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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Journey by Moonlight

Szerb Antal

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To purchase Journey by Moonlight

Title: Journey by Moonlight
Author: Szerb Antal
Genre: Novel
Written: 1937 (Eng. 2000)
Length: 323 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Journey by Moonlight - US
Journey by Moonlight - UK
Journey by Moonlight - Canada
Journey by Moonlight - India
Le Voyageur et le Clair de lune - France
Reise im Mondlicht - Deutschland
Il viaggiatore e il chiaro di luna - Italia
El viajero bajo el resplandor de la luna - España
  • Hungarian title: Utas és Holdvilág
  • Translated and with an Afterwod by Len Rix
  • the New York Review Book re-issue (2014) comes with an Intorduction by Julie Orringer
  • Previously translated as The Traveler by Peter Hargitai (1994); now also translated as Journey by Moonlight by Peter Czipott (2017)
  • Utas és Holdvilág is being made into a movie (2008), directed Szabó István

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Our Assessment:

B+ : odd though generally charming, belated fin-de-siècle wallow

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 18/08/2001 .
Daily Telegraph . 28/02/2003 Megan Stephan
FAZ A 29/11/2003 Michael Jeismann
The Guardian A+ 28/7/2001 Nicholas Lezard
London Rev. of Books . 5/6/2003 Gabriele Annan
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 7/1/2004 Ilma Rakusa
TLS A 1/6/2001 George Szirtes
Wall Street Journal . 19/12/2014 Sam Sacks
Die Welt . 6/12/2003 Elmar Krekeler
Die Zeit . 22/1/2004 György Dalos

  From the Reviews:
  • "It should be said from the outset that this is a great novel. (...) Journey by Moonlight is an exhilarating comedy. It made me smile, and once or twice I laughed out loud. (...) This book is very erotic in a playful way." - Daily Telegraph

  • "Despite the darkness of its themes and the European history that haunts it, Journey by Moonlight manages to be both comic and beautiful." - Megan Stephan, Daily Telegraph

  • "Nur wer mit überirdischer Biederkeit gesegnet ist, wird dieses Meisterwerk psychologischer Realistik nicht mögen. Alle anderen aber werden sich auf dieser Reise im Mondlicht als Weggefährten fühlen." - Michael Jeismann, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "What is so wonderful about the book is its tone and its grasp of character. (...) There is something almost divine about this -- and that Szerb's great intelligence didn't force him to produce a work of arid perfectionism makes it all the more remarkable." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "So much is packed into this novel, not always very neatly, but with an unusual mixture of exuberance, dreaminess -- and a casual lightness of touch. It is helped by what reads like a very sympathetic translation." - Gabriele Annan, London Review of Books

  • "Reise im Mondlicht, das 1937 erschienene, zweifellos bedeutendste Erzählwerk von Antal Szerb, fasziniert durch seine schillernden Widersprüche: Der Roman gehorcht, ebenso wie seine Protagonisten, dem Prinzip des Irrational-Somnambulen und der an Tatsachen orientierten Ratio, er entwickelt einen suggestiven Sog und bricht diesen zugleich durch Ironie oder ausgefallene Wortkonstruktionen" - Ilma Rakusa, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The book is compulsive and infuriating by turns, sometimes skating, sometimes lurching, between its influences. There are elements of genuine paranoid vision, heavy surrealism, guidebook travelogue, Gothic horror tale, Chestertonian fantasy, intellectual debate and an uneasy social satire. (...) Journey by Moonlight is a burning book, a major book, one of those maddeningly uneven firework displays that serve as much for symptom as artefact." - George Szirtes, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Szerb transformed Italy from a place of cultured sightseeing to a phantasmagorical world whose countless ruins, relics and sarcophagi eerily "symbolize fatality." (...) But though the novel has sensuous, mesmeric moments, Szerb never entirely abandons his sense of humor and detachment." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "Man sollte den Roman zum Buch des Jahres wählen. Mindestens." - Elmar Krekeler, Die Welt

  • "Uns machte die Reise im Mondlicht in einer Weise unruhig wie weiland Die Leiden des jungen Werther seine zeitgenössischen Leser. Wir waren beinahe krankhaft darauf gespannt, ob der Held Mihály auf seiner Flucht vor dem Eheglück das wirkliche Glück findet -- ehrlich gesagt, beneideten wir ihn um die freie Westreise -- und ob die (zugegeben bürgerliche) Freiheit überhaupt etwas mit Glück oder Unglück zu tun hat ? Tatsächlich faszinierend fanden wir jedoch die Nebengestalten" - György Dalos, Die Zeit

  • "(A) most important document regarding the opinions and literary orientation of the author's generation." - Miklós Szabolsci, in History of Hungarian Literature (1964)

  • "Len Rix managed to translate Szerb's book into beautifully fluent English, and what we have is a work of comedy and depth, the comedy all the more striking in that the chief subjects of the book are abnegation and suicide. (...) (N)o one who has read it has failed to love it." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian (22/12/2001)

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:

       Márai Sándor's recently translated 1942 novel Embers (see our review) was striking for its blind refusal to acknowledge a changed world: it looked only back to the old and ignored the collapsing world all around. Szerb Antal's Journey by Moonlight, first published a few years earlier (in 1937), is similarly almost entirely blind to the present: set largely in Fascist Italy and Paris, there are occasional Mussolini references -- but they are of almost no account, and there is almost no awareness of events elsewhere in Europe. (It is perhaps not surprising that both titles refer to only a very poor source of illumination by which to see anything .....)
       Journey by Moonlight is a wallow in nostalgia -- but where Márai's Embers looked only fondly back at the Hapsburg empire and all it represented, Szerb's novel is a yearning for fin-de-siècle decadence, four decades too late.
       Journey by Moonlight tells the story of Mihály and Erzsi. The newlyweds are on their honeymoon in Italy when the novel begins. Erzsi was previously married, and Mihály was her lover, but in an effort to settle down (as per his family's wishes and expectations) Mihály made an honourable woman out of her and took her as his own. Marriage, however, isn't quite the thing for Mihály -- especially one "that, for both, rested on purely rational foundations". When they conveniently get separated on different trains in Italy Mihály chooses not to go after his wife and essentially leaves her. Near the end Erzsi asks why he left her; the one word answer is the obvious one: "Nostalgia."
       Mihály never really grew up, and is ill-suited to the domestic and professional life his family expects. He is a strange sort of romantic, burdened by the legacy of an odd, intense friendship that marked his youth. Tamás and Eva Ulpius were the youths he idolized, and along with a few others they formed a tight circle of friends -- dreamers, bohemians, fops. The Ulpius household was their tiny decadent paradise.
       Things got complicated. Everyone loved Eva -- even, though he did not always want to admit it, Mihály -- but once they outgrew adolescence their lifestyle becomes more difficult to sustain. Tamás is the only one who escapes: he is a young (and, as is later revealed, very dramatic (and decadent)) suicide. One friend becomes a monk (in Italy, where Mihály can conveniently stumble across him), another a con man (who also crosses Mihály and Erzsi's paths in Italy and France), while Eva becomes a wealthy, wandering mistress to many. Mihály's hopes of becoming an academic were dashed, and he retreated to a sort of safety in the stifling the family business. But away from Hungary on his honeymoon -- where he is constantly reminded of his wonderful if entirely artificial adolescent lifestyle -- he thinks for a while he might be able to escape after all.
       Escape isn't easy, and running into his old buddies doesn't help either. He is ultimately driven to a dramatic gesture, trying to live up, again, to the ideal that was Tamás -- with predictable results (in a nice wry turn to close the book).
       As someone tells Erzsi:

You know, I say this in all seriousness, Mihály isn't cut out for a husband. He's ... how do I put this ?... a seeker.... All his life he's been looking for something, something different.
       The only place he found it was in the Ulpius household, but all of that had been destroyed, and though there are tantalizing glimpses of it for him in the present there is, finally, no returning there. Mihály feels the inexorable pull of his own fate, certain that his:
road led downwards, even if he survived, survived everything and came to tranquil tedious old age. We carry within ourselves the direction our lives will take. Within ourselves burn the timeless, fateful stars.
       Tamás' suicide brought escape from such a (or indeed almost any) fate; Mihály finds none.
       Erzsi, too, is on a trip of self-discovery once Mihály leaves her, and though the story focusses on his progress (or regress) a considerable portion is also devoted to her adventures. Mihály's old friends, a Persian opium dealer, her first husband, and Mihály's family all also play a role in the story.

       The decadent self-indulgence can be a bit trying, but Szerb has a nice touch with characters and incidents that keep the reader entertained: the parts are finer than the whole, though Szerb does manage to pull the book closed in nice fashion. It is a very odd book, in an English translation that occasionally seems anachronistic (though in a book with an 1890s feels and 1930s setting (without managing to acknowledge much of that world) everything seems a bit anachronistic), but with a distinct charm to it.

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Journey by Moonlight: Reviews: Utas és Holdvilág - the film: Szerb Antal: 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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