Antal Szerb The Pendragon Legend
Pushkin Press 2006
Szerb’s novel is a curious hybrid, a mix of murder mystery and ghost story, romantic comedy and Gothic chiller, social commentary and humour. While the whole is never more than the sum of its parts (the resolution, for example, doesn’t convincingly meld these disparate genres) this is still an impressive first novel, self-assured and wittily expressed.
According to the helpful Afterword, Antal Szerb was a polyglot academic who diverted some of his scholarly interests, along with other more unorthodox delvings, into fiction. He was very well regarded as a scholar until his anti-fascist stance led to an untimely and brutal death in a labour camp in 1944. The Pendragon Legend resulted from a year he spent researching and people watching in Britain, and was published in Hungarian in 1934.
The reluctant hero, Janos Bátky, is a Hungarian researching at the British Museum in 1933 when he gets invited to Owen Pendragon the Earl of Gwynedd’s 18th-century seat at Llanvygan Castle in North Wales. This furnishes him with the opportunity to look at rare manuscripts related to Rosicrucian origins. Along the way a number of chance encounters, unexplained happenings and sexual dalliances thicken the plot till it becomes a veritable potage of intrigue and confusion. Bátky, ever the bemused observer of the British (and others) in their natural environments, finds that, like it or not, he becomes involved in the action and very much out of his depth. People are not who they seem to be, truths are not self-evident and a centuries-old supernatural legend becomes reality.
There is no doubt that Szerb had great fun writing this novel. In it he is able to indulge in some of his passions as bibliophile, literary omnivore and landscape traveller: his alter ego Bátky gets to research unique manuscripts in the Earl of Gwynedd’s library at Llanvygan; he happily jumps from one accomplished parodic passage to another, by turns a comedy of manners, a detective story or a horror tale; and he revels in the geography of North Wales, particularly the ancient Pendragon Castle loosely modelled on the ruined Castell Dinas Brân near Llangollen in modern-day Powys, and its successor Llanvygan Castle perhaps an amalgam of Valle Crucis Abbey and Plas Newydd in the same town. The name Llanvygan, Llanfeugan in Modern Welsh, is possibly a memory of the church of St Meugan’s at Llanrhudd in Ruthin, traditionally founded by a 6th-century saint implausibly claimed as Merlin’s teacher.
Szerb then peoples these places with eccentrics, from the Earl himself (a recluse Victor Frankenstein figure), a German vamp called Lene Kretzsch, an Irish adventurer called George Maloney and miscellaneous relatives of the Earl, whom he throws together in a series of confusing encounters to provide the essential red herrings of the traditional crime novel. It is tempting to see in the Earl of Gwynedd a distant echo of the real-life eccentric archaeologist Lord Carnarvon, excavator of Tutankhamun’s tomb, supposed succumber to King Tut’s Curse in 1922, whose tomb was placed within the ramparts of a Hampshire Iron Age hillfort.
I found this an entertaining novel, full of delightful touches to please any dilettante reader. As it drew towards its conclusion, however, I became less convinced by the supernatural elements that began to dominate. True, these were homages to Gothic models such as The Castle of Otranto and Szerb’s contemporaries such as the Welshman Arthur Machen (whose The Great Return, published in 1915, was also set in North Wales). But despite the powerful passages describing Bátky’s experiences in the denouement, intellectually I still felt a little cheated, though this is my only reservation. Here, too, may be a good place to mention the translation by Len Rix, easy to read, neither consciously archaic for a story written in the 1930s nor laden with obviously modern idioms, written in such a manner as to seem as though English was the original language of the novel: a fine achievement.
Curiously, for a book with Pendragon in the title, there is little overtly Arthurian about the story other than a North Walian connection and the discovery of a sleeping lord underground, like the legendary king in his cave waiting for the summons. There are many suggestive Arthurian parallels: a 12th-century tale of a knight who dares to stay the night in the haunted castle of Dinas Brân before confronting the giant Gogmagog; the modern myth that the castle is the original Grail Castle; and that dubious connection between Llanvygan and St Meugan, Merlin’s teacher. It’s all so reminiscent of Rorschach inkblots, those symmetrical smears in which you can see whatever images you fancy. And so, not inappropriately, the 2006 edition of the Pushkin Press translation contains just such a cover illustration by the artist Luca Pagliari, setting the tone for the whole convoluted tale.