Despite my best efforts at revealing a lot of personal information about myself on this blog, most people don’t understand me at all. It’s not for lack of trying, they inquire about my life’s story, they spend days talking with me, they use psychoanalysis. But they never leave their own world. Because I live in a different world, they can’t understand me, try as they might. Most people just cannot imagine that someone is free of almost all bourgeois dreams and fears, that he doesn’t seek or need anything materialistic, that he is happiest when alone and that the conventional definition of success has absolutely no meaning for him.
Then there are the rare occasions when I read a novel and I think to myself that a particular fictional character would understand me. And I almost shudder at the thought that a real person, the author, is behind that fictional character. But so far, these authors have all been dead by the time I read their books.
Journey by Moonlight by Hungarian writer Antal Szerb is one novel that had this effect on me.
Mihály leaves his wife a few days into their honeymoon and goes off to explore Italy. Very soon he realizes that not only has he no desire to return to Budapest and the job at his father’s company, but that this is such an undesirable prospect that it simply isn’t an option anymore.
He knew that there was no going back. The whole horde of people and things pursuing him, the lost years and the entire middle-class establishment, fused in his visionary consciousness into a concrete, nightmarish shape. The very thought of his father’s firm was like a great steel bar raised to strike him.
His life would begin anew, not as it had been during all the wasted years. Incipit vita nova.
Mihály is so fixated on remembering, reliving and in a way returning to the happy days of his youth that he seeks out – and finds – his friends from that time. After decades have passed, these encounters naturally lack the satisfaction sought from them.
On this point, I am actually the opposite, for I am good and quick at laving things and people behind. I am a much more forward-looking person who thinks that a new experience is worth much more than doing the same thing again, even if I don’t know if the future will be better. It’s enough that it will be different.
But I find my views expressed very well in the words of Waldheim, a scholar whom Mihály encounters in Rome:
Anyone who isn’t actually stupid ought to study, in the interests of his soul’s salvation. It’s the only thing worth doing. […] To spend your time doing anything else, like working in a commercial company, for a man who isn’t totally stupid, I’ll tell you what that is: affectation.
An intelligent person doesn’t have a spiritual life.
I have always thought that I should come with certain warning labels. In Journey by Moonlight, I have discovered the perfect description of my attitude which frustrates women in particular and makes relationships almost impossible:
He did not understand her since it never occurred to him that people other than himself had an inner life in which he might take an interest.
Apart from that personal resonance, I find the book very erudite and beautifully written. It is equally a feast for the brain and the soul. Although Journey by Moonlight has become one of my favorite novels, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, though. The plot is rather constructed with the coincidental encounters with long-lost friends piling on top of each other implausibly. And if you hate people like me, then you might dislike the protagonist as well.
Antal Szerb died at age 43, in a death so unfitting for such a marvelous writer, yet so symptomatic for the time he lived in. In January 1945, he was beaten to death by guards at Balf concentration camp in Hungary.