Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Queen's Necklace

I've just finished working on a wonderful Pushkin Press title: The Queen's Necklace, by Antal Szerb. It is the first Szerb book that I have had the pleasure to read, and it won me over within a few pages. It's a history of the notorious Affair of the Diamond Necklace – a scandal that rocked the French Royal Court in the years preceding the Revolution.

Szerb's approach is relaxed, and he takes great pains to avoid stuffiness, with the result that the work is distinctly more playful than your average history, and far more enjoyable. At times his evident erudition, love of pan-European culture and deeply sympathetic humanism remind me of fellow Pushkin-Press author Stefan Zweig. The book is made even more of a pleasure to read by Len Rix's extremely impressive translation, which allows us to forget it is a translation at all. He also gives us a very interesting translator's note – so interesting in fact, that I will now quote it almost in its entirety here:

"Antal Szerb’s English readers might be surprised that a writer they know only as a novelist should, at the height of his powers, have turned his attention to history. They might equally feel that not all the explanations he offers for this change of direction tell the full story. When he informs us that ‘since the age of four, whether you believe this or not, dear reader, his single greatest interest has been in history’, we must believe him, and the remark certainly rings true when placed against certain passages in Journey by Moonlight. But such enthusiasms rarely lead to full scholarly studies on this scale. There must be more to it than this.

In his Foreword he offers other suggestions. First, he ascribes the shift to ‘the times we live in’, and this does seem to make sense, those times being 1941–1942, when history, in a rather more pressing form, had begun to show an interest in him, or rather, in his once-irrelevant Jewish descent. So when he adds that the first duty of any historian is to describe the past of his own country, it would seem reasonable to expect a book about wartime, oppression, or indeed the Hungarian past. Ah, but you see, he continues, there are two periods—the Italian Renaissance and the French Revolution—that were so seminal they can be thought of as part of the common European inheritance; the latter of course being the more pertinent to his own times. True again. But perhaps more telling is the subsequent remark that, with the world closing in on him, the past had become, as he puts it, ‘my home, or rather my country of refuge’.

The significance of all this becomes clear if for the Italian Renaissance we read high European civilisation, and for France the birth of human freedom. By 1941 both were staring into the abyss. To go on writing this book amidst the degradation all around him was—as it had been with the defiantly insouciant novel (Oliver VII) he had just finished—to make a very clear statement: a celebration of those values that mattered to him most. And with his own identity as a Hungarian, and indeed as a human being, under attack, it was also an affirmation of his deepest sense of himself.

This might also explain why he poured into it not only the vast mass of material he had gathered over the years, in the great libraries of Paris ‘now closed to me for the indeterminate future’, but also the full range of his literary experience—as poet, essayist, reviewer, literary historian and novelist. That experience was central to his sense of who he was, and was determined to remain. The resulting many-sidedness makes it a highly personal document, and is the source of its great
strength and charm.

For some readers, however, that might also make a problem. Serious historical arguments, based on political, social, constitutional and economic data, are not usually presented in such an apparently freewheeling manner, with the lightness and gaiety, the irrepressible playfulness, that characterise this book. Could anyone having so much fun really be serious?

The objection was a familiar one. It had been applied to his work many times before, not least to his (still used, and still highly regarded) histories of Hungarian and World Literature;and he deals with it directly:

People in this country expect scholarly works to be unreadable; from which they are led, quite logically, to the erroneous conclusion that anything that is readable cannot therefore be scholarly. A great many critics have reproved the relaxed, often slightly mocking, tone of my books, insisting that I cannot possibly respect literature if I talk about it in such a cheerfully familiar way.

But he remains unrepentant. His way is ‘to speak as one human being to another, looking to find kindred spirits and good company’.

His notion of ‘good company’ means treating the reader like an old friend, a congenial companion with whom he is sharing a relaxed conversation, without the slightest pressure in the world. Thus he defers the decisive ‘action’ to Chapter Five, turns aside for two further chapters, revisits it briefly, then regales us with an Intermezzo that sets off in the general direction of Sweden before returning, very gently, by way of a great many other curiosities. Topics covered elsewhere in the writing include a history of the changing fashions in clothing, manners, music, theatre and landscape gardening. These ‘digressions’ occupy a significant part of the book. Unlike most accounts of this period, we get no demagoguery, no Robespierre, no tumbrils, no guillotine. The reader, he tells us, already knows about all that.

Such an attitude might also reflect a sensitive person’s unwillingness to face up to the savagery, the gratuitous cruelty and carnage that ensued—especially as these had so dramatically resurfaced in the immediate world around him. On the other hand, what Szerb does give us spares us none of the greed, folly, cynicism and selfishness that mark every human age. But in the end, they too are not his final concern. There are dimensions of experience that interest him beyond the world of politics and the mechanics of social change.

And so we get the Epilogue, with its quite unexpected stress on what Talleyrand called ‘the sweetness of life’.

The reader might well be left with the impression that the final hours of the Ancien Régime were care-worn and oppressive, a “moral wasteland”, a time of drought before the storm, and he would perhaps be glad not to have lived then. Which would be quite wrong. To have been alive then must have been to experience one of the most delightful of European centuries.

There follows yet another ‘digression’, about the (then as now) somewhat unfashionable paintings of Watteau and Fragonard, and it too confirms, if we ever doubted it, what
an intensely personal document the book is; what a naked expression of the writer’s own mind and sensibility. We are back in Mihály’s world of Journey by Moonlight.

With a kind of dreamlike intensity, (these) works conjure up in our souls the eternal myth of the great woodlands: mighty trees, tiny human and animal figures; the trees bent in sorrow, the men and women depicted beneath them existing in a kind of superhuman joy that almost succeeds in making their baby faces seem serious: a joy that, like music, is almost painful … The viewer is filled with a rich, complex yearning, an intense desire to know their secret, their unspoken mystery, a desire to return to the woodland world that is sweeter than anything in this life; and finally, the desire for something—one knows not what—that great and inexpressible nostalgia which truly creative art awakens in the soul.

At which point the real Antal Szerb steps forward.

And then it begins to dawn on one: this age was as beautiful as the most finely worked lace; as a piece of Sèvres porcelain with its timeless charm and fragile delicacy; as the noble oozings of the Tokai grape, full and rich with sweetness; as the autumn air in Hungary, when the reddening leaves are scented with the inexpressible sweetness of death.

The Queen’s Necklace bristles with such unexpected moments. Its blend of the orthodox and the eccentric, the objective and the intensely personal, the formal and the seemingly irresponsible, results in a work that, he concedes, ‘is somewhat experimental, and I am naturally curious to see how it will be received by the public’. Its immediate reception took the form of an instant and total ban; but with time, and in spite of its disconcerting charm and readableness, it has come to take its place in his native Hungary along with his great scholarly works, the histories of Hungarian and World Literature. One can only hope that in the anglophone world, where Szerb is known only as a novelist, albeit a fine and subtle one, it will both broaden and deepen our understanding of this highly original writer.

Len Rix, February 2009."

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