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Szerb, Antal

(1901–1945), novelist, critic, and literary historian. Like a number of modern Hungarian literary artists of Jewish origin, Antal Szerb saw himself as a Hungarian writer only, with no significant ties to Jewish culture and religion. Indeed, his only connection to the Jewish people was that he was killed as a Jew. Some of his close writer friends and contemporaries (e.g., György Sárközi, Gábor Halász, László Fenyő), however, were also assimilated Jews, or converts to Christianity, who became victims of the Holocaust.

Szerb first made a name for himself as the author of a still widely read history of Hungarian literature (Magyar irodalomtörténet [Hungarian Literary History]; 1934), in which he is conspicuously silent on the religious or ethnic background of Jewish-born Hungarian writers, even in the case of poets and novelists in whose works it would have been perfectly legitimate to point out Jewish influences. Szerb may well have been responding to surveys of literature, published in the race-conscious 1930s, that interpreted literary works almost exclusively in terms of their authors’ racial origins. Influenced by modern critical theories and seeing Hungarian literature very much a part of European literature, Szerb in the early 1940s produced a history of world literature as well (A világirodalom története [A History of World Literature]; 1941), which is notable for its daring insights and felicitous style.

Szerb began writing fiction in the early 1930s, though these works are not so much novels as displays of wit, erudition, and, invariably, a dash of fashionable mysticism. A Pendragon legenda (Pendragon Legend; 1934) is part ghost story, part whodunit. A királyné nyaklánca (The Queen’s Necklace; 1941) is an attempt to combine science and literature. His most ambitious novel, Utas és holdvilág (Journey by Moonlight; 1937), has recently been published in a new, superb English translation; no Hungarian novel of that period has been as well received in the English-speaking world. Considered a whimsical, frivolous romp with an ominous ending when first published in Budapest, Journey by Moonlight has been rediscovered abroad, and acclaimed as an extraordinary tour de force, “one of the most joltingly astonishing books written in the twentieth century or perhaps ever” (Simon Schama). Although the novel is set in Italy, its characters are a group of young, hypersensitive, and vulnerable Hungarian intellectuals whose restlessness, wanderlust, and expectation of “miracles” remind one of Szerb and his circle, who were themselves brilliant, displaced, secular or Christianized Jews finding solace in art, erudition, and mystery on the eve of a catastrophic war.

Suggested Reading

Lóránt Czigány, The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature (Oxford and New York, 1984), pp. 439–440; Tibor Wágner, ed., Tört pálcák: Kritikák Szerb Antalról (Budapest, 1999).