How I found Journey By Moonlight
I was having a look at my old bookshelf and stumbled across Journey by Moonlight. My sister had bought it for herself and never read it. I was planning on reading another book after The Handmaid’s Tale, but I was – for some reason – very called to read this book instead. Perhaps, as lame as it sounds, the cover art pulled me in.
Journey By Moonlight is translated to English from Hungarian. I have never read a Hungarian author before. From what I know about translated books, I feel that the book has likely lost some of it’s lyrical power through the translation. The book is easy enough to read but is not my favourite of 2020, for sure.
Journey by Moonlight begins with Mihaly and Erzsi’s honeymoon in Italy. Mihaly has spent the majority of his life trying to avoid the conventions of everyday society but discovers that by marrying Erzsi, he has plunged right into them. The fear of conforming coupled with the obsession he has with his schools friends, particularly Eva and her brother Tamas, who mysteriously died introduces an emotional collapse.
Midway through the honeymoon, Mihaly decides to ‘accidentally’ desert his new bride in order to – what we would say – find himself. He wanders the streets of Rome and travels to the lesser known parts of Italy. By chance he finds his old friend Ervin, a Jewish convert to catholicism, who spends much of his adult life as Father Severinus. Ervin instructs him to return to Rome.
Meanwhile, Erzsi too is discovering herself. The deserted bride retreats to Paris and finds comfort in her friends and that attentions of other men, including Mihaly’s childhood friend and rival, Janos. As the novel unfolds, both Mihaly and Erzsi explore and see themselves for who they truly are.
All the characters in Journey By Moonlight are a little bit bizarre. A lot of the times they are unlikable, especially Mihaly. In many ways he is in his own ‘eat, pray, love’ journey, but the problem is he seems unable to carry any kind of responsibility. He is that same boy who spent so much of his time in the Ulpias house (Tamas and Eva’s home), stuck in a grown man’s body.
Eva is the beautiful girl and then the beautiful woman who enchants any man that happens to be around, including her brother Tamas. She and her brother would play act together and their plays always included passion, violence and death (a lot of the time in that order). Mihaly and indeed Janos and Ervin, all had to take part in these plays. Eva scars all of these young men in one way or another.
Janos is the brute con artist that is always trying to outdo Mihaly. Ervin cannot have Eva so he too escapes the conventions of society (even smoking) by becoming a monk. Tamas is the tortured soul that finds no solace in the world.
Pop Culture and Themes
Journey By Moonlight is old. Published in 1937 and at a time when people communicated via letters (that is bizarre in itself), it tells the tale of a different time. However, there is still quite a lot to unpack in the novel.
What resonated with me is Mihaly’s desperate search for meaning and distaste for the mundaneness of living among the living. The idea of meeting life’s traditional rites of passage – getting a job, marrying and starting a family, carrying responsibility – all seem to terrify Mihaly as well bore the living daylights out of him. He spends a lot of time roaming alone and avoiding human interaction – I think a few of us can identify with that.
I’ve also spent a bit of time reflecting on my own prejudices and preconceptions. I do think that, in a lot of ways, Mihaly does go on an ‘eat pray love’ journey but I found myself really off put by it at times. The notion that a man should desert his wife on their honeymoon and commit to nothing other than fleeing his responsibilities is unsavoury to me. At the same time, society puts just as much pressure on men as it does on women. Perhaps sometimes men need a break too. And this character definitely seeks that break out.
The quote from Journey By Moonlight below sums up Mihaly’s desire to escape from the pressures of reality that I can relate to:
The whole horde of people and things pursuing him, the lost years and entire middle-class establishment, fused in his visionary consciousness into a concrete, nightmarish shape.
Ratings and Recommendation
Journey By Moonlight is unlike any novel I’ve read before. If you want to try something very different to how books in the English language generally flow, give it a go.