Author(s): Antal Szerb
An NYRB Classics Original The trouble begins in Venice, the first stop on Erzsi and Mihaly's honeymoon tour of Italy. Here Erzsi discovers that her new husband prefers wandering back alleys on his own to her company. The trouble picks up in Ravenna, where a hostile man zooms up on a motorcycle as the couple are sitting at an outdoor cafe. It's Janos, someone Mihaly hasn't seen for years, and he wants Mihaly to come with him in search of Ervin, their childhood friend. The trouble comes to a head when Mihaly misses the train he and Erzsi are due to take to Rome. Off he goes across Italy, wandering from city to city, haunted and accosted by a strange array of figures from the troubled youth that he thought he had left behind: There are the charismatic siblings, eva and Tamas, whose bizarre amateur theatricals linked sex and death forever in his mind; Ervin, a Jew turned Catholic monk who was his rival for eva's love; and again, that ruffian on the motorcycle. Antal Szerb's dreamlike adventure, like Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita," is an intoxicating, utterly individual mix of magic, madness, eros, and menace. In the words of the critic Nicholas Lezard, "No one who has read it has failed to love it."
Antal Szerb (1901-1945) was born in Budapest into a middle-class family that had converted from Judaism to Catholicism. He studied German and English literature at the University of Budapest, receiving a PhD in 1924. Throughout the second half of the 1920s he lived in France, Italy, and England, where he worked on his first book, "An Outline of English Literature "(1929). In 1933 he was elected the president of the Hungarian Literary Academy and the next year published his "History of Hungarian Literature," called by John Lukacs, "not only a classic but a sensitive and profound description of . . . the Magyar mind." It was followed in 1941 by a three-volume "History of World Literature." In addition to his critical writings, Szerb produced many works of translation, and published newspaper articles, essays, reviews, short stories, and novels, of which "The Pendragon Legend" (1934), "Love in a Bottle" (1935), "The Third Tower "(written in 1936), "Journey by Moonlight "(1937), "Oliver VII" (1937), and "The Queen's Necklace "(1943) have been translated into English. Having lost his university teaching position as a result of Hungary's anti-Semitic laws, Szerb was sent to a labor camp, where it is believed he was beaten to death. He was survived by his wife, Klara Balint, who died in 1992. Len Rix is a poet, critic, and former literature professor who has translated five of Antal Szerb's books into English, including the novels "The Pendragon Legend" and" The Queen's Necklace," and most recently, the travel memoir "The Third Tower." In 2006 he was awarded the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize for his work on Magda Szabo's "The Door "(forthcoming from NYRB Classics). Julie Orringer is the author of "The Invisible Bridge," a novel, and "How to Breathe Underwater," a collection of stories. Currently at work on a novel about Varian Fry, Orringer is a 2014-15 Guggenheim Fellow and a recent Radcliffe Fellow. Her work has been translated into fifteen languages and widely anthologized, and her first novel is being adapted for film by the director Lajos Koltai. Inquiry into her family history revealed that her grandfather, Andrew Tibor, a Hungarian forced-labor conscript, served at the same camp where Szerb died in 1945.