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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 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: "I have always been very afraid of people. I have always been introspective, and I have always been a loner."

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 the University of Budapest, where he studied Hungarian, German and English, obtaining his Ph.D. in 1924. While at the university, he fell in love with Dóra Schultz, whom he dedicated a poem entitled 'Violaine.' Schultz became later a teacher and artist.

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 Jeno 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." 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". 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 Széphalom and Minerva, a Geistesgeschichte periodical. Budapesti útikalauz marslakók számára (1935), an essay on landmarks of Budapest, drew from Szerb's love and encyclopedic knowledge of the cultural history of his native city. " Believe me," Szerb wrote, "those who really know this town can only speak of it with tears in their eyes." Szerb's essays were posthumously collected in Gondolatok a könyvtárban (1946) and A varázsló eltöri pálcáját (1948).

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 emphasized that Hungarian literature is a part of European trends and currents in miniature, and argued that "Hungarian values are European values; the European-Hungarian does not have to turn away from his Hungarian origin." 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.

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 review, his early writings appeared under the name Antal Kristóf Szerb. 

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 and Rosicrucian secrets. The protagonist, Szerb's alter-ego Dr. János Bátky, also appeared in such short stories as 'St. Cloud, egy kerti ünnepélyen' and Madelon, az eb'. A Pendragon legenda combines different types of stories—gothic, fantasy, detective story, et cetera—and plays with the concept of misperceptions on numerous levels.

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. 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, 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," Szerb wrote in his final letter.

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: Generation West: Hungarian Modernism and the Writers of the Nyugat Review by Agnes MacDonald (2009); The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature by Lóránt Czigány (1984); A History of Hungarian Literature by István Nemeskürty... et. al (1983); 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
  • Az ihletett költo, 1929
  • Magyar preromantika, 1929
  • Vörösmarty-tanulmányok, 1929
  • Cynthia, 1932
  • Madelon, az eb, 1934
  • A magyar irodalomtörténet, 1934
  • 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 - Martian's Guide to Budapest ( tr. Len Rix, in The Hungarian Quarterly, No 180, Winter 2005)
  • Utas és holdvilág, 1937 - The Traveler (tr. Peter Hargitai, 1994) / Journey by Moonlight (tr. Len Rix, 2007) - film in production, screenplay by Jacob Sager Weinstein, to be directed by István Szabó 
  • A világirodalom története, 1941
  • Hétköznapok és csodák, 1942
  • VIII. Olivér, 1943 (under the pseudonym A. H. Redcliff) - Oliver VII (tr. 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
  • 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

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