This week, in what I hope will become an annual event on my blog, I am posting on works by authors who died in the holocaust, holocaust memorials and historical works. I will loosely define a holocaust as a mass killing of a group of people based on their race, religion, or geographic location. There have been holocausts as far back as recorded history goes and they are still going on today. I know that many more than Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Much of the trouble in the world today was set in motion by the Holocaust.
On January 27, 1945, seventy one years ago, the greatest Hungarian writer of the 20th century, Artal Szerb, was beaten to death in a forced labor camp in Balf, Hungary at the age of forty four. This post is what I can do to honor his memory.
Journey by Moonlight is considered Szerb's masterwork. I was mesmerized by the beauty of the book and spellbound by the powerful intelligence i felt in contact with. The central character of the work is a member of the Hungarian upper class, a bourgeois when that designation actually meant something. He is obsessed, as was the author with Italian civilization and art. He sees but can't quite understand a contrast by the eternal beauty of Italian art and the decay of Italian society under the fascists. This is not an overtly political book at all, Szerb is far to great an artist for that. As Julie Oreinger says in her elegant and perceptive introduction, the book is obsessed with the pairing of beauty and death. There is a conversation between the central character, who loses his wife on a honeymoon trip to Italy, and a professor about the different treatment of death in Italian Catholicism and Germanic religions of the tenth century that I found totally illuminating.
The translation by Lew Rix reads beautifully.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was given this book by the Publisher, The New York Review of Books.
ANTAL SZERB (1901–1945) was born in Budapest into a middle-class family that had converted from Judaism to Catholicism. He studied German and English literature at the University of Budapest, receiving a PhD in 1924. Throughout the second half of the 1920s he lived in France, Italy, and England, where he worked on his first book, An Outline of English Literature (1929). In 1933 he was elected the president of the Hungarian Literary Academy and the next year published his History of Hungarian Literature, called by John Lukacs, “not only a classic but a sensitive and profound description of . . . the Magyar mind.” It was followed in 1941 by a three-volume History of World Literature. In addition to his critical writings, Szerb produced produced many works of translation, and published newspaper articles, essays, reviews, short stories, and novels, of which The Pendragon Legend (1934), Love in a Bottle, (1935), The Third Tower (written in 1936), Journey by Moonlight (1937), Oliver VII (1937), and The Queen’s Necklace (1943) have been translated into English. Having lost his university teaching position as a result of Hungary’s anti-Semitic laws, Szerb was sent to a labor camp, where it is believed he was beaten to death. He was survived by his wife, Klára Bálint, who died in 1992. From the publisher New York Review of Books