Antal Szerb - The Pendragon Legend

Rating 7.8

'Tell me,' he asked, with some embarassment, as we strolled along: 'you're a bloody German, aren't you?'
'Oh, no. I'm Hungarian.'
'What's that? Is that a country? Or you are just having me on?'
'Not at all. On my word of honour, it is a country.'
'And where do you Hungarians live?'
'In Hungary. Between Austria, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia'.
'Come off it. Those places were made up by Shakespeare.'
And he roared with laughter. 

(from The Pendragon Legend, page 31)

I lived with Hungarians. I worked with Hungarians. I drank with Hungarians (and no less than Hungarian homemade palinka!). Boy, I even went punting with Hungarians. 

And yet, all that I recall from the fascinating Hungarian language is two words: hupikék törpikék.
Which sounds just lovely when you hear it and it's an excellent icebreaker speaking with your average 
beautiful Miss Polyglot, but, in fact, means 'Smurfs'. Now you know it: go and conquer parties!

How did I come across Antal Szerb? No idea. 
But what I know is that The Pendragon Legend' turned out to be a serendipity of a book. I was looking for a mere gothic novel in the wake of Poe and Machen and, this book - to some extent - is a gothic novel, but that's not all. There is much more here and Szerb managed to mix plenty of sweet and sour ingredients with an excellent final result.  

Now, how can I describe this?
There is this certain Young Frankenstein mood in The Pendragon Legend, so much that I expected  Frau Blücher to pop up, but dismissing this novel as a parody would be unjust. 
There is a quintessentially British sense of humour bringing P.G. Wodehouse and the early Evelyn Waugh in mind, but nonetheless Szerb pokes fun at Englishmen, Scots, Welshmen and Irishmen from the continental point of viewof Janos Batki, 'Doctor of Philosophy specialised in useless information'.

Batki is a Hungarian academic in London toying with his rather obcure research in 'English mystics of the Seventeenth century'. Having no impelling economic problems, he spends a good deal of his time in the Reading Room of the British Museum, under the very same dome that plays such an important role in New Grub Street by George Gissing and The British Museum is Falling Down by David Lodge.

Not so here. Batky will leave London and his vague studies at the British Museum behind in the pursuit of intellectual curiosity. An invitation from the distinguished Earl of Pendragon (a man 'with a remarkably handsome head' but charged of being 'mad has a hatter') will take the Hungarian Phd to Wales where a very funny and very creepy serie of events will happen.  

A scholar of Blake and Ibsen, Antal Szerb spent only one year of his life in the UK. And yet, in such a short time he was not only able to complete a once acclaimed World History of Literature, but also to grasp a lot about Britons and their idiosyncrasies. The Hungarian author was clearly fascinated by Britons and I bet he had great fun while writing The Pendragon Legend which was his first novel.

You can get that Szerb was witty and well-read as well as a man who loved to court women and being playfully seduced by a pretty face. Not your standard academic bookworm, then. 
Quite surprisingly to Janos Batki - Szerb alter ego here - courtship is not an intellectual pleasure, but actually quite the opposite as he firmly believes that beautiful women are not meant to be clever. Worse: beautiful women might be imprisoned to make the world a better place. As you can see, this is a novel where the main character does have some interesting opinions. 
But don't take Antal Szerb wrong, please. He was not a misogynist as the irresistible character of the rubenesque Lene Kretzsch - a modern and sexually liberated intellectual - can prove in this novel. 

Despite of its name The Pendragon Legend has nothing of Arthurian. This is an entertaining romp with some spooky moments, mysticism, cheeky saxophone interludes (if you know what I mean), brilliant dialogues and many a good and sharp observation. Much credit to Pushkin Press and the excellent translation by Len Rix for making this book available to an English reading audience.
As a self proclaimed bookworm I couldn't help but find this novel extremely engaging and a pleasure to read. True, the finale sort of disappointed my expectations, but what came before was brilliant enough. 

All things considered, it's high time I pay my first visit to Budapest.
A Martian Guide to Budapest by Antal Szerb might be of use.
(if you tell me how can I download that).


Penelope Fitzgerald - Offshore

Rating 6.8

Penelope, oh Penelope!

I'm not sure I know how to explain this...
But, please, let me try once for all.

Well...the thing is that I'm afraid there is something missing between us. Something which is left untold, unwritten, unread. Something that doesn't quite fit in the whole picture of a perfect writer-reader relationship.

My impression, Penelope, is that you keep most of your thoughts and emotions for yourself. There's a distance between you and me that I perceive and that I cannot accept.
It's like reading a beautifully written but ultimately cold love letter knowing that who wrote it doesn't want to let me know half of what she really feels. And I don't find it fair. I need to have my feelings involved in a romance to care about it.

Understand, I don't want to break up with you.
I do believe in this literary relationship and I wish to go ahead reading what you wrote. And yet, I think that I should try to stay on my own, far from your novels, for a little while.

Let's talk about Offshore.
When I read what you wrote, Penelope, I can't help but falling in awe with you. I mean, the idea of setting a story among the houseboat people of Battersea Reach in London in the 1960s is a stroke of genius.

I'm aware that you lived on a barge by the Thames yourself for some time and it's clear that you know the milieu you wrote about.
The way you describe the coming and going of the river tide and how it frames and shapes the daily and nightly life of the Battersea Reach community is masterful. On a funny note, the dirty fat cat either chasing or being chased by rats is a lovely touch.

But the characters, Penelope, your characters!
I mean, the human beings. You know, those bearers of words and feelings which are kind of important in a work of fiction despite of its sensational setting. Meat and bone hand in hand with hopes and fears.

How can you genuinely let a 7 year old kid talk like a grown-up?
And don't let me even start with the posh but gallant Viennese teenager stranded on a barge and loving every minute of his Swinging London experience.
Moreover, I've found the idea of calling each Battersea Reach settler with his/her own given name and - sometimes - with the one of their houseboat over the course of the entire novel rather confusing. So much that I've soon lost track of who was who. And whom did what. Which is a major problem in a 150 page book.

In my humble opinion, you could and should have written much more here in order to develop the whole cast of characters as they deserved. Novellas are not necessarily better than novels. And I feel that this is only one of the issues where you disagree with me.

Goodbye, then. Read you later.


King Harold's Doom

Dear Sirs,
I'm the English Possessive
born and bred in four kingdoms
to get lost in transcription
due to illiterate people.

Go ask the young folks
what do they know about me
to get all but a hint
of their insular nonsense
bored and fed in an acronymed land.

Me! That Saxon legacy
once known as a noble apostrophe
able to make a owner and a landlord
out of any given fellow
I, mighty ruler now widely forgotten.

Ladies and Gentlemen,
what have I done to deserve
this daily offense, this bitter end, 
no less than a dull martyrdom?
For just a heirloom I have become.

Truly yours,
The Saxon Genitive.