I love reading a first novel. Sure, it might not be quite as refined as an author’s later work, but there’s something so thrilling about its pizzazz, the energy of a stream of creativity unleashed for the first time. (I feel a Top Five First Novels might be coming on…)
The Pendragon Legend is Antal Szerb’s first novel. He wrote it in 1934 but it was translated into English – wonderfully, although, knowing no Hungarian, who am I to say? – by Len Rix for the brilliant Pushkin Press just seven years ago.
Why is it that saying I’ve just read something Hungarian sounds so high-brow? In fact, on the face of it, The Pendragon Legend is easy peasy, gripping and very funny too. It felt like Tintin for grown-ups, full of scrapes and adventures, improbable kidnappings and ghoulish apparitions.
Dr János Bátky is a young Hungarian studying in London. At a soiree, he meets an Earl and it transpires that they are both interested in the same – pretty esoteric – Rosicrucian histories. The Earl invites him to stay in his Welsh castle, where there is a formidably good library:
I was filled with the tenderness I always feel – and which nothing can match – when I encounter so many books together. At moments like these I long to wallow, to bathe in them, to savour their wonderful, dusty, old-book odours, to inhale them through my very pores.
Booklovers will, of course, know exactly what he means.
Things get a little fishy as soon as Bátky receives the invitation. He gets a threatening phonecall, picks up a questionable hanger-on, and is asked to delivery a mysterious ring. Everything gets yet weirder at the castle, when the cartridges are removed from his revolver, and there is a great deal of unnerving activity at night.
Bátky struggles to reconcile his rational, scholarly mind with the bizarre other-worldly events that are taking place. He reflects:
The single most eerie thing about our planet is that there are no such things as ghosts. For this, as for everything else, there must be a rational explanation, but it has always escaped me. What, for example, is one supposed to do, at midnight, when a giant mediaeval figure that is not a ghost is standing before your bedroom door?
In this instance there is a perfectly logical explanation. As Osborne, the Earl’s nephew, reassures Bátky the next morning:
An ancient ruling requires the Earl of Gwynedd to maintain thirty night-watchmen, complete with halberds, wherever he resides. Even their garments are prescribed. There’s nothing unusual in that. Britain is full of these old mediaeval statutes. Anyway, thirty men with halberds are a great deal more practical than the knights in armour Lord Whatsisname has to keep permanently at the ready.
Later on, Bátky struggles again to describe strange night happenings:
There are some things that are only true at night. There was no way I could have discussed them. I would have been ashamed to. One is ashamed of the incomprehensible, the irrational, as though it were a form of mental illness.
And again, later, he says:
There are some things that have an inner truth, but become nonsense when spoken. It just isn’t possible to explain … We live simultaneously in two worlds, and there are two levels of meaning. One can be understood by everyone, the other is beyond words, and is utterly horrible.
Throughout the novel there is this dichotomy between the everyday world – the love affairs, friendships and adventures – and the mysterious nocturnal happenings, which no one can quite get a handle on. It was a dichotomy I noticed in Susan Hill’s The Small Hand too – that ghost story became all the more affective for its psychoanalytical ramifications.
Here, it’s not clear what this other world is. There are hints of Freud, such as when Bátky is wandering through the endless dark corridors of the castle ruins and remarks that he has often dreamed of the same thing. In some respects, it is the world of tradition – evident in the old English rulings that demand servants wearing strange costumes. Perhaps, also, this other world is myth. Like Frankenstein, The Pendragon Legend is a retelling of the Prometheus myth – of what happens when man tries to reach beyond his mortal power.
That this was written in 1934, the year that Hitler became Führer, and that Szerb was murdered in a forced labour camp in 1945, gives this myth a chilling resonance. Behind all the exciting adventure, Szerb gives a prescient glimpse of the pure evil that would spread through Europe: ‘beyond words … utterly horrible’. How could there be a rational explanation for the horrors that were beginning to unfold?
This is the sinister and terrible edge to The Pendragon Legend. And yet, the balance is perfect. The horror gleams threateningly but is masked by a romp of an adventure, and acute, funny observations about the British that only a European could make. It has left me itching to read more from this wonderful Hungarian novelist, whose formidable talent was so tragically cut short.