Antal Szerb

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The native form of this personal name is Szerb Antal. This article uses the Western name order.

Antal Szerb (May 1, 1901, Budapest - January 27, 1945, Balf) was a noted Hungarian scholar and writer. He is recognized as one of the major Hungarian literary personalities of the 20th century.

Life and work[edit]

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, known in English as 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 novel theory and a book about the history of Hungarian literature. Given numerous chances to escape antisemitic 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 have been 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.[3]

The author, who lived in Hungary in the first half of the twentieth century, is well known for his academic works on literature. In the ten years before the Second World War, he writes two monumental works of literary criticism characterized by a brilliant and ironic style inteded for an adult reader rather than an academic public [4] Beside them, the author works on novellas and novels that still attract the attention of the reader.

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 the three novels with a meta-literararian look.

In the three novels, the stage of the narrative action is always a European country: the space outside the routinarian Hungary allows the writer to transfigurate the unique feats of his characters.

The Pendragon Legend[edit]

In his first novel, The Pendragon Legend, the author offers to his readers a representation of the United Kingdom and its inhabitants. England and, in particular, London, hosted Szerb for a year and suggested to him new and interesting directions for his researches and 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 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 fantastic 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 of the adventures of the Hungarian philologist who serves as the protagonist of the novel.

Journey by Moonlight[edit]

Journey by Moonlight is the story of a couple who splits up during their honeymoon in Italy. In it, Szerb celebretes the exotic cult of Italy, leitmotif of thousand of writers of the past and the present. He does it in his personal way. In the second half of the ninenteenth century, Italy becomes again one of the favourite destinations of the Hungarians. The journeys within the country allows a diverse production of literary works (i.e. diary, novel, poetry) which express the cult of Italy seen as an exotic country. Between the Ninenteenth and the Twentieth, this motif becomes a real fashion in Hungary. In Nostalgie Esotiche, Amedeo Di Francesco[5] talks of this cult at the end of the Ninetieth century as a desire of escaping in literature: the Hungarians are oriented to new latitudes, they speriment in poetry, use a new language, combine form and subject in a different new way. The "Italy" portrayed is the Risorgimental Italy, the art's cradle, the folclorik Italy; an Italy, anyway, that has to be reread and imitated in its modern and desecreting “isms”.

Szerb as well presents his journey in Italy, he does it, as said before, in a novel, but also in an interesting diary The third tower,[6] a diary of his travels in Italy which collects the impression of the author. He visits the cities of the north of Italy: Venice, Bologna, Ravenna, and, before going back home he visits San Marino, Europe's oldest state. It is an important stage for Szerb and "La terza torre", il Montale, gives him the title to the diary. It is divided in paragraphs and alternates descriptions to his personal thoughts.

The Queen's Necklace[edit]

In his last novel, The Queen's Necklace, published in 1943 Szerb took refuge in the past, reproducing the luxury atmosphere of the Ancien Régime French Monarchy in its decline. It re-tells in a new way the story of LeCollier de la Reine Marie-Antoinette. In the tragical but crucial years of the Second World War, Szerb, who changed his creed from Jew to Catholic,[citation needed] died in a Nazi Camp. Looking at all his works, accomplished in a ferocious historical period for Europe, the Hungarian writer showed his passion for literature as his weapon to survive.

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • A magyar újromantikus dráma, 1927
  • A harmadik torony, 1936
  • Az udvari ember, 1927
  • William Blake, 1928
  • Az angol irodalom kistükre, 1929 ("An Outline of English Literature")
  • Az ihletett költő, 1929
  • Magyar preromantika, 1929
  • Vörösmarty-tanulmányok, 1929
  • Cynthia, 1932
  • A magyar irodalom története, 1934 ("History of Hungarian literature")
  • A Pendragon-legenda, 1934
  • Szerelem a palackban, 1935 ("Love in the Bottle", short stories)
  • Budapesti útikalauz marslakók számára, 1935
    • tr.: A Martian's Guide to Budapest (see a detail)
  • Hétköznapok és csodák, 1936 ("The Quest for the Miraculous: Survey and Problematic in the Modern Novel")
  • Utas és holdvilág, 1937
  • Don't say... but say..., 1939
  • A világirodalom története, 1941 ("History of World Literature")
  • VII. Olivér, 1943 ("Oliver VII," published under the pseudonym A.H. Redcliff)
  • A királyné nyaklánca, 1943 ("The Queen's Necklace")
  • Száz vers, 1943/1944 ("100 poems")




  • Pendragonská prisera 1946
  • Pendragonská legenda 1985
  • Tyran 1998





  • Die Pendragon-Legende 1966 ISBN B0000BTJOF
  • Die Pendragon-Legende 1978 ISBN 3-87680-773-5
  • Die Pendragon-Legende 2004 ISBN 3-423-24425-9
  • Der Wanderer und der Mond 1974
  • Reise im Mondlicht 2003 ISBN 3-423-24370-8
  • Das Halsband der Königin 2005 ISBN 3-423-13365-1
  • Marie Antoinette oder Die unbeglichene Schuld (older translation of "Das Halsband der Königin") 1966 ISBN B0000BTJOE
  • Oliver VII 1972 (published in East Germany)
  • Oliver VII 2006 ISBN 3-423-13474-7
  • In der Bibliothek (translation of "Szerelem a palackban") 2006 ISBN 3-423-24562-X
  • Die Suche nach dem Wunder (translation of "Hétköznapok és csodák") 1938



  • La leggenda di Pendragon 1989
  • Il viaggiatore e il chiaro di luna 1999


  • Legenda Pendragonow 1971
  • Podróżny i światło księżyca 1959


  • Prázdny hrob 1972


  • Legenda o Pendragonu 1980
  • Potnik in mesečina 2011


  • El collar de la reina 1941
  • El viajero bajo el resplandor de la luna 2000
  • La leyenda de los Pendragon 2004


See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Tezla, Albert. Hungarian Authors: A Bibliographical Handbook. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1970.
  2. ^ Dalos, György. "Der romantische Aussteiger." Die Zeit, January 22, 2004.
  3. ^ Hungarian Quarterly 49. Society of the Hungarian Quarterly. 
  4. ^ , Poszler György. "Szerb Antal pályakezdése ." Akadémiai Kiadó., 1965.
  5. ^ Di Francesco, Amedeo. "Nostalgie Esotiche. L'Italia nella letteratura Ungherese tra Ottocento e Novecento, in Ungheria letteraria." D'auria editore Napoli, 2004.
  6. ^ Szerb, Antal. "." A harmadik torony "Nyugat, "Budapest", 1936.