It’s rare to find a male protagonist who isn’t an asshole in a book written by a male author from Europe or the US over the past century and a half. In Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, a Hungarian author who was killed during the Holocaust, the main character Mihaly wastes no time in establishing his credentials. On the first night of his honeymoon, Mihaly ditches his wife to walk around the back alleys of Venice by himself.
Although I already owned three editions of the novel, I was pleased to hear that NYRB Classics was releasing a new version with an introduction by Julie Orringer, based on the translation by Len Rix. I’m sure to read it again when I receive my copy as part of NYRB’s subscription service. Originally published in 1937, the novel was revived by Pushkin Press, which released a couple versions since the turn of the millennium. A different translation, titled The Traveler, was released by Author’s Choice Press in 2003, but lacks the polish of the Rix translation.
I was drawn to the character of Mihaly because his asshole nature is due to naivete rather than spite. He often knows when he is being an asshole but can’t help himself. He almost seems to be overcoming his tendency early in the story until a figure from his past, an even bigger asshole, finds him and his wife at an outside cafe in Ravenna. Mihaly then has to give a long explanation (back story) to his new wife, who at times seems as bored with the story as the reader might become. It is one of the few times the novel drags.
The first three chapters are short, while the back story of the fourth spans almost twice as many pages as the first three chapters combined. It’s an odd bit of pacing and the novel evens out after that.
Within those three short chapters of the opening, the second, and the shortest of them all, is from the point of view of Mihaly’s wife, Erzsi. I was worried that I would never get to know more about her but eventually Szerb does focus on her life without Mihaly, and Erzsi doesn’t become a cast off. She develops into a resilient and interesting character who finds her own path, not matter how many assholes get in her way.
Mihaly experienced an occasional feeling that a vortex was opening up right next to him, regardless of where he might be standing or sitting, at any time of day or night, rendering him immobile until someone unwittingly rescued him or the vortex died out. It was a wonderful metaphor for the “whisper of nihilism” that sometimes threatens to swallow us up. Mihaly, at times, was willing to give in to this vortex, and to other extremes, to end his uncertainty about his own life and the future.
He constantly looked to his past in order to provide direction for his future, and it seems, by the end, that he knew he must abandon such an approach to living. Mihaly’s realization is thus our own. I’ll never tire of reading this novel.