Charles Hebbert on Antal Szerb, SF Issue 69

Love at First Sight

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At a loose end after university in the 1980s I went to Budapest to learn Hungarian. My teacher gave our group a Hungarian novel from which we studied passages in class. It was a slim book with an enticing cover photograph of the Bridge of Sighs and an intriguing title: Utas és holdvilág – literally, ‘Traveller and Moonlight’.

The opening line lures you in: ‘On the train, everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.’ Mihály and Erzsi are two young Hungarians on their honeymoon in Italy. In Venice Mihály goes off on his own one evening and gets lost in the back-alleys. He is looking for a drink, but even he is not quite sure what kind of drink – which sets the tone for his journey through the book.

The couple then move on to Ravenna: ‘The place smells like a corpse, Ravenna’s a decadent city,’ says Mihály. He and Erzsi are sitting in the main square when a motorbike roars towards them and an old classmate of Mihály’s jumps off. After an awkward exchange the man, a rogue with the satisfying name of János Szepetneki, who has studiously ignored Erzsi, declares: ‘I’m going. Your wife, by the way, is a thoroughly repulsive woman.’ This brutal comment about Erzsi, a ‘well-dressed, attractive woman’, leads to Mihály telling her all about his wild childhood friends, whose shadows fall across the length of the book.

By now I was hooked, and avidly read the rest of the book on my own. However, my thirst to find out what happened outstripped my limited knowledge of the language, so though I raced through the book, enjoying its flow, I missed much of the detail.

Fast forward twenty years, when I read Nicholas Lezard’s ecstatic review in the Guardian of a new translation by Len Rix of Utas és holdvilág, translated as Journey by Moonlight. Opening the book was like returning to a conversation with an old friend. I was transported back to the feelings I had

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About the contributor

Charles Hebbert is an editor and translator. He lived for ten years in Budapest and was a co-author of the Rough Guide to the city. As he plays his accordion, he dreams of translating other fine Hungarian writers from the 1930s.

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