Julie Orringer at The Millions:
In August 1936, the thirty-six-year-old Hungarian writer Antal Szerb—acclaimed both for his fiction and for his influential History of Hungarian Literature—traveled to Italy for what he suspected would be the last time. The journey was a romantic farewell, the coda of a long obsession with the country, its art, its history, its people, its language, its ancient towns, and their narrow back streets. Szerb had lived in Italy as a young man, between 1924 and 1929, and the place had never relinquished its hold on him. “I initially wanted to go to Spain,” he wrote in his 1936 travel journal, “…but it occurred to me that I simply must go to Italy, while Italy remains where it is, and while going there is still possible. Who knows for how much longer that will be; indeed, for how much longer I, or any of us, will be able to go anywhere? The way events are moving, no one will be allowed to set foot outside his own country.” (He may as well have said, particularly no one of Jewish origin; though baptized a Catholic, he was the son of Jewish parents and was conscious of the growing threat Europe’s Jews faced.) His sense of urgency was, of course, prescient: within a few years a trip like the one he undertook in 1936 would indeed have become impossible. But the unusual combination of obsession, urgency, clear-eyed judgment, and foreboding that drew him to Italy helped to shape the brilliant and surprising work he produced on his return to Hungary:Journey by Moonlight, one of the most indelible novels of Szerb’s troubled century.