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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Oliver VII

by
Szerb Antal


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Oliver VII



Title: Oliver VII
Author: Szerb Antal
Genre: Novel
Written: 1942 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 176 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Oliver VII - UK
Oliver VII - Canada
Oliver VII - Deutschland
  • Hungarian title: Oliver VII
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Len Rix

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable comedy, confident tone

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 24/11/2007 Alberto Manguel
The Guardian . 29/9/2007 Nicholas Lezard


  From the Reviews:
  • "Oliver VII is the march of many personalities converging into one central identity." - Alberto Manguel, Financial Times

  • "It is all, on the face of it, incredibly silly. During the first few pages, I wondered whether this was in fact Szerb's first rather than his final novel. It seemed to be nothing more than surface. (And, in its preposterous defence of kingship, may well irritate republicans who are not inclined to see the absurd side. But its fondness for kings should be the last thing to put you off.) On a rereading, and after also reading Len Rix's thoughtful afterword, you notice that there is more to it than fable. It actually has much in common with Journey by Moonlight - the flight from identity, the alleys of Venice, the choices that must be made between duty and pleasure, or between two women. And it has its comedy, too" - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Oliver VII could easily be the basis for one of those Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s and 40s -- think Preston Sturges or some of the Austro-Hungarian émigrés of the time. It is a comedy of mistaken and assumed identities, as the young king of Alturia, Oliver VII, organises a coup to get himself deposed, allowing him to go into exile and experience real life. Rumours abound as to his whereabouts afterwards, but he's actually in Venice, where he's gotten himself involved with some gentlemen-con artists. When someone 'mistakes' him for the lost king he's pressed to assume another role -- to play himself, in fact, in the ultimate con.
       Alturia is one of these idyllic-ridiculous Ruritanias, with an economy dependent on sardines and wine. It's essentially bankrupt, with no one wanting to -- or able to, for long -- be Finance Minister, and finally there seems no way out but to sell out to the Norlandian tycoon Coltor, a man who "marketed innovation". That doesn't quite work out at the first go, but Coltor's eagerness to get a controlling interest in the small nation's wine and sardine industries becomes a part of the big con that Oliver's cronies want to put together.
       Alturians are: "of a somewhat dreamy nature, fanciful and poetically inclined", and Oliver no less than most. But he's also eager to let himself get tossed about by life:

Somehow I have always believed the real test of life was uncertainty.
       Szerb demonstrates Oliver's attitude very nicely, especially in two scenes with the women he is closest to, where he warns them of "the sea serpent" that can suddenly appear and change everything -- as it inevitably does.
       The secondary characters are wonderful inventions -- whimsical, but without Szerb relying to much on those qualities and quirks. There's the Count who lives for the con -- "what matters is the beauty and excitement of the game", not the outcome --, and the Duke who should assume the throne but is interested only in his collections. And there's the painter Sandoval, sent to find the king, who -- it seems to be an Alturian character-trait -- became bored with his incredible success:
His lack of enthusiasm began to reveal itself in the pictures: faces whose pouting lips hung below their chins, eyes popping out of the heads, and heads that sat not on a neck but on an alarmingly elongated tongue. The extended tongue became a leitmotif. Houses, trees, mountains, all were painted with this elongated tongue, and above them a radiant sun or moon with its own tiny version of the same. Finding a way to incorporate the theme into seascapes proved to be more of a problem. The younger painters, under the spell of his glamour as a revolutionary, developed Tonguism into a full-blown school, though the thoughts of his bourgeois clientele whose portraits were done during this period turned increasingly to suicide.
       That's typical of Szerb's humour and expression, absurd asides that fit easily in the more realistic flow. It's satire that never feels too forced: indeed, there's a gentleness -- and melancholy -- to the whole tale.
       What's remarkable, too, is that this is a novel written as World War II raged around -- and began to encroach on -- Szerb. Unlike Márai Sándor's much more overtly nostalgic Embers (also first published in 1942), it almost seems like an entirely diversionary entertainment. But in Alturia's comically hopeless condition (with it also at the near-mercy of greater powers), in the king's wish to escape responsibility and commitment and seek out everyday life (and his knowledge, deep down, that he can't), and, most of all, in the sea-serpent uncertainty of everything -- stability is almost entirely missing here, and it's clear the world can be turned upside down overnight -- it does refract the age and Szerb's situation.
       An enjoyable and often very amusing story, and even if it feels like these plot-twists are all familiar, Szerb has a fine and fresh and very sure touch. Worthwhile.

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Links:

Oliver VII: Reviews: Szerb Antal:
  • Antal Szerb at Hungarian Literature Online
  • Profile by György Poszler in The Hungarian Quarterly
  • Profile by Géza Buzinkay in The Hungarian Quarterly
Other books by Szerb Antal under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Szerb Antal (1901-1945) was President of the Hungarian Literary Academy.

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© 2007-2008 the complete review

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