I hadn’t intended for Antal Szerb’s debut novel to be my final read during Pushkin Press Fortnight – it was meant to be his second, Journey by Moonlight. However, Gaskella had such fun with this, I decided to bump it up the TBR.
Let me say from the off, I didn’t have quite as much fun as Gaskella. I found the darker undercurrents not only perturbing, but at odds with its farcical tone and its Carry On sexism. As a result I wasn’t sure exactly how to approach the book – as a comedy or as a philosophical work about the darker side of man’s desires and spirituality.
Janos Bátky, a Hungarian scholar who specialises in occult Rosacrucian texts, is invited by the Earl of Gwynedd to study the rare manuscripts, that are in his possession. Without further ado, Bátky finds himself making the acquaintance of some very dodgy characters – George Maloney, who attaches himself in, of all places, the reading room of the British Museum, and a certain Mrs St. Claire, who gives him a ring to pass onto the Earl. Turns out Bátky has placed himself at the centre of a plot to kill the Earl and under more than a soupçon of suspicion …..
When he gets to Wales, events take a sinister and gothic turn. The Earl evades another attempt on his life but refuses to go to the police. A mysterious torch-brandishing horseman gallops around at night, and the crypt beneath Pendragon castle reveals an empty tomb. Folklore, or the Pendragon legend, has it that this is Asaph Pendragon, the original Rosacrux, who rises from his sleep to defend his legacy in times of great danger. And then an assassin falls from a balcony, his neck broken before he ever hits the ground …
At which point, Bátky finds himself sent back to London to retrieve a manuscript for the Earl. The assassins seek to recruit him by fair means and femme fatale. The cat and mouse chase – the mouse being the Earl – continues for so long that I felt nothing of any consequence was to come of it. Then suddenly a child is abducted, the implication being a child sacrifice is needed. What for? I was never quite sure because devilry was involved and it was time to skim.
Thus I lost the plot – no, sorry, the thread, and chose to remain lost as the novel came to a dark and violent denouement, completely at odds with the light-hearted and witty romp that forms its core. It’s generally accepted that this novel is a satirical blend of gothic and romantic genres, crossed with murder mystery. But – to quote from the blurb – beneath the surface, the reader becomes aware of a steely intelligence probing moral, psychological and religious questions, or as Janos Bátky explains:
There are some things that have an inner truth, but become nonsense when spoken …. We live simultaneously in two worlds, and there are two levels of meaning. One can be understood by everyone, the other is beyond words, and is utterly horrible.
A more curious mix, I never did encounter.