I kicked off this year’s travel reading challenge with Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight (1937). It was given to me as a Christmas present and let me tell you, I couldn’t put it down.
Written by one of Hungary’s greatest twentieth century novelists, Journey by Moonlight follows Mihály, a bourgeois young man from Budapest who does a runner, leaving his new wife while on their honeymoon in Italy. Yea, bit of a dick move. Becoming for all intents and purposes a penniless vagrant, Mihály roams Italy, caught up in the melancholic nostalgia for his bohemian youth and the friends who still haunt him to this day.
Although at times so overly dramatic and nostalgic that I just wanted to give him a good shake, I couldn’t help but be drawn to Mihály. He’s a man running from conformity, running from a life that’s been planned for him since birth. He’s a man living in the past, living in a time when life and death seemed to be one and the same, and the ancient ruins and superstitions surrounding him in Italy reflect this darker side of his youth.
Philosophy and religion and death stalk him, and he sees it lurking in everything around him. But there is also this almost brutish desire to live, to cast off the shackles of society and run screaming into the wilderness. To throw yourself in harms way and come out the victor.
Since I had just been to Hungary, I really got the sense that this book captures the essence of the Hungarian experience. Of the death and destruction and nostalgia for better times. But also the hope that one day things will get better, that maybe this time we can find contentment with our place.
Being on my own travelling journey, I saw many of my own struggles and concerns spilled across the crisp pages of this eighty year old tale. The aimless wandering, the nostalgia for childhood friends, the disenchantment with your place in society. This slow-burning book will linger with you well after the last page.
Are we doing a star rating thing? Ok sure, let’s do a star rating thing:
4 1/2 out of 5