translation by Len Rix, 2000
[Budapest in the 1920s]
Eva somehow or other got herself into the officers’ set. She knew various languages and her manner was somehow not typically Hungarian but more cosmopolitan. I know she was very much in demand. She went, from one day to the next, from a little adolescent girl to a stunning woman…
Eva needed money so that she could make her exquisite appearance among the exquisite people. She was very clever at sewing herself elegant things out of nothing, but even that nothing costs a little something...
[There was] a grand ‘do’ out of doors somewhere, in a then fashionable summer inn… There were several of us present - Eva’s friends, two or three foreign officer, some young inflation-millionaires, some strange women, remarkably daring for those times in their dress and general behaviour…The whole city had [a sense of impermanence], it was in the air. People had a lot of money and they knew that it made no difference: it might vanish from one day to the next. The sense of impending disaster hung over the garden like a chandelier.
observations: Eva is the kind of character you feel has turned up in too many books – the mysterious adorable woman, childhood love of the hero, someone who will pop up in his life at all the wrong times, but always to mess him up, never to make him happy. These characters (always written by men) tend to be annoying, unreal and have no internal consistency. But the rest of the book makes up for her. Journey by Moonlight is, apparently, a modern classic of Hungarian literature. For me, it helped that I had no idea what was going to happen or what kind of book it was. It starts with a Hungarian couple on their honeymoon: ‘the trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.’ Things start to go wrong: Mihaly becomes accidentally (?) separated from his wife by climbing on the wrong train, and we follow him as he wanders around Italy wondering what to do and thinking about his past and the group of friends (as in the passage above) he knew so well many years before in Budapest.
The book is discursive, and often very funny on such subjects as the sentimentality of Italian cooking, and the ‘correct’ size for a hill – ‘tailored to the human form.’
“Do get on with the story” as Erzsi – his wife – says impatiently near the beginning.
You would never know what was coming next – a visit to a monastery, an art student in Perugia, a lie about Leonardo da Vinci. Everything is described wonderfully well, and the translation seems very good. The book is confounding, in a good way.
The book does have similarities with some others: and Eva is like Yvonne in Le Grand Meaulnes, Daisy in The Great Gatsby, and – particularly – Micol in Garden of the Finzi Continis. There was one lovely description relating to her:
Love preserves one moment for ever, the moment of its birth. The beloved never ages. In love’s eye she is always seventeen, her dishevelled hair and light summer frock tousled for the rest of time by the same friendly breeze that blew in the first fatal moment.
-- which made me forgive him for the standard-character-ness of Eva (and her Adam-and-Eve name).
It is a lovely worthwhile book, one that should be better known: it has a European charm and sweetness about it.
The pictures are from a film promotion magazine of the 1920s.