I was drawn into the story from the beginning as I followed the protagonist, Mihaly on a spontaneous escapade from his bourgeois life, as well as his newly-wed wife, while on a honeymoon in Italy, a land that he had always dreamt of visiting. The novel is full of twists and turns as it switches back and forth between his bohemian teenage years, a dreary life of endless conforming to his milieu in Budapest, and the present-day drama and discovery with two women playing supporting roles alongside Mihaly.Fluctuating between turbulent feelings – from passion to anger, despair to hope, nostalgia to confusion – Mihaly travels through Italy: Starting in Venice and its busy Grand Canal, narrow alleys and omnipresent gondolas; admiring the intricate Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna and passing through the Tuscan region by rail; arriving in Perugia, traversing the rural hilly landscape, past medieval villages; then there was beautiful Siena before the rest of the story unravels (mostly) in Rome and its working-class Trastevere neighbourhood by the Tiber. I enjoyed how Szerb unveiled each place through Mihaly’s eyes and thoughts. Having visited most of them, except for Perugia, all the more I could vividly imagine Mihaly in these unfamiliar settings.
Reading Journey by Moonlight is akin to going through a dramatic travelogue set in Italy, interspersed with some scenes in Paris, Budapest and London. Regarding the latter, I was struck by this bleak observation from Mihaly: In London November isn’t a month, it’s a state of mind. Having yet to visit London in November nor spend a prolonged period in the English capital, I wouldn’t know. Do you?
Then there was Szerb’s description of Paris as the place that people travelled to, “as people often do when they have no hopes or plans but wish to start a new life”, which struck a chord and made me smile. Interestingly, there was even a brief mention of my motherland, Singapore during a conversation with an English doctor in Perugia!
I didn’t set out to write a book review about Journey by Moonlight but realise that I may have written a little more than I meant to about this excellent novel that I so enjoyed. Check out this glowing review in The Guardian and you may want to read the book right away!What I did mean to highlight in this post about the book is how (physically) beautiful it is. As in, how wonderful it felt to hold the textured paperback in my hands, careful to not bend the spine too much, feeling ever so slightly astonished by how substantial the paper felt between my left thumb and index finger as I turned the pages by the corner, losing myself in the well-paced story set in elegant Monotype Baskerville font.
Perhaps this delight was enhanced by the glasses of white wine that I had at le Tigre, one of my preferred bars in Brussels to hang out by myself, especially on days when I don’t feel like being in the bustling Café Belga. In any case, I can’t wait to start reading the other four books in the Kings of Exile: Works by Antal Szerb collection that were published by Pushkin Press this year!