Charles Hebbert on Antal Szerb, SF Issue 69

Love at First Sight

Share this

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

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

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.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Distraction-free
reading mode