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I, János Bátky, Hungarian citizen, come face to face with Englishness, Welshness and Irishness

February 24, 2012 20 comments

The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb. 1933 French title: La légende de Pendragon; translated into French by Natalia Zaremba-Huszvai and Charles Zaremba. 

Antal Szerb is a Hungarian writer of Jewish origin. He was born in 1901 in Budapest and died in 1945 in a camp, killed by Hungarian fascists. I discovered The Pendragon Legend when Max reviewed it here.

János Bátky is a Hungarian scholar who lives in London and he’s the Narrator of this novel. It’s 1933, our Narrator attends a party and is introduced to the eccentric Lord Owen Pendragon, Earl of Gwynedd. They have a common interest in esoteric and occult books. The count invites him to Gwynedd, his castle in Wales. It’s a rare opportunity, the castle’s library is filled with rare and ancient books and Bátky is excited to put his hands on original rarities. Before going, a mysterious phone-call warns him not to go. If curiosity doesn’t kill the cat, it threatens our Narrator’s life as he becomes involved with a strange family, drawn to legends and mysticism. The novel is an odd mix of detective story, gothic tale and social autopsy. A dangerous cocktail for a writer but the barman Szerb is a master and it’s excellent.

More than the plot of the novel, I loved Bátky’s subtle sense of humour and Szerb’s deciphering of Britishness. Max wrote a spot-on entry about János Bátky’s guide to romance and indeed the novel points out several times the difference between continental and British attitude toward love and sex. The book is full of ironic notes, aphorisms, little remarks about the UK. Here is Bátky sleeping in the family castle in Wales and feeling uncomfortable in his room:

En tout cas, j’allumai la lumière. La chambre était encore de deux cents ans plus historique que lorsque je m’étais couché. J’avais déjà vu de telles chambres dans des musées londoniens ou des châteaux français, mais toujours avec des étiquettes et des guides pour suggérer ce qu’il faut imaginer, Napoléon faisant les cent pas les mains croisées dans le dos ou une dame maigrichonne à côté de son rouet.

Anyway, I switched on the light. The bedroom was two-hundred years more historical than when I went to bed. I had already seen that kind of room in London museums or French castles but they always had tags and guides to prompt what to imagine. Napoléon pacing across the room with his hands behind his back; a skinny woman beside her spinning wheel.

Part of the book’s charm comes from this and I really appreciated that the translators scattered the text with English words such as Well, All Right, Dear Me, or I say. It enforced the feeling of being in Great Britain and reminded me all the time that Bátky was a foreigner there. Remember how I had problems saying Anthony Trollope? That was piece of cake compared to Gwynedd, Llianvygan, Abersych or Pierce Gwyn Mawr because I can’t even imagine how it’s supposed to sound. Some words seem bound to be photographed rather than said aloud. That said, I downloaded a sample of the English translation and I wonder if the French version isn’t even wittier than the English one:

Ses yeux étaient plus vifs que l’Angleterre disciplinée ne le permet d’habitude. Le sujet devait être pour lui le sujet des sujets.

The fervour in his eyes was certainly un-English. The subject was clearly close to his heart. (Translated by Len Rix.)

The literal French would be His eyes were brighter than usually allowed by disciplined England. The subject must have been THE subject.

Apart from the exquisite irony, Szerb is a wonderful writer when it comes to nature and lanscapes. His descriptions of the Welsh wilderness are beautiful, lots of greenery very few sheep, he mustn’t have visited the same places as me. Here is an example, if you can, read the French, the English is my translation.

Quand nous montâmes en voiture, il faisait déjà nuit. Le vent furetait impatiemment entre les arbres de la forêt que nous traversions et, de temps en temps, la pleine lune montrait son grand visage rougeoyant. A ces moments, on pouvait voir la fuite sauvage, exaltée mais néanmoins silencieuse, des nuages vers l’est.

It was already dark when we got into the car. The wind was impatiently snooping between the trees of the forest we were driving through and from time to time, the full moon showed up her big red- glowing face. In these moments, one could see clouds wildly but yet silently fleeing towards the East.

Picturesque, isn’t it?

For who reads this blog regularly, the novel will sound out of my usual path. That’s true. But that’s precisely the joy of blogging, being tempted by books I would never have picked on the shelf by myself. Thanks Max!

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