The Third Tower (Pushkin Press, 2014, 112 pp., 416)
Antal Szerb, the Hungarian writer and literary critic, was someone who delighted in highlighting the ironic juxtaposition of scholarship and practical life. The hyperliterary Szerb liked to describe himself as having been born as an “infant with glasses,” and his works, like the History of Hungarian Literature, which brought him renown in the 1930s, were imbued with a witty and urbane tone capable of bringing humor to even the most esoteric of topics. In one of his novels a professor chastises a middle-class businessman for never pursuing his scholarly interests: “You had to go for something practical, considering all the supposed necessities of a wealthy person . . . even you realise that these supposed necessities aren’t real.” But as political extremism advanced across Europe during the 1930s and 40s, a nonchalant confidence in the value of European high culture in the face of “supposed necessities” was becoming harder to maintain.It was in August 1936 that Szerb, a Budapest native of assimilated Jewish stock, took his last trip to Italy. Spain, he wrote, was experiencing “the most horrific summer in all its history,” with the government battling a military insurrection and its resorts in flames. Mussolini’s Italy, though totalitarian, was still open to the traveler. “From time to time history seems to forget a particular city or citadel—a Nuremberg, an Oxford, a Toledo—tucked away behind its back,” Szerb wrote. “But this is mere absentmindedness: a signal arrives, and amid wars, revolutions, catastrophic upheaval and the hammer blows of progress, its impermanence is laid bare.” This mood of uneasy distraction hovers over The Third Tower, Szerb’s brief travelogue of his Italian journey—all the more so for the reader who knows that the hammer-blows of history would deliver Szerb to death under the jackboots of concentration camp guards in 1945. But in 1936 travel was still possible, and Italy opened itself up to the solitary Hungarian.The Third Tower traces Szerb’s journey from Venice to Vincenza, Verona, Lake Garda, Bologna, Ravenna, and Trieste. His essayistic style skips easily from observations of the people and places he sees to historical concerns, comments on contemporary events, and personal impressions. The book is filled with short glances at Italian customs (“Evening in the Piazza”) and mordant, self-deprecating comments on social norms (“Confessions of a Bourgeois”), but also traces the emotional arc of his trip, which spans from initial enthusiasm to final resignation.To travel with Szerb is to have a charming and erudite guide, one who is nearly intoxicated by being in Italy. The very alleyways of Italy, he claims, represent to him “what gardens were to the age of Goethe, and what ‘Nature’ was to the Romantics. . . . Under the influence of these little passageways I experience an altered state so deep I simply cannot regard it as the sort of emotion you would expect from a historically minded person.” Italy is filled with almost overpowering resonances, overlaying real life with historical and literary allusion: A panorama of the Venetian lagoon is “the amo-amas-amat of the beauty of landscape and the works of man”; a waiter laying down hundred-Lira bills “counts out the great centuries of Italian history onto the table: trecento… quattrocento… cinquecento.” Always present in Szerb’s mind are the ghosts of history, of the kings and emperors and artists of the past. Thinking of Goethe, Keats, and Shelley, he remarks that “so many of the events that shaped that Northern psyche took place in this part of the world.” He recalls the extravagant, violent urban dynasties that built palaces and sheltered Dante in Verona. The layered residua of classical Rome, Byzantium, Germanic invaders from the north, the Renaissance, and the 18th century are always just beneath the surface.“Why do I always invoke these petty tyrants?” Szerb asks himself. Well, there were plenty of them in 1936, too. Szerb reports a mood of potent popular enthusiasm for the Fascist regime. “Here in Italy, only magnificent things occur . . . everyone is thoroughly contented. When you get into conversation with people on the train, you hear only the same stereotypical phrases that you read in the papers.” Szerb’s relationship to the crowd is ambiguous. Although frustrated by social attitudes regarding “the supposed necessities of a wealthy person,” he clearly retains some of the class prejudices of early 20th-century Europe. Thrown into a lower-class milieu, he reacts with a sort of panic, becoming with paralyzed with acute class-consciousness, and cursing himself for accepting a hotel room that his father never would have set foot into. But then he accuses himself of “entrenched snobbery,” declaring, “I loathe nothing in the world more than the sense of bourgeois superiority.” Ultimately, the man accompanied by the specters of Dante and Goethe and surrounded by the teeming energy of propaganda and mass politics is content to remain above the fray. “It quite astonishes me how little I miss human company. . . . Anything I really want to say is committed to a notepad.”For Szerb’s admirers, The Third Tower will be particularly interesting for its relation to his masterpiece, Journey by Moonlight, a 1937 novel that features another feckless Hungarian bourgeois wandering alone in Italy, experiencing almost mystical transcendence in the narrow alleyways of Venice, and standing in awe before the mosaics of Ravenna. Len Rix, the novel’s English-language translator, explains that it was pressed into his hand by a Hungarian friend who told him, “Every educated Hungarian knows and loves this book.” The novel came to prominence in the Anglophone world with Rix’s 2001 translation, published by Pushkin Press to enthusiastic reviews. Since then, Pushkin press has been bringing out translations of Szerb’s other novels, stories, and non-fiction writings, like his account of the famous diamond necklace affair in ancien régime France. Rix is a brilliant translator; his versions of Szerb’s works are charming and funny, and so deft that they never feel like translations. (Those who want proof of his gift may unearth a copy of Peter Hargitai’s infelicitous 1994 translation of Journey by Moonlight under the title The Traveler, which features such incomprehensible choices as leaving a William Blake poem in Hungarian.)Anyone who loves Journey by Moonlight should read The Third Tower, though the travelogue can only reveal so much about the novel. Journey by Moonlight is a novel about a young man whose life of bourgeois propriety has only barely tamed the yearning for profundity that defined the friendships of his youth. His titular journey is made in the half-light of a world that simultaneously accepts and rejects him, as the poet François Villon expressed in his poem Ballade du Concours de Blois, which provides the book’s first epigraph. It is a novel centered on the passions of youth; we know from Szerb’s papers that the first drafts of the novel were written as early as 1919. In contrast, The Third Tower is concerned with the search for maturity. Whether it achieves this is uncertain. As he reaches the end of the book, Szerb reflects on the war between fascism and communism in Spain, and on all the previous historical struggles between “the Byzantines and the Goths, East and West, Orthodox and Arian (Arians/Aryans: the names echo, as if history were making a pun).” Szerb sees a sort of synthesis in Italy’s history: “Rome became neither Arian nor Greek Orthodox, but Roman and Catholic. Perhaps today too there is still hope (pray for this, venerable St. Athanasius and all you anti-heretical Early Church Fathers!) that once again a third power should come victoriously between the two.” And finally, looking down on the plains of Romagna from the third tower of San Marino, in a state of profound solitude, Szerb feels for the first time that he is “happy in the archaic sense of the word, according to which no child can be said to be happy: a replete happiness, containing everything.”This revelation is muted and obscure, an unconvincing attempt at a satisfying conclusion. Szerb seems like a depressed person trying to force himself to be happy. “I am tired. And perhaps I don’t love Italy all that much. Just as, it seems, I don’t love anyone or anything ‘all that much.’ Even myself I can no longer love as tenderly and attentively as when I was younger.” In a tragic way Szerb seems to embody the moribund Mitteleuropean intellectual culture, refined to the point of delicacy and being eclipsed by the forces of totalitarianism and war. He is completely aware of the historical tragedy that awaits Europe and himself, and, with the benefit of hindsight, so is the reader. In this light, Szerb’s question of whether the development of history and the achievements of great artists and leaders can provide a synthesis, “a replete happiness, containing everything,” would be all too easily answered in the negative. But this is a question of interest to anyone who wants to defend the value of education, cultivation, and erudition against the inexorable advance of mass society.It is a beautiful and charming book, and a short one. If you pour yourself a glass of wine and put on Bach’s Partitas for solo violin you can read it in little more than an hour. You will encounter not only Venice, Verona, Bologna, Lake Como, and Ravenna, but also a mind searching for personal solace among the crowds of modernity and ruins of antiquity. And as in Bach’s Partitas, each short development of the theme brings with it something new and fascinating, something sometimes sad and sometimes arrestingly beautiful.