My rating: 4 stars
Set in the early 20th century, Journey by Moonlight by the Hungarian author Antal Szerb tells the story of a newlywed couple struggling to come to terms with their purpose in life. Were they supposed to conform to what society expected from them? Did they genuinely want to break away from the norm? Thirty-six-year-old Mihály, the main character, was finding it especially challenging to decide what to do, seeing that he was plagued by nostalgia for his youth.
Mihály and Erzsi went on a trip around Italy for their honeymoon. While in Venice, one night he decided to wander around the back-alleys alone. When he returned to the hotel, Erzsi was worried and asked him why he hadn’t told her where he was going and why he hadn’t taken her with him. He felt offended and resentful. But that was only the beginning of their disagreements. Erzsi, who had been married before to Zolfán Pataki, didn’t fully understand Mihály at first and was sure that he didn’t understand her neither, because he didn’t concern himself with the real feelings of others.
Their next destination was Ravenna. There they received an unexpected visit from János Szepetneki, one of Mihály’s old friends. During a cryptic conversation at the local piazza, he told Mihály that he had managed to trace Ervin’s whereabouts. This encounter encouraged Mihály to tell Erzsi about the deceased Tamás Ulpius. When he was young, Mihály suffered from various nervous symptoms. One of them was feeling and seeing a whirlpool on the ground near his feet. Once at Castle Hill in Budapest, Tamás helped him when the whirlpool effect was taking much longer to disappear than usual.
That was just the beginning of a strong bond between them. They became best friends, and Mihály started to frequent Tamás’s house. Tamás and his sister, Éva, loved the theatre and used very dishonest means to get money to see plays. They seemed to be out of touch with society. Mihály started to change his habits to be more like them, but that wasn’t easy, since he liked order, was not rebellious enough and had a bourgeois soul. János and Ervin became part of their group later on. After knowing more about Mihály’s past, his previous conversation with János makes gradually more sense.
When they were around 20 years old, their friendship slowly started to disintegrate. Mihály was not the same person anymore, though. Being part of that group changed him forever. Since then he had been struggling to choose between his bohemian and bourgeois sides. He wanted to be a serious adult, but at the same time he missed his youth. Moreover, some incidents during that time continued to haunt him and made him think about the concept of death often.
Mihály tried to establish himself as a serious partner in his father firm. His marriage was part of that plan. However, when Mihály and Erzsi got separated while travelling by train to another Italian city, he took the opportunity to be alone and didn’t try to reunite with her. Erzsi, instead of going back to Budapest, went to Paris where she stayed with a friend. There she became sure that she was tired of following all the conventions of a bourgeois life. That had been the reason why she had married Mihály. But through her he had been trying to become a conformist himself. So, she had to decide what to do in the future, considering that they had married each other for conflicting reasons.
Throughout the book, there is a believable portrayal of various ambiances and locations. Not only a real sense of terror is conveyed when necessary, but there are also many effortlessly funny moments. I couldn’t help but smile when Mihály met some people for the first time and while certain characters were struggling to decide what they really wanted from their lives, for example. And, although the majority of the story is set in Italy, there are also events taking place in Budapest and Paris.
Another theme addressed in the novel is the conflict between superstition and rational explanations. Ellesley, one of Mihály’s new friends, despite being a doctor, believed in the power of the supernatural. He told him a story that left Mihály suspicious and that made the plot move forward.
My main complaint about the book is that some of the supposedly casual meetings felt forced and not accidental at all. As the paths of certain characters had to cross in order for the plot to move forward, the author found not fully believable ways for them to meet. Nevertheless, the characters’ inner struggles are compelling, and it was interesting to follow them while they were deciding who they were and what they wanted to do in the future.