Mihály, the hero of Antal Szerb's Journey by Moonlight, ought to be one of the most frustrating characters in literature; vacillating, weak-willed and constantly misjudging the situation, he blunders from one self-inflicted disaster to another, and is capable of astonishing insensitivity and cruelty. And yet Antal Szerb understands him so well that the reader is drawn into him and along with him, as his ill-advised marriage and his Venice honeymoon begin to unravel. I don’t know another novelist whose good humour towards his characters – which never shades into indulgence – is so contagious. It’s almost impossible to finish the book without liking absolutely everybody in it.
This intense sympathy was Szerb’s great gift, and shines through all his novels. (Journey by Moonlight is definitely the best, though for what it’s worth my favourite is still Oliver VII, which reads like The Prisoner of Zenda if it had been rewritten by P.G. Wodehouse: the monarch of an unnamed Eastern European country stages a coup against his own rule and flees to Venice, where he falls in with a gang of conmen and ends up impersonating himself.) Even his non-fiction overbrims with kindness and sympathy: The Queen’s Necklace, Szerb’s account of the bizarre ‘Diamond Necklace Affair’ in 1780s France, contains some of the biggest swindlers and charlatans in history, and manages to humanise them honestly without glossing over the wicked business they get up to.
Szerb at one time described his own style as ‘neo-frivolist’; his plots certainly bear out that (characteristically self-deprecating) description. They rattle along as cheerfully and improbably as anything by Simon Raven or Barbara Pym, a succession of masquerades, elaborate con-tricks, sudden flights and double-crosses, as well as the occasional foray into black magic (especially in his first novel, The Pendragon Legend - large chunks of which are set a stone’s throw from the London Review Bookshop). The believability comes entirely from the characters themselves; the tone, by turns melancholy, nostalgic and genial, is suffused throughout with Szerb’s vast humanistic irony.
Szerb died in a concentration camp in the last months of the Second World War, having turned down a chance to escape from Budapest in order to support his former university colleagues. His emergence in English would have been impossible without the efforts of his translator Len Rix, Pushkin Press and Nicolas Lezard, whose advocacy of Journey by Moonlight in the Guardian and elsewhere was no doubt an important factor in making this the London Review Bookshop’s 2003 bestseller.