeois life delivered, and how could they? They were not religious truth.

But what is the religious truth at stake here, which is also a testament to a lost culture? In his most open and alive moments, Mihaly feels a chasm opening beneath his feet. An old friend, now a Catholic priest, teaches him not to fear this moment of horror metaphysicus, and he is redeemed. Redemption cancels Mihaly's irony and the story closes hopefully. But as it does, modern readers may feel how differently the post-bourgeois, post-cosmopolitan world has shaped up since 1937. Our global, uniform, materialistic world no longer understands the lure of "degrees of Being" at all.

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