Saturday 23 August 2014

Bonassola, Liguria.

We first came here 23 years ago. We rented a piccolo appartamento in the main square for a week in  early October. The beach was warm and quiet. I read Borges' Seven Nights and Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey through France and Italy. This time, our fourth or fifth visit, on a very busy but eminently watchable beach, it's my third or fourth reading of Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb.

This morning, sitting on a bench in the square eating a peach – was it just before or just after or during the first bite? – I had a rush, almost tearful, of nostalgia. Does nostalgia always arrive before its content or cause, in this case, perhaps, the adventure of the first time we were here, near the start of our three-month journey down Italy and back?

Nostalgia and yearning are meat and drink in Journey by Moonlight, as well as the wry weakness that allows them in the first place. As I read I also yearn for the nostalgia of the narrator's exalted youth with Éva and Tamás (whose nearly parentless existence is reminiscent of Les Enfants Terribles) up in the Buda hills, with its sense of permanent removal from the currency of everyday life. Borrowed nostalgia is a complicated, and, some might say, indulgent emotion.

Early on in the novel, on his honeymoon in Venice, Mihály tells his new wife about his friendship with Éva and Tamás and  two other friends, all of whom, including Tamás who killed himself, haunt the novel's peregrinations in Italy and Paris. Marriage, after this, is little more than a taunt from the facts of bourgeois life and the future he avoids. Telling your past does not relieve nostalgia; if anything it intensifies with the exposure to alien air.

As they journey through Tuscany Mihály asks: 'Tell me, why do I feel as if I spent part of my youth among these hilltop towns?' 'You're daft', says his new wife. 'She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihály had secrets even from himself, and 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.'

Journey by Moonlight – none of this could be told in the light of day – echoes the great upheaval of Europe, and particularly Jewish Europe, in the 1930s; the sense that life is elsewhere or never to be experienced again; a hungry dependence on language: 'just to say the name Siena gives me the feeling that I might stumble across something there that would make everything all right'; expectation of release: 'he was filled with the happy feeling that he did not have to be where the important things happened'. Though he did, both he the narrator and he the writer. 'The facts were stronger than he was', he says on the last page of the novel, heading back to Budapest and work in his father's firm.

Antal Szerb died in a labour camp in 1944 at the age of 43.

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