The last visions

San Marino flag
The flag of San Marino showing the three towers of Monte Titano

Antal Szerb The Third Tower: journeys in Italy
(A harmadik torony)
Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
Pushkin Press 2014 (1936)

I felt bereft when Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy stopped mid-sentence only in sight of Lyon. Mr Yorick was due to travel down western Italy via Turin, Milan, Florence and Rome as far as Naples but, unhappily for all, the full account was cut short by the small matter of the writer’s death. Fortunately there was Antal Szerb’s The Third Tower recently published in English to console me, though the Hungarian’s travels were essentially down the east coast of Italy only as far south as San Marino. But, just as with Sterne’s writings, this was as much — if not more — about the person than the places visited.

The Third Tower is in the form of journal notes, undated, but all in August 1936. Szerb had considered Spain but the civil war decided him against it: he would go to Italy instead “while Italy remains where it is, and while going there is still possible”. War remains the backdrop to all he writes, not just Spain’s conflict but also what’s developing in central Europe as well as in Italy itself. It’s easy for me to say with hindsight, but Szerb writes with some prescience when he adds, “My impressions of Italy always feel like the last visions of a dying man.”

Campanile San Marco
An impression of the campanile San Marco collapsing in 1902

He is shocked by how hot Venice is in August, but still, for now, he feels “more completely myself” while visiting there, praising especially its back alleys for getting away from the crowds. Staying in a pensione in St Mark’s Square he notes that the “Campanile is a modern construction, and one senses a certain sacrilege about it.” Less than a quarter-century old when Szerb saw it, the original had collapsed into rubble in 1902; its replacement was completed in 1912 and dedicated on the feast of St Mark. The mention of the bell-tower in splendid isolation is the first appearance of a leitmotif in The Third Tower, emblematic of the author’s own solitariness during his three-week holiday in the peninsula. In the piazza he observes passing signoras and signorinas, including street girls as young as 12; while he confesses to an even lower level of “sexual restlessness” than ever he believes that Venice is “herself a woman, mysterious and alluring, in her brick-pink serenity”, albeit under a carnival mask.

Vicenza impresses Szerb for its classicism: literary giants like Goethe and English Romantic poets visited the city because of the presence of Palladio’s innovative architectural vision. Verona on the other hand is “grimly handsome” and its associations with Germanic invaders and especially Dietrich von Bern — the Gothic king Theodoric the Great ‘from Verona’ — remind the author of war brewing in Europe, which the M-shaped battlements of Scaliger fortifications only underline. His temper is not improved after taking a room in the Piazza Erbe: not only is he affected by the summer heat and a plague of mosquitoes but he has foolishly chosen the great mid-August Catholic feast of Ferragosto, and the partying in the square keeps him awake until 5am. (We had a similar experience in an hotel near the train station in Rome, with revellers smashing glasses and bottles well after midnight, their place taken by council workmen clearing up the mess in the early hours of the morning.) Szerb escapes to Gardone on the west side of Lake Garda. Here he notes that the cypress tree “standing guard in front of the house” may be a literary cliché but that it is true for all that. Then it’s on to Bologna, for which he needs his sense of humour:

The journey from Gardone to Bologna takes almost a full day. The section by boat [across Lake Garda] is delightful, but the train from Desenzano to Bologna proves rather less so. It stops for five to ten minutes at every station, the passengers get off, and then get back on. It is called, with the gentle irony of the Italians, the accelerato.

Despite the city’s charms he is disturbed by what he sees Italy becoming, “a country of the self-satisfaction of the masses”. Even though fascism is based on the cult of Mussolini, embodied in that personality cult is “a dictatorship of the people” in whose hands, unlike nominally democratic Britain, real power lies. His malaise is compounded not only by those sentinel cypresses, dark alleyways and castle battlements, but also by the Asinelli and Garisenda towers, the most famous landmarks in Bologna, then as now. “It is no accident,” he writes, that Italians in “moments of grandeur … put on black shirts and go marauding, or march around in procession dressed up as bandits.” Has anything really changed in eight decades?

Bologna towers
The twin towers of Bologna

With some relief — for all of us — he decamps to Ravenna where, in a variation of Stendhal syndrome he is “seized by an intense perturbation” when viewing the exquisite mosaics. Yet we know from Procopius’ The Secret History that behind the glittering façade of Justinian’s court much evil lurked; and Szerb muses even more on the petty and not so petty tyrants that litter history when he goes to view Theodoric’s tomb: “Even as I stood above the grave of Dietrich von Bern, Spanish government troops were being slaughtered in the Guadarrama pass and the insurgents were firing their last rounds at the Toledo Alcázar … It has become a clash of two opposing worlds: two versions of collectivism…”

Will there ever be a third power between these two worlds? He might find an answer in San Marino, which he reaches via Rimini. Here he visits two of the fortifications on Monte Titano with the omnipresent crowds, finally reaching the Third Tower on his own. Here at last he comes “into possession of my soul”. His restlessness throughout this journey he believes arises from “forced contact with the collectivity of the lonely, the euphoric Italian collectivity,” his “solitary happiness threatened by the happiness of the herd, because they were stronger than I was.” The profound loneliness of the outsider in the midst of seething masses has clearly affected him, his pessimism not only an aspect of his personality but also a reflection of the great undercurrents in Europe that were soon to result in a six-year war.

Monte Titano September 1944
Monte Titano being liberated by British troops in September 1944; a German grave in the foreground

His three-week visit is nearly at an end. In Ferrara his fatigue is pointed up by the monotonous pattern of central piazza, palazzo, hotel, wine, cathedral and so on. Not forgetting the mosquitoes. Finally on the very frontier of Italy he arrives in Trieste. Here — despite the city’s curiously happy pride in the manufacture of enamel chamber pots — its Austro-Hungarian legacy to him “feels like home”. His Italian soggiorno is over: “whatever becomes of Europe, trust in your inner stars. Somewhere, always, a Third Tower will be waiting for you…”

Despite the overall sadness, Szerb’s account is leavened by sly humour and wry observations. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Len Rix’s translation but at no point did the text read awkwardly. In a little over a hundred pages, with a sprinkling of period photographs, The Third Tower is engaging but, with short chapters, easy to pick up and put down. For me it helped that I had visited some of the places he stays at, but even for those unfamiliar with Italy this gives a vivid feel of a southern European country on the verge of momentous happenings. And, worryingly, many of the national traits he describes are still in evidence, as if we’d never learnt anything from history.

Szerb's travels in northern Italy
Szerb’s travels in northern Italy
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8 thoughts on “The last visions

  1. One wonders if anyone with good powers of observation can visit any country today without having similar feelings of impending turmoil. Only the nature and degree vary.
    This does seem to be a rewarding read.

    1. I had to remove a couple of your recent comments from my spam comments for some reason, Col, don’t know why, so apologies for the delay in replying.

      Szerb’s observations I feel were less feelings of ‘impending turmoil’, more an excuse for expressing his personal sense of not fitting in, of being an outsider but also of relishing any opportunity to be solitary (as at the foot of the Third Tower). I wonder if he would have felt this alienation even without — as we now know it — World War Two on the horizon.

  2. A wonderful review. I intend to read this book, not only to learn more of the experience of travelling through these Italian towns in the 1930s but also to think more about ‘national traits’. Perhaps because I am half from that far NE part of Italy, I have been puzzled by recent suggestions that schools should teach ‘Britishness’. I have no idea what that is; I am interested to see if I understand Szerb’s ‘Italianess’ any better.

    1. Politicians are really the last peiple in the world you want to trust with definitions of national traits –that way madness lies. By all means (I’d say to them) have a discussion about the subject, but these public statements and debates nearly always generate more heat than light.

      Sometimes, but only sometimes, outsiders are in a better position to judge objectively what are national traits. Better still, those people like you perhaps with personal links in two or more cultures. Definitely not those with a political axe to grind!

      Glad you liked the review, and hope you enjoy the book as well!

  3. I’m going to download the Kindle edition, it sounds a great read… I’ve just skimmed across your review, which seems to me to be very comprehensive…I’ll read the book first!

    1. Yes, do! I’ve quoted rather a lot of his comments, but thought I couldn’t do better than use his own words to highlight what makes this book interesting for me.

  4. I think I would really enjoy this. I love books like this and you can learn so much by someone’s observations and about the individual as well.

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