1901 born in Budapest
An Outline of English Literature
1924 graduates in German and English from the University of Budapest (now Eötvös Loránd University)
1924 obtains PhD
1924-29 lives in France and Italy
1929-30 lives and studies in London
1933 elected president of the Hungarian Literary Society
1935, 1937 awarded the Baumgarten Prize
1937 professor of literature at Szeged
1945 dies in a Nazi prison camp at Balf (Sopron, western Hungary)
Az angol irodalom kistükre (1929, An Outline of English Literature).
Antal Szerb was a passionate scholar of literature, as well as an essayist and novelist. Szerb was primarily interested in English letters; his first work was this slim volume.
“Above all an essayist and literary historian, he was one of the most accomplished and most likeable figures of Hungarian literature between the two world wars; he was a writer rich in ideas, writing in a witty, cultured conversational tone....He was a typical Central European intellectual, with all the refinement, integrity and rootlessness of the species.
Cynthia (1932), Madelon, az eb (1934, The Dog Madelon)
When he turned to fiction, as in these short stories, the scholar was always present. His stories are often set in the periods Szerb happened to be concerned with, and prominent among his heroes is the figure of the scholar.
The History of Hungarian Literature
A magyar irodalom története (1934, The History of Hungarian Literature)
In this particularly ambitious literary history he sets Hungarian authors against the European background.
The Pendragon Legend
A Pendragon legenda (1934, The Pendragon Legend)
This novel, one of Szerb�s finest and most popular, is simultaneously a detective story, a mysterious legend, a historical novel, a work of popular science and a parody.
Love in the Bottle
Szerelem a palackban (1935, Love in the Bottle)
The short stories in this volume reflect a young man's obsession with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the world of miracles, mysticism, and irrational and escapist literature.
Journey by Moonlight,The Traveler
Utas és holdvilág (1937, Journey by Moonlight; The Traveler)
“It was a really strange thesis, half parody of religious history, half deadly serious itself.” The central character of the novel thus describes his friend’s study of literature; it stands for Antal Szerb’s handling of the narrative technique. Translator Len Rix praises the novel for its “gently ironical tone, the deceptive casualness with which the story unfolds, the amused scepticism playing on every variety of pretension.” (The book was translated into English first by Peter Hargitai (USA, 1994, 1995, 2002) and then by Len Rix (Great-Britain, 2002).)
The hero of this novel, on honeymoon in Venice, flees his bride and wanders around Italy. In the course of his wittily told surrealistic adventure, he confronts the meaning of existence and death itself: “He would have to remain with the living. He too would live: like the rats among the ruins, but nevertheless alive. And when there is life there is always the chance that something might happen.”
This honeymooner is Mihály, a well-off businessman. One night he goes out to have a drink some wine, and wandering alone through the narrow back-alleys of Venice, he suddenly, uncannily feels at home. At dawn he is unable to explain to his wife where he has been. A few days later in Ravenna, a strange acquaintance called Szepetneky turns up and insults them both. He accuses Mihály of letting go of his past and his friends. In a rush of sincerity Mihály confesses to his new bride the mysteries of his youth.
Mihály had been a lonely, ailing and inhibited student, haunted by the vision of a whirlpool, until he met the unique Tamás Ulpius. He became a regular guest in the decadent Ulpius household, where the siblings, Tamás and Éva, lived in considerable wealth, unconscious of its extent. They passed their time by acting out all kinds of historical roles, where one (usually Éva) had to kill the other (Tamás); Mihály turned out to be the perfect victim and enjoyed the role immensely. The gallery involved two other members, Ervin, the intelligent, knowledgeable, Jewish youth who had just converted to Catholicism, and the swindler János Szepetneky, whose sole ambition was (and still is) to prove himself better than Mihály (this being his goal ever since a professor and enthusiast in phrenology declared Mihály talented and himself untalented). The five of them used to spend day and night together, governed first by Tamás and his necrophilia, then by Ervin and his saints, finally by Mihály and his cynicism. The men (even Tamás) were all in love with Éva, who would have married Ervin if her father had not had a wealthy businessman in mind. Ervin, considering this the ultimate sign, joined the brotherhood and became a friar. Right before Éva’s marriage, she and Tamás travelled to Germany, where Tamás died. This is the story, and Erzsi is not upset by it, but rather likes it—besides she loves Mihály for what (she thinks) he is.
In Florence Mihály receives a letter from Erzsi’s former husband, Zoltán Pataki, who confides to him secrets of great importance about her, like her sensitivity to seafood and to unskilled manicurists. Although Mihály is appalled by the patronizing tone of the letter, he cannot help but feel that perhaps Erzsi is not with the proper, best prepared man—namely him. On their way to Rome, he gets off the train to have coffee, and the next moment he finds himself on another one, taking him to Perugia.
This escape, involuntary if not unintentional, is a new experience; Mihály realizes that he does not wish to be found. In fact, when someone (a diminutive fascist official) identifies him, he sends a message to Erzsi saying he is fine but not coming back. He is fleeing from the world, and soon collapses with nervous breakdown, ending up in a hospital in Foligno. Here he meets a half-English doctor who tells him about Gubbio and a strange friar in Sant Ubald’s monastery, whom Mihály immediately identifies as Ervin. He meets his old friend and confesses to him the falsity of his marriage; Ervin absolves him and sends him to Rome. Meanwhile, Erzsi moves to Paris under the wing of a woman friend, and is experimenting with her freedom and beauty. Szepetneky traces her down and sends the news to her former husband. The eager Pataki grabs the occasion, arrives in Paris on business, and is summarily turned down by his former wife.
In Rome Mihály has received a letter from his family, and has reluctantly decided to go home, when quite accidentally he finds Éva. He loses her immediately, but keeps after her. He then bumps into an old university friend, Rudolf Waldheim, a historian of religion and a carefree personality who works at night, sleeps during the day and refuses to let the cleaning lady in to give some order to the chaos of his room. Waldheim despises business life, encourages Mihály to take up history of religion, and introduces him to the Etruscan philosophy of death, which Mihály can immediately identify with. It has always been Éva’s love he has wanted to find in death.
One day Szepetneky turns up and offers him money on Pataki’s behalf—to convince Mihály to get a divorce, and on condition that he accepts the offer in writing. It is Erzsi’s turn to solve a riddle. She arrives and tells Mihály how Pataki and Szepetneky want to prove him to be a scandalous husband at home, thus ruining his family’s business plans as well. And Erzsi has much worse news: Szepetneky has sniffed out that Éva is leaving for India for good. Finally Erzsi has to console Mihály, and they understand each other much better in bed. By the morning, however, both of them realize that there is no future for them together. On top of all that, Mihály receives the news that Ervin has died. Then, out of the blue, Éva arrives to deliver this same news; they talk about those who have dead. Eva describes to Mihály how she eased Tamás’s way to death. Mihály, who is now ready to die, asks Éva to help him as well.
But Szerb cannot allow for a tragic ending for either Erzsi or Mihály. Back in Paris, Szepetneky plays the not altogether unwilling Erzsi into the hands of a wealthy Persian opium dealer, the “real tiger” she longs for—but on a sudden impulse she escapes. She resolves not to become someone’s mistress, and to her woman friend’s surprise, decides to go back to Pataki and live in comfort.
Mihály is wording his suicide note to his family when an Italian acquaintance, a woman who had told his future, insists that he should turn up at a baptism, something he had vaguely promised to do. What the hell, he figures: he attends the ceremony, the dinner, gets so drunk that they cannot let him go home, has the most awful nightmares about how the Italians want to rob and murder him and forgets all about suicide. At home he finds Éva’s note, saying she is not coming, as Mihály is not going to die. By this time his father joins the scene, and takes Mihály home. He ultimately is drawn back into the life he had escaped from, but is rid of nostalgia and the panic of marriage.
“Journey by Moonlight is a short but colourful and entertaining novel, influenced more by Cocteau and Gide than by contemporary English writing, even though Szerb was one of the early admirers of Aldous Huxley.”
The History of World Literature
A világirodalom története (1941, The History of World Literature)
A comprehensive yet highly personal survey of world literature, this volume brilliantly completes the sequence of literary syntheses. No literary historian in Hungary has ever been as popular as Szerb.
VII. Olivér (1941, Oliver VII.)
Szerb’s last novel, a pointed political satire delivered with a light touch, was published under the pseudonym A. H. Redcliff.
The Queen�s Necklace
A királyné nyaklánca (1941-44, The Queen�s Necklace)
The background of the novel can be found in the complex world of the French ancien régime, contrasted with the values of Rousseau and Voltaire, and, indeed, of the author himself.
Weekdays and Miracles
Hétköznapok és csodák (1942, Weekdays and Miracles), Gondolatok a könyvtárban (1946, Thoughts in the Library) A varázsló eltöri pálcáját (1948, The Magician Breaks His Staff).
In Szerb, the scholar and the writer of fiction are difficult to separate, one reason he was particularly fond of the genre of the essay. The very titles of the volumes suggest the atmosphere of his conversational essays.
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