For Mihály, the antihero of Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight (New York Review Books; Paper $16.95), translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix, the important question is whether to conform. Should he spend his life working at his father’s company? Does he care about fitting in with polite Hungarian society? Or should he abandon such possibilities and do something else entirely? The question pulses through this transfixing novel like a heartbeat. Even though the plot is almost too ramshackle to deserve the name, we always know what is at stake: everything.
Today, in America at least, this narrative mood is most associated with stories about “young adults,” one of the last demographics allowed to feel that everyday life brims with questions of enormous importance. But Mihály is a grown-up. From one angle, this means he’s immature, unwilling to accept the responsibilities that define adult life. From another angle, he’s a romantic hero, courageously refusing the path of least resistance. Szerb gives us both angles at once: it is hard not to laugh at Mihály, who at times behaves like a parody of the privileged flâneur, indulging in wild mood swings for the thrill of it. But it is equally hard not to cheer him on, even when he’s being a lout.
When the novel opens, Mihály is on an Italian honeymoon with his beautiful wife, Erzsi. For him, marriage is the final frontier of bourgeois respectability. Erzsi sees things differently. For her, the marriage signifies not the embrace of conformity but instead a respite from it. “Mihály isn’t like other people,” she tells a friend. “That’s why I chose him.” The two could be allies, but they don’t know or understand each other, and so neither enjoys the honeymoon. At a train stop, Mihály gets off for an espresso, and then reboards the wrong train. He tells himself it was a mistake, but he doesn’t seem upset, and makes no move to correct course. To the contrary: he goes on the run. “Don’t try to find me,” he telegraphs Erzsi.
From this point on, Journey by Moonlight becomes one of those delightful––or, depending on your taste, infuriating––novels that defy summary. Too many different things happen, too haphazardly, and all of the events are of near-equal potential importance. Mentioning some and not others risks creating not just an incomplete impression but also a false one. Most important, the events themselves are often less significant than the absorbing atmosphere that surrounds them. The book feels like a waking dream, or like wandering a foreign city alone for the first time. Everything seems more than a little unreal, but somehow the unreality comes off as a natural part of the experience and not worth much worry.
Mihály wanders from town to town, befriending strangers, borrowing money, dreading the prospect of going back home, and thinking obsessively of his childhood friends. Together, they refused to live ordinary lives. Under the sway of eccentric siblings Tamás and Éva, these friends cut class, read only what truly interested them, and stayed up late getting wasted and staging plays. Tamás always loved the erotic kick he got from pretending to die on stage. Eventually he decided to kill himself, thinking the real thing would feel even better. Mihály got scared off and resolved to “become just like everyone else.”
By chance, the key players from this period of Mihály’s life are in Italy at the same time he is. He crosses paths with all of them, one by one. It’s absurdly implausible, but somehow not frustrating. As in dreams—true dreams, not boring descriptions of the dreams of others––some tantalizing secret seems to be lurking beneath the surface. Nothing particularly dramatic happens, but a sense nonetheless builds that Mihály is headed toward a reckoning, perhaps (like Tamás) a self-destructive one.
Erzsi, abandoned by her husband just days into their marriage, is too ashamed to go home. She heads to Paris, where she too flirts with the idea of a life liberated from Hungarian propriety. She roams the city alone and follows her erotic impulses. It’s fun, but it can’t last; she’s living on money wired by her former father-in-law, who won’t keep wiring more forever. As a woman, she’s even more constrained than Mihály. Any imaginable life requires the support of a man, which means acting the way men want. Her perspective, though never as developed as Mihály’s, is a boon to the novel: it shows Szerb’s awareness that Mihály’s emotions are not uniquely male, and that, constricted as he may be, he enjoys considerably more freedom than some.
I’ve put off mentioning that Journey by Moonlight was first published in 1937, with World War II around the corner, and that Szerb, who was born to Jewish parents but baptized a Catholic, was beaten to death in a concentration camp. I don’t deny that knowing these facts adds a certain pathos to Mihály’s journey. But it is all too easy to view everyone in the book as doomed: as moving, ignorantly and inexorably, toward destruction and death. This perspective is at cross-purposes with the spirit of Szerb’s book, which insists again and again on the stubborn magic of the world, and the importance of remembering that “while there is life there is always the chance that something might happen.” This is no solution to Mihály’s problem (or anyone else’s), but that’s fine. Good novels aren’t how-to guides for life; they’re reminders that no such books exist, and of how terrible and wonderful that absence can feel.