Posts Tagged ‘dreams’

Journey by Moonlight

February 17, 2014

And while there is life there is always the chance that something might happen …

Journey by MoonlightThis is the brilliant final line of Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb. Beginning with ‘And’, ending with ellipses (Szerb’s not mine), the novel doesn’t so much finish as keep on going. It leaves you asking what will be the next coincidence in this wonderful novel of chance, wandering and possibility.

Nicholas Lezard begins his excellent Guardian review saying that once he got to the end of Journey by Moonlight, he went straight back to the beginning. I found myself doing the same. It wasn’t that I wanted to re-read it all, but just to remind myself how it began, to try to join those dots.

The opening is nearly as good as the ending:

On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.

Immediately we know that the book will be about travel – train journeys, wandering through alleys – and about trouble. Szerb explains that his protagonist Mihály is in Italy because:

He was now married and they had decided on the conventional Italian holiday for their start to married life. Mihály had now come, not to Italy as such, but on his honeymoon, a different matter entirely.

So we are introduced to Szerb’s unique lightly ironic tone. He points out the flaws and shortcomings of his characters, but their marvellous eccentricities make it impossible to lose your sense of humour and feel too cross with them. He invites you to laugh at his characters rather than criticise. (One of my favourites is the Hungarian academic, who sleeps all day, has the messiest study imaginable and eats only cold meat so thoughtfully provides a banana as some variation for Mihály when he comes to dinner.) Throughout the novel, however fed up we get with Mihály, we still forgive and indulge him, just as Szerb here points out and forgives his conventional honeymoon.

Mihály finds himself wandering through the Venetian back-alleys all night. He returns to his hotel and finds that he cannot explain himself to his wife:

‘So this is marriage,’ he thought. ‘What does it amount to, when every attempt to explain is so hopeless? Mind you, I don’t fully understand all this myself.’

These wry asides are another feature of the book, which made me want to jot down line after line as the perfect comment on something or another. A real gem is:

November in London is a state of mind.

The scene is set: a new marriage, foundering even during its honeymoon, and a man who doesn’t understand himself. His attempt to understand himself – a great deal of self-reflexive wondering – is translated into his wandering feet, through the back-alleys of Venice and then further afield.

The opening is a metonym for what will happen in the rest of the novel, not only in the way it captures so many elements of Szerb’s brilliant style, but also in terms of plot. Before long, Mihály accidentally gets on a different train to his wife and instead of trying to find her again, continues his Italian wanderings alone. (His wife, meanwhile, goes to Paris, stays with a girlfriend, and becomes involved with a friend of Mihály’s and an enigmatic, tigerish, Persian.)

As Mihály wanders, he is running away from his ‘bourgeois’ present – his conventional honeymoon, his job in the family firm, his whole middle-class life – and trying to return to a period of adolescence when he was friends with a bohemian brother and sister. They used to spend their time role-playing, stealing, pretending to kill themselves and being rather too close to each other. He is haunted by his relationship with them, and the novel is a testament to the power of this nostalgia.

Mihály feels lost as to his future. His wanderings are driven by his desire for this period of his youth. He doesn’t know what to do now or next, wanting only to reconnect with his past. Perhaps this is why we feel the need to go back to the beginning of the book, once we’ve reached its end – its whole drive is pushing back into the past.

You’d have thought this might be problematic in terms of plot and pace – for surely you want to be thinking about the future, what happens next, rather than revisiting past events, but Szerb is very good at keeping us on our toes. It’s a bit like Murdoch’s Under the Net: you’re forever guessing where the protagonist will go next, who’s knocking at the door, or lurking down the alley. Somehow the elaborate chain of coincidences doesn’t feel excessively, annoyingly staged, rather it heightens the eerie dreamy feeling that pervades the book.

Szerb sets up one situation especially self-consciously, pointing out its unlikeliness:

Erzsi’s sense of unreality grew and grew … It was as if everything had been prepared in advance. Of this Erzsi no longer had any doubt.

Erszi realises she’s been manipulated and set-up by her lover. At the heart of this scene, she has an intense moment of self-realisation:

She was sobbing, and horribly tired. This was the moment of truth, when a person sees the whole pattern of their life.

Szerb draws attention to people’s vulnerability to being manipulated into situations, while suggesting that they depend on this manipulation in order to realise a truth about themselves.

It is symptomatic of the whole novel – through a series of remarkable coincidences, Mihály comes to learn about himself. Reality has to become unreal in order to grasp the greater reality. In dreams you encounter more profound truths than in waking life. Szerb uses all his coincidences to give a dreamlike feeling to the book, thereby making it a means to tackle many big truths about the human condition, such as the urge to escape mundane life, the link between sex and death, and the power of nostalgia.

Journey by Moonlight was written in 1937, at a time when Europe’s future looked increasingly bleak. (It certainly proved to be so for Szerb, who died in a forced labour camp in 1945.) It is not so surprising then that it is preoccupied with the past. In many ways it is a love letter to ancient Italian cities, with their rich Roman, Etruscan and folk history (there’s a particularly intriguing bit about Gubbio’s doors of the dead). It is also a celebration of a time when people moved freely through Europe – Hungarians coming to Italy, going on to Paris, meeting Englishmen, Persians, Americans … Szerb catches the experience of travelling through Italy just before everything changed. Incidentally, Pushkin are just about to publish Szerb’s notes on his own travels through Italy, The Third Tower.

I suppose I’ve made Journey by Moonlight sound rather heavy-going, European and serious. It is, but it is also very very funny. It is a brilliant novel – dreamy, witty, picaresque, intelligent, wry … and impossible to sum up.

Nicholas Lezard and Paul Bailey will be talking about Antal Szerb to his translator Len Rix at the Daunt Books Festival (programme here) at 12 noon on Friday 28th March. It’s going to be amazing – unmissable for anyone who is a Szerb fan, and an inspiring introduction for those new to his work. You can book here, if you scroll down a bit.

For more on Szerb, here’s my post on his first novel, The Pendragon Legend.

Antal Szerb

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Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again

June 13, 2011

Well, to be honest, I didn’t actually dream about Manderley. I dreamt that my novel had just been published and it left me with the best feeling ever.

But dreams are funny things. Especially when it comes to writing.

It is probably to ease the monotony of reading a million stories ending with ‘and then I woke up’, but, from a young age, we are instructed by teachers never to write a story that ends with the realisation that it was all a dream.

I suppose it is a huge let-down for the reader. It’s not ideal for them to be dragged into a plot, to empathise with the characters, to believe in what’s happening, only to finish with the anticlimax that none of it was real at all. Of course they know it’s not really real, as it’s a story, but fictional worlds need to have their own version of reality, and being told that it’s not even up to that, is definitely a bit crap.

And yet I can see why using dreams as a device is so tempting. Dreams are incredibly real. As well as being told, as children, not to end our stories with ‘and it was all a dream’, we’re comforted from nightmares by being told, ‘it’s only a dream’. Nightmares can feel so real, can evoke such horrid feelings of terror, that they can be utterly distressing. And, as well as the reality, there’s always something eerily unreal about dreams. Perhaps it’s the combination of the extraordinary – being able to fly, for instance – with the ordinary – looking down from your broomstick and seeing your back garden, or Regent’s Park – that make them so disconcerting and so enchanting.

I’ve written about dreams and poetry here, but I haven’t yet written about dreams and novels. And, when I think about dreams and novels, the first thing that comes to mind is:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

In Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier uses the dream truly brilliantly. And her English teacher wouldn’t have been all that upset, as du Maurier makes it clear from the very fourth word that ‘it’s all a dream’, and the dream only lasts for the first chapter, rather than encompassing the whole story.

In her dream, she is walking along the drive to the house, Manderley, but finds that ‘nature …with long, tenacious fingers’ has taken over the pretty drive to create a nightmarish vision of ‘tortured elms’ and ‘monster shrubs’. As she nears the house:

Nettles were everywhere, the vanguard of the army. They choked the terrace, they sprawled about the paths, they leant, vulgar and lanky, against the very windows of the house.

The house is just about to fall prey to the ravages of nature. Where is James Lees-Milne when you need him?

Then she imagines the house itself, its rooms:

bear witness to our presence … cushions, with the imprint of our heads upon them, lolling in the chairs; the charred embers of our log fire still smouldering against the morning.

Daphne du Maurier opens her novel with a detailed description of a place. And yet this description is within a dream, the dream of Mrs de Winter. While dreams might prey on our subconscious fears – and there is definitely something nightmarish about this particular dream – they can also reveal our desires. It is clear that Mrs de Winter desires Manderley more than anything.

For, as the story unfolds, it is obvious that the rooms won’t bear witness to her presence, for they continue to be haunted by Rebecca. It is Rebecca’s handkerchief that she will find in a coat pocket, rather than, as she dreams, ‘my handkerchief on the table beside the bowl of autumn roses’. Rebecca is everywhere in the house, her elegant initial on everything, her ghost still served by Mrs Danvers the housekeeper.

But why should Mrs de Winter desire Manderley so much, when it is exposed, eventually, as no more than a façade for Rebecca’s terrible sexual exploits? Max de Winter says how wrong his love for Manderley is. He says,

it does not prosper, that sort of love. They don’t preach about it in the churches. Christ said nothing about stones, bricks, and walls.

So why does Manderley still haunt Mrs de Winter’s dreams? Why is it that at the start of the novel, which happens at the very end of the story, Mrs de Winter still wants the house?

Mrs de Winter’s creator was obsessed with Menabilly, the house on which Manderley was based. She was fascinated by it as a child and, later on in life, with her earnings from the Hitchcock film, du Maurier rented it for twenty years.

Blake Morrison in the Guardian (here) manages to turn pretty much every English country house literary myth on its head, but I for one think there is something incredibly special about a grand country house. Bowen’s Court is an astonishing document of Elizabeth Bowen’s love for her ancestral home (more on this here), and for those, like Daphne du Maurier, or Mrs de Winter, or indeed me, who weren’t born into such grand surroundings, in which each wood panel feels redolent of an ancestor’s touch and has a family tale to tell, then it’s easy to see why they might envy it.

And, before one feel quite smugly above all this very passé envy of the aristos, perhaps one should remember how addicted one might have been to Downton Abbey … 

… and dream on.

Dreams and poetry

April 16, 2010

Last night I went to sleep feeling quite anxious. I knew I had to write my blog today and couldn’t think of anything to at all to write about. I soon fell asleep, but the worries must have crept into my sleeping brain, as I had rather a peculiar dream. I dreamt that I would solve the problem of having nothing to blog about by writing a poem and posting it on the blog. However, the only way I could compose the poem was by separating a huge lump of cooked spinach into little rectangular clumps on my plate. The size of each clump represented the length of the line of poetry. It wasvery important to make several clumps of spinach exactly the same size or else the lines wouldn’t scan properly – they would have too few or too many syllables.

I woke up and, I have to admit, it took a little while to get over the disappointment of not having a poem perfectly formed in my head. I even had a cursory glance in the fridge to see if there were a bag of spinach hiding in there, which might coax some verse out of my subconscious. Then I remembered I’d had some spinach for lunch – that must have been where that bit of the dream came from – and I realised that it was really just an anxiety dream.

So no, this wasn’t a Coleridgean ‘Kubla Khan’ moment. Or a Keatsean ‘Sleep and Poetry’. Never mind.

But then, Coleridge, Keats or anyone else back then wouldn’t have just dismissed it as a Freudian ‘anxiety dream’. I expect if they’d dreamt about arranging spinach into a poem they would have awoken and written something wonderful – even just a fragment of it. (In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a splendid spinach patch decree … ) Freud and therapy and the dismissing of such moments of creative inspiration into ‘anxiety’ or ‘penis envy’ or something similarly disappointing weren’t on the scene at all. 

The earliest dream poems that I know are Chaucer’s. He certainly didn’t put dreams down to anything Freudian. In fact at the beginning of ‘The House of Fame’ he writes:

For hyt is wonder, be the roode,

To my wyt, what causeth swevenes

 He goes on to list all sorts of possible reasons for dreams (or ‘swevenes’), from ‘folkys complexions’ (the balance of people’s bodily humours) to ‘dysordynaunce / Of naturel acustumaunce’ (a disordered routine), or lovers ‘That hopen over-muche or dreden/That purely her impressions/ Causeth hem avisions’ (who hope too much or are afraid that their powerful emotions cause their visions).

I suppose, in poetry, this last explanation can often be the right one. Think of Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’. The ‘knight-at arms, / Alone and palely loitering’ falls in love with a beautiful fairy who takes him to ‘her elfin grot’:

 

 

And there she lullèd me asleep

And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide! –

The latest dream I ever dreamt

On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too

Pale warriors, death-pale where they all;

They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci

Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gapèd wide,

And I awoke and found me here,

On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here

Alone and palely loitering,

Though the sedge is withered from the lake

And no birds sing.

What a warning to an obsessed lover! Once under the spell of a beautiful lady, you are as good as dead. ‘No birds sing.’ Not even Keats’s nightingale (‘light-wingèd Dryad of the trees’) is there to keep the poor pale love-lorn knight company.

Well, I’m pretty sure my dream about writing a poem in spinach wasn’t a warning about falling in love. And sadly it wasn’t really a moment of inspiration – there is no green-tinged poem to follow.

But at least it gave me something to write about. And it meant I spent all morning happily reading poetry. So there’s not much to complain about at all.