A masquerade in Venice

Alturia, Oliver VII

Antal Szerb Oliver VII Pushkin Press 2013 (1942)

Anybody coming fresh to this novel might assume it was a straightforward comic novel set in some Ruritanian backwater. Many times I found myself thinking that it would make an excellent stage play — its plotting is as complex as a Feydeau farce, and at times it reminded me of Shaw’s Arms and the Man (though the latter is set in Bulgaria rather than an imaginary country). And yet hindsight informs us that this was the Hungarian author’s last work before he was murdered in a Nazi death camp in the closing year of the Second World War. It’s confusing then that there is no hint of the bloody turmoil in the European theatre of war from Szerb’s tale, one centred on a bloodless coup and laced with humorous misunderstandings and engineered coincidences.

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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.

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Curious and convoluted

Pendragon design by Nick Bristow / Chris Bristow

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 Continue reading “Curious and convoluted”