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Antal Szerb (1901-1945)


Hungarian novelist, critic, essayist, and translator, who wrote arguably the most brilliant history of Hungarian literature, A magyar irodalomtörténet (1934). Antal Szerb's international fame is based on his fiction, A Pendragon legenda (1934, The Pendragon Legend) and Utas és holdvilág (1937, Journey by Moonlight), both playful examples of his idea that novels are rooted in the world of miracles. Szerb was killed in the forced labour camp at Balf in January 1945, a few months before the liberation of Hungary.

"It's not the cold passionless ones who become great ascetics, but the most hot-blooded, people with something worth renouncing. That's why the Church won't allow eunuchs to become priests." (from Journey by Moonlight, 1937, translated by Len Rix)

Antal Szerb was born in Budapest into a middle-class family, the first son of Elza Herzfeld and Károly Szerb, the manager of the Globetrotter travel company's Budapest branch. His cosmopolitan Jewish parents had converted to Catholicism and also Szerb baptized as a Catholic in infancy. From his early teens, Szerb was interested in literature, but when his classmates read Karl May's book, he devoured European classics, from Goethe to Balzac and Freud. In his diary he wrote in November 1918: "I have always been very afraid of people. I have always been introspective, and I have always been a loner..." (Generation West: Hungarian Modernism and the Writers of the Nyugat Review by Agnes MacDonald, 2009, p. 219)

After graduating in 1919 from the Piarist Gimnázium, a Catholic high school, Szerb went to Graz, Austria, to polish his German language skills. He then entered Loránd Eötvös University in Budapest, where he studied Hungarian, German and English, obtaining his Ph.D. in 1924. One of his tutors was Arthur Yolland, who worked also as a tennis trainer and published English-Hungarian and Hungarian-English dictionaries. While at the university, Szerb fell in love with Dóra Schultz, whom he dedicated a poem entitled 'Violaine.' Schultz became later a teacher and artist. But Szerb's greatest love was Klára Lakner. When she turned him down, he married Klára's younger sister Lilla Lakner in 1925. The marriage ended in divorce.

Szerb's dissertation dealt with the poet and politician Ferenc Kölcsey (1790-1838), whose poem 'Hymnusz' became the national anthem.  Before pursuing a career in teaching, he studied for a period dramaturgy at the Comedy Theatre in Budapest under his uncle Jenő Faludi. With the support of grants, Szerb spend in the following years much time in the libraries of France and Italy. While in Paris he met the young Simone de Beauvoir, who recalled him as "a very charming, humorous and intelligent man, who knew French and English literature, and the entire culture of Western Europe like only a Central European could." (Generation West: Hungarian Modernism and the Writers of the Nyugat Review by Agnes MacDonald, 2009, p. 225) In 1929-30 Szerb was in London, working there on his monograph of English literature.

To earn his living, Szerb worked as a teacher of English and Hungarian language, but literature was his real calling. Szerb once confessed, that as far as he could remember, his passion had always been reading and writing: "I was the spectacled kind of baby". ('A Holocaust Victim's Forgotten Masterpiece Is Finally Available in America' by Becca Rothfeld, The New Republic, October 24, 2014)  Szerb started his career as a writer with poems. His essays, written in an elegant and witty manner, covered such diverse subjects as the Hungarian Preromantics, Blake's visions, Ibsen, Georg Trakl, and Stefan George.

Many of Szerb's articles were published in the literary journal Széphalom, Új Idők (New Times), and Minerva, a Geistesgeschichte periodical. Budapesti útikalauz marslakók számára (1935, A Martian's Guide to Budapest) was an essay on landmarks of Budapest: "One fine day a Martian turned up in Budapest, took a room in the Bristol Hotel, brushed the stardust from his suit and telephoned to inquire if I might show him round the town." The short sketch drew from Szerb's encyclopedic knowledge of the cultural history of his native city. Usually Szerb spent part of the day at Central Café in Budapest's downtown. Szerb's essays were posthumously collected in Gondolatok a könyvtárban (1946) and A varázsló eltöri pálcáját (1948). A major theme is that Hungarian  values are European values and that Hungarian culture belongs to the grand narrative of European culture.

Szerb's slim history of English literature, Az angol irodalom kistükre (1929), was followed by his major scholarly works. A magyar irodalomtörténet, which did not focus on biographical data, advocated the lighter essay form as a vehicle for the study of literary history. Szerb saw that "Hungarian literature is the miniature copy of European literature." ('Antal Szerb's The Queen's Necklace: A "True Story" of Cross-Cultural Intersections in Hungarian Literature' by Ágnes Vashegyi MacDonald, in Worlds of Hungarian Writing: National Literature as Intercultural Exchange, edited by András Kiséry, Zsolt Komáromy, and Zsuzsanna Varga, 2016, p. 115) The three volume A világirodalom története (1941), a highly readable and lively synthesis of the history of world literature, was inspired by Spengler's culture morphology, Freudian theories, and the ideas of the Geistesgeschichte School, which regarded art and literature of an age as expressions of the same creative spirit. Szerb argued that world literature does not mean all literature ever created:  "Real world literature, we might say, fits into a home library, its volumes can be placed along the walls of a larger home office." ('Antal Szerb's The Queen's Necklace: A "True Story" of Cross-Cultural Intersections in Hungarian Literature' by Ágnes Vashegyi MacDonald, in Worlds of Hungarian Writing: National Literature as Intercultural Exchange, edited by András Kiséry, Zsolt Komáromy, and Zsuzsanna Varga, 2016, p. 116)

At the age of 32, Szerb was elected president of the Hungarian Literary Society and in 1937 he was appointed privat-docent at the University of Szeged. Szerb was twice awarded the prestigious Baumgarten Prize, in 1935 and again in 1937. Szerb's translations from English, French and Italian include Anatole France's Thais, W. Somerset Maugham's Theatre, Johan Huizinga's The Waning of the Middle Ages, and works by Edgar Wallace, J. B. Priestley, and P. G. Wodehouse.

In 1938 Szerb married Klára Bálint (1913-1992), the daughter of the Hungarian-Jewish writer and Nyugat journalist Aladár Bálint. In Nyugat, Hungary's leading humanistic-cosmopolitan literary journal, his early writings appeared under the name Antal Kristóf Szerb. The journal was the vehicle for the popularization of English literature. Szerb's short story 'Ajándok's Betrothal' (1922), introducing one of his many towers in his fiction, was published Nyugat while he was still a student.

Szerb's first novel, A Pendragon legenda, tells of a mild-mannered, stoical Hungarian scholar, who encounters an amazing diversity of eccentric characters in London and Wales, and gets involved in mysterious events,  Rosicrucian secrets and the legend of the Holy Grail. The protagonist, Szerb's alter-ego Dr. János Bátky, also appeared in such short stories as 'St. Cloud, egy kerti ünnepélyen' (A Garden Party in St Cloud) and 'Madelon, az eb' (The Dog Named Madelon). A Pendragon legenda combines different types of stories – gothic, fantasy, detective story, et cetera – and plays with the concept of misperceptions on numerous levels. The name Pendragon refers to King Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon.

Utas és holdvilág, which is a union of an essayistic travel book and a journey into the self, tells of a businessman, Mihály who is on honeymoon in Italy with his wife Erzsi, whom he soon abandons. Mihály's disillusionment and nostalgic search of the times lost leads him to contemplate death obsessively. "Just think, dying is so much more easy and natural than staying alive. . . ." The story conveys a sense of end-of-an-era, but has a surprisingly light tone. Mihály's mood veers from irrational confidence to hopelessness, but at the end he accepts that he lacks the inner strength to committ suicide – he too would live: "like the rats among the ruins, but nonetheless alive."

During WW II, Anglophilia united a number of Hungarian intellectuals. Noteworthy, Szerb's bilingual poetry anthology Száz vers (1943-1944), which was published after Hungary had joined the Nazis in the invasion of the USSR, thinly veiledly refused to yield to the German totalitarianism with its pro-English sympathies.

Szerb's last novels were Oliver VII (1943), about the King of Alturia who has an identity crisis, and A királyné nyaklánca (1943), an ironic story revolving around the famous scandal of Marie Antoinette diamond necklace. Oliver VII, which appeared under the name A. H. Redcliff, slipped its way past censors because it was published as a translation from English.

In 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary and began exterminating Hungary's Jews. Szerb, who had been dismissed from his post and whose books were banned, including his History of Hungarian Literature and History of World Literature, was sent to dig trenches at Balf. Due to his family background, Szerb was required to wear a yellow star. "I have no more hope left, except that the war will end soon; this is the only thing that keeps me alive," Szerb wrote in his final letter, dated December 6th, 1944. "It is getting dark now and I am really not in the mood to write more. All of you, have faith that we shall see each other soon, and love your poor Toni." ('Voice, History and Vertigo: Doing Justice to the Dead through Imaginative Conversation' by Nigel Rapport, in The Craft of Knowledge: Experiences of Living with Data, edited by Carol Smart, Jenny Hockey and Allison James, 2014, p. 114) 

High-ranking officers of the Hungarian military attempted to have Szerb released from the camp, but he refused to leave without his friends, the literary historian Gábor Halász and the writer György Sárközi, who eventually  perished in Balf, too. According to some sources, Szerb was killed by his own countrymen and buried on January 30, 1945. When his body was exhumed in 1946, Klára Szerb found his glasses and parts of the manuscript to Száz vers in the pockets of his overcoat. Szerb's remains were buried in the Kerepesi Cemerery.

A memorial was erected two years later in Balf, with a quote from Antal Szerb: "A szabadság nemcsak egy nemzet magánügye, hanem az egész emberiségé is" (freedom is the concern not only of one nation but of all mankind). Following her husband's death, Klára worked at the Institution of Adult Education and then at the Bibliographical  Department of the Institute of Literature in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Her son, János Szerb (1951-1988), a poet, committed suicide in Vienna. With the Hungarian writer Sándor Lénárd, who lived in Brazil, she kept up a correspondence for many years.  

For further reading: 'Translator's Introduction' by Len Rix, in Love in a Bottle and Other Stories by Antal Szerb (2013); 'The Image of Britain in Antal Szerb's Works' by Azuzsa Fülöp, in A tűnődések valósága - The Reality of Ruminations  edited by Borbély Judit & Czigányik Zsolt (2010);  Generation West: Hungarian Modernism and the Writers of the Nyugat Review by Agnes MacDonald (2009); 'The Writer Who Believed in Miracles: Antal Szerb 1901– 1945' by György Poszler, in Hungarian Quarterly, Volume XLII. No. 167. Autumn (2002); The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature by Lóránt Czigány (1984); A History of Hungarian Literature by István Nemeskürty... et al. (1983); 'Szerb, Antal' by G.G. [George Gömöri], in Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Szerb Antal by A. Poszler (1973) 

Selected works:

  • A magyar újromantikus dráma, 1927
  • Az udvari ember, 1927
  • William Blake, 1928
  • Az angol irodalom kis tükre, 1929 [A Brief History of English Literature]
  • Az ihletett költo, 1929
  • Magyar preromantika, 1929
  • Vörösmarty-tanulmányok, 1929
  • Cynthia, 1932
  • Madelon, az eb, 1934
  • A magyar irodalomtörténet, 1934 [History of Hungarian Literature]
  • A Pendragon legenda, 1934 - The Pendragon Legend (translated by Lili Halápy, 1963) / The Pendragon Legend (translated by Len Rix, 2006) - Pendragonin legenda (suom. Juhani Huotari, 2008) - film 1974, prod. MAFILM Budapest Filmstúdiói, dir. György Révész, starring Zoltán Latinovits, Iván Darvas, Teri Tordai, Béla Timár, Judit Halász, Marianna Moór
  • Szerelem a palackban, 1935
  • Budapesti kalauz marslakók számára, 1935 - A Martian's Guide to Budapest (translated by Len Rix, in The Hungarian Quarterly, No 180, Winter 2005)
  • Utas és holdvilág, 1937 - The Traveler (translated by Peter Hargitai, 1994) / Journey by Moonlight (translated by Len Rix, 2007) - film in production, screenplay by Jacob Sager Weinstein, to be directed by István Szabó 
  • A világirodalom története, 1941 [History of World Literature]
  • Hétköznapok és csodák, 1942
  • VIII. Olivér, 1943 (under the pseudonym A. H. Redcliff) - Oliver VII (translated by Len Rix, 2007) - TV film 1969, dir. Tamás Rényi, starring Iván Darvas, György Bárdy and Marianna Moór; film 2001, prod. Duna Televízió, Filmplus, Hunnia Filmstúdió, dir.  József Pacskovszky, starring Péter Nagy, Éva Kerekes and Zsolt László  
  • A királyné nyaklánca, 1943 - The Queen’s Necklace (translated by Len Rix, 2009)
  • Száz vers, 1943-1944 (editor)
  • Gondolatok a könyvtárban, 1946 - Reflections in the Library: Selected Literary Essays 1926-1944, 2018 (edited by Zsuzsanna Varga; translated by Peter Sherwood)
  • Madelon, 1947
  • A varázsló eltöri pálcáját, 1948
  • Szerelem a palackban, 1963 - Love in a Bottle: Selected Short Stories and Novellas (translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix, 2010)
  • A fehér mágus: elbeszélések, 1999
  • Szerb Antal válogatott levelei, 2001
  • Reflections in the Library: Selected Literary Essays 1926-1944, 2018 (edited by Zsuzsanna Varga; translated by Peter Sherwood)

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