Antal Szerb

Last updated
Antal Szerb (c. 1930) Fiatal Szerb Antal.jpg
Antal Szerb (c.1930)

Antal Szerb (1 May 1901, Budapest – 27 January 1945, Balf) was a noted Hungarian scholar and writer. He is generally considered to be one of the major Hungarian writers of the 20th century.


Life and career

Szerb was born in 1901 to assimilated Jewish parents in Budapest, but baptized Catholic. He studied Hungarian, German and later English, obtaining a doctorate in 1924. From 1924 to 1929 he lived in France and Italy, also spending a year in London, England, from 1929 to 1930.

As a student, he published essays on Georg Trakl and Stefan George, and quickly established a formidable reputation as a scholar, writing erudite studies of William Blake and Henrik Ibsen among other works. Elected President of the Hungarian Literary Academy in 1933, aged just 32, he published his first novel, The Pendragon Legend (which draws upon his personal experience of living in Britain) the following year. His second and best-known work, Utas és holdvilág (Journey by Moonlight) came out in 1937. He was made a Professor of Literature at the University of Szeged the same year. He was twice awarded the Baumgarten Prize , in 1935 and 1937. Szerb also translated books from English, French, and Italian, including works by Anatole France, P. G. Wodehouse, and Hugh Walpole. [1]

In 1941 he published a History of World Literature which continues to be authoritative today. He also published a volume on the theory of the novel and a book about the history of Hungarian literature. Given numerous chances to escape anti-Semitic persecution (as late as 1944), he chose to remain in Hungary, where his last novel, a Pirandellian fantasy about a king staging a coup against himself, then having to impersonate himself, Oliver VII , was published in 1942. It was passed off as a translation from the English, as no 'Jewish' work could be printed at the time.

During the 1940s, Szerb faced increasing hostility due to his Jewish background. In 1943, Szerb's History of World Literature was put on a list of forbidden works. During the period of Communist rule, it would also be censored, with the chapter on Soviet literature redacted, and the full version would only be available again in 1990. Szerb was deported to a concentration camp in Balf late in 1944. Admirers of his attempted to save him with falsified papers, but Szerb turned them down, wanting to share the fate of his generation. [2] He was beaten to death there in January 1945, at the age of 43. He was survived by his wife, Klára Bálint, who died in 1992. [3]


Szerb is best known for his academic works on literature. In the ten years before the Second World War, he wrote two monumental works of literary criticism, characterized by a brilliant and ironic style intended for an educated reader rather than an academic public. [4]

In addition, Szerb wrote novellas and novels that still attract the attention of the reading public. The Pendragon Legend, Journey by Moonlight and The Queen's Necklace, for instance, fuse within the plot the aims of the literary critic with the aims of the novel writer. The author gives importance to the exotic in these novels, with a meta-literary outlook. In these three novels, the stage of the narrative action is always a Western European country: leaving quotidian Hungary allows the writer to transfigure the actions of his characters.

The Pendragon Legend

In his first novel, The Pendragon Legend, Szerb offers to his readers a representation of the United Kingdom and its inhabitants. England and, in particular, London, hosted Szerb for a year and not only suggested to him new and interesting directions for his research, but also offered him the background for his first novel. The Pendragon Legend is a detective story that begins in the British Museum and finishes in a Welsh castle. The author provides a non-native's look at the country, in a way that is consistent with the parody genre.

In The Quest for the Miraculous: Survey and Problematic in the Modern Novel , Szerb claims that among the literary genres he prefers the fantasy novel. It fuses the quotidian details of everyday life with the fantastic feats that he calls “the miracle”. In the case of The Pendragon Legend, this allows the reader a cathartic experience through the adventures of the Hungarian philologist who serves as the protagonist of the novel.

Journey by Moonlight

Utas és holdvilág (literally, "Traveler and Moonlight"), published in 1937, focuses on the development of the main character, Mihály - a bright and romantic, albeit conflicted, young man who sets off for a honeymoon in Italy with his new wife, Erzsi. Mihály quickly reveals his bizarre childhood experiences to her over a bottle of wine, alluding to a set of seemingly unresolved longings for eroticism and death which Erzsi seems to only vaguely comprehend. The plainspoken disharmony between the newlyweds leads to Mihály's detached self-recognition: he is not ready to be Erzsi's husband. He then leaves his wife for his own journey through the Italian countryside and eventually Rome - figuratively tracing the sparkling fanaticisms of his juvenile imagination, even rekindling bonds with changed (and some unchanged) childhood friends - all among the impressive foreign landscapes and peculiar liveliness of its inhabitants. Szerb celebrates the exotic cult of Italy, the leitmotif of thousands of writers from the past and present, relaying his own travel impressions of Italy though the mind of his eccentric protagonist, Mihály. Szerb explores the altogether interrelatedness of love and youthfulness within bourgeois society.

The Third Tower

Szerb also published an interesting diary, The Third Tower , recounting his travels to the cities in the north of Italy - Venice, Bologna, Ravenna. [5] Before going back home, he visited San Marino, Europe's oldest state, and Montale (San Marino) inspired the title of the book. The diary is divided into paragraphs which alternate descriptions with his personal thoughts.

Selected bibliography

















See also

Related Research Articles

Pendragon or Pen Draig, is the epithet of Uther, father of King Arthur in the Matter of Britain in medieval and modern era and occasionally applied to historical Welsh heroes in medieval Welsh literature such as Rhodri ab Owain Gwynedd.

<i>Golden Legend</i> Medieval collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Voragine

The Golden Legend is a collection of 153 hagiographies by Jacobus de Voragine that was widely read in Europe during the Late Middle Ages. More than a thousand manuscripts of the text have survived. It was likely compiled around 1259–1266, although the text was added to over the centuries.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hungarian literature</span>

Hungarian literature is the body of written works primarily produced in Hungarian, and may also include works written in other languages, either produced by Hungarians or having topics which are closely related to Hungarian culture. While it was less known in the English-speaking world for centuries, Hungary's literature gained renown in the 19th and 20th centuries, thanks to a new wave of internationally accessible writers like Mór Jókai, Antal Szerb, Sándor Márai, Imre Kertész and Magda Szabó.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Joseph Roth</span> Austrian novelist and journalist

Moses Joseph Roth was an Austrian-Jewish journalist and novelist, best known for his family saga Radetzky March (1932), about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, his novel of Jewish life Job (1930) and his seminal essay "Juden auf Wanderschaft", a fragmented account of the Jewish migrations from eastern to western Europe in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution. In the 21st century, publications in English of Radetzky March and of collections of his journalism from Berlin and Paris created a revival of interest in Roth.

<i>Journey by Moonlight</i> 1937 novel by Antal Szerb

Journey by Moonlight is a 1937 novel by Hungarian writer Antal Szerb. It is among the best-known novels in contemporary Hungarian literature. According to English literary critic Nicholas Lezard, it is "one of the greatest works of modern European literature [...] I can't remember the last time I did this: finished a novel and then turned straight back to page one to start it over again. That is, until I read Journey by Moonlight."

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Elio Vittorini</span> Italian writer and novelist

Elio Vittorini was an Italian writer and novelist. He was a contemporary of Cesare Pavese and an influential voice in the modernist school of novel writing. His best-known work, in English speaking countries, is the anti-fascist novel Conversations in Sicily, for which he was jailed when it was published in 1941. The first U.S. edition of the novel, published in 1949, included an introduction from Ernest Hemingway, whose style influenced Vittorini and that novel in particular.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Frigyes Karinthy</span> Hungarian writer (1887–1938)

Frigyes Karinthy was a Hungarian author, playwright, poet, journalist, and translator. He was the first proponent of the six degrees of separation concept, in his 1929 short story, Chains (Láncszemek). Karinthy remains one of the most popular Hungarian writers. He was the brother of artist Ada Karinthy and the father of poet Gábor Karinthy and writer Ferenc Karinthy.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mihály Babits</span> Hungarian poet, writer and translator

Mihály Babits was a Hungarian poet, writer, essayist, and translator. His poems are well known for their intense religious themes. His novels such as “The Children of Death” (1927) explore psychological problems.

Jacob Sager Weinstein is an American author, humorist, comedy writer, and screenwriter. For three years he was a staff writer for Dennis Miller Live, for which he received a Writers Guild of America award in 2001. Earlier he was a contributor to The Onion, and he has also written for McSweeney's Internet Tendency, the North American Review, and The New Republic.

Len Rix is a Zimbabwe-born translator of Hungarian literature into English, noted for his translations of Antal Szerb's Journey by Moonlight and The Pendragon Legend and of Magda Szabó's The Door and Katalin Street.

<i>The Pendragon Legend</i> 1934 novel by Antal Szerb

The Pendragon Legend is a 1934 novel by the Hungarian writer Antal Szerb.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Frank Thiess</span>

Frank Thiess was a German writer.

Oliver VII is a 1942 novel by Antal Szerb. The first English translation was published in 2007. In the book, the restless ruler of an obscure central European state plots a coup d'état against himself and escapes to Venice in search of ‘real’ experience. There he falls in with a team of con men and ends up, to his own surprise, impersonating himself. His journey through successive levels of illusion and reality teaches him much about the world, about his own nature and the paradoxes of the human condition.

Big Read is the Hungarian version of the BBC Big Read.

Pendragon is a Welsh word meaning "head dragon".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Peter Hargitai</span> Hungarian-American poet, author, and translator

Peter Hargitai is a poet, novelist, and translator of Hungarian literature.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Peter Sherwood</span> British Professor of Linguistics (born 1948)

Peter Andrew Sherwood is a British Professor of Linguistics, who was born in Hungary, and left the country with his family after 1956. He is a writer, editor, translator and lexicographer and as the Laszlo Birinyi Sr., Distinguished Professor in Hungarian Language and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">László Németh</span> Hungarian writer

László Németh was a Hungarian dentist, writer, dramatist and essayist. He was born in Nagybánya the son of József Németh (1873–1946) and Vilma Gaál (1879–1957). Over the Christmas of 1925, he married Ella Démusz (1905–1989), the daughter of János Démusz, a keeper of a public house. Between 1926 and 1944 they had six daughters, but two of them died in infancy. In 1959 he visited the Soviet Union. In the last part of his life he lived and worked in Tihany. He died from a stroke on 3 March 1975 in Budapest and was buried in Farkasréti Cemetery, Budapest, where he shares a grave with his wife.

<i>The Pendragon Legend</i> (film) 1974 film

The Pendragon Legend is a 1974 Hungarian thriller film directed by György Révész and starring Zoltán Latinovits, Iván Darvas and Teri Tordai. It is based on the 1934 novel The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb. It was shot at the Hunnia Studios in Budapest.

When a work's copyright expires, it enters the public domain. The following is a list of works that entered the public domain in 2016. Since laws vary globally, the copyright status of some works are not uniform.


  1. Tezla, Albert (1970). Hungarian Authors: A Bibliographical Handbook. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  2. Dalos, György (January 22, 2004). "Der romantische Aussteiger". Die Zeit (in German). Archived from the original on 2021-08-28. Retrieved 2020-01-18.
  3. "Antal Szerb". New York Review Books . Retrieved 2015-11-23.
  4. Poszler, György (1965). Szerb Antal pályakezdése[The beginning of Antal Szerb's career] (in Hungarian). Akadémiai Kiadó.
  5. Szerb, Antal (1936). A Harmadik Torony (in Hungarian). Budapest: Nyugat.