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Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb.

There is a story that Swiss mercenaries were once forbidden under pain of torture from listening to the traditional songs of their homeland, because the nostalgia it produced led to sickness, desertion and suicide.

I have often wondered how much the experience of such intense nostalgia has a specific cultural genesis, as well as being the natural condition of adolescence and the dubious gift of those for whom the life of the imagination is lived mostly in the past.

I wonder in particular about the place of nostalgia in the life of old Europe – not ‘old’ in the sense that distinguishes France and Germany from newer EU member states – but pre-war Europe; Europe before it annihilated its Jewish people and history, and the civilisation of which they were a part.

My own longing for this magical Europe – for blue Europe, if you like – is for my imagined homeland – for a place where the past was a living presence; where it haunted the bars and salons, the music theatres and coffee shops, the woods and moonlit roads. I am half in love with a place that I have dreamt, that was half in love with it’s past. This is arguably the special melancholy that hangs over Le Grand Meaulnes, and in a very different a way the wonderful Austrian epic The Radetzky March.

Antal Szerb’s book Journey by Moonlight, written in Hungarian in 1937, is also an exploration of nostalgia. Yet it is so elegantly and lightly realised, as well as so very complex, that it is something of a travesty to pull out a single thread of it in this way.

The premise of the novel is simple; a man who has been fighting his nostalgic longing for the Bohemian friendships of his childhood for years, goes on holiday to Italy with his new wife and purposefully loses her on a train; before setting off to re-discover his youthful companions and evade the bourgeois expectations of his family.

Yet behind this outline lies an intoxicating exploration of the power of an imagined past – one in which death, sex, religion and chicanery are mixed, and which co-exists with a present in which every human interaction can be reduced to a monetary transaction, and in which money is both inescapable and unreal.

Subtly, extra-ordinarily, Szerb explores how money becomes less and less serious for those who have more of it, so that it takes on a fantastical and symbolic value for book’s capitalists; whilst those pursuing (or attempting to pursue) a life of the mind or imagination have to think about it constantly, as they beg, steal or borrow to pay for the next room or the next meal.

Counter-poised against the hectic reality of the market-place is an erotically charged longing for death; as nostalgic rebellion leads the book’s hero towards suicide, administered at the hands of the woman he loves. And flitting between these two poles – of agonised erotic introspection and fantastical commodification is Janos – a jester, a con-man, a restless Mephistopheles on a motor-bike, buying and selling dreams and desires.

There is so much to love about the novel – not least that its characters exist both as archetypes and beautifully, minutely observed human beings. But there are also two specific political ideas woven through it that are relevant to our current plights and dilemmas.

The first is that in Szerb’s world view money and the exchange of money are charged with desire; and that in the slippery transfer of the one to the other lies the potential for enslavement or liberation. This might sound esoteric, but it is far from it. In our post-war European world, dominated by the thinking of progressive materialism, it is a disruptive thing to discuss the relationship between money and desire. Perhaps even more disruptive to say that we have now entered an era when money has won a victory over our wider imaginative desires by becoming an idea in its own right; an idea that swallows up and erases all other forms of meaning. Or to put it another way; the ultimate triumph of commodification is when the thing that has been commodified no longer retains its separate imprint of desire; when sex is about making money, rather than money sometimes (or frequently) being about acquiring sex.

What Szerb gives us is the etiology of this ailment, and a description of a lost culture in which the slippery relationships between the imaginative and the monetary are actively and vigorously contested; where they are given a life and a story, where they cannot be denied. This highly sophisticated understanding of what have become hidden realities about our relationship with money is a legacy of our European past that we must work to reclaim. It is part of what might enable us to restrain the empty idealisation of the market, and to re-discover the values (and desires) with which money may become charged, but which cannot be wholly encompassed and replaced by money.

But Szerb is equally challenging about the risks of transmuting these other forms of desire into a death-wish, where we can only experience them through erotically charged nostalgia. Rather, such desires have to be lived out in the world, and in our responses to it – whether through faith, or through the sacred ordinariness of family life and meaningful work. Hence, it is a Catholic monk (also one of his old companions) who guides the hero sympathetically towards his escape; a working class Italian woman and her family who rescue him from suicide, by dragging him off to a christening; and his father’s love (with all the compromises which that demands) that leads him back to life.

Szerb died in a Labour Camp in 1945, having apparently refused to take advantage of the Hungarian government’s offers to free him, because he would not leave without his friends. He had been persecuted for years, not least because of his championing of English writing at a time when this was an overt challenge to the discourse of the Nazis. When his body was later recovered, it is said that in his pocket was the manuscript of a bi-lingual volume of English/Hungarian poetry. To him, England and Wales (where he spent considerable amounts of time) were demonstrably a part of the wider culture of Europe. He also asserted Hungary’s identity as a European country, arguing that his own Hungarian-ness would be enhanced not diminished through an imaginative and intellectual association with his continent.

In Journey by Moonlight Szerb bequeaths to us modern Europeans, a way to dream about who we once were; and in doing so to consider with greater insight and courage who we might want to become. That is a gift for which I (for one) am deeply grateful.

‘He too would live; like the rats among the ruins, but nevertheless alive. And where there is life, there is always the chance that something might happen…..’

A comment on this piece from Maurice Glasman (thanks Maurice):

Money, through concentrating upon the immediate transaction, the exchange, the price, exerts pressure to eliminate the past and a shared future between the exchanging people. It decontextualises, disembeds. It is fungible, exchangeable for other things from other places, from other times but all are reduced to price, taken away from a common inheritance. There is also the commodification of love, of sexual access but not quite. Love fights back, anxiety and disquiet prevail. The paradox that the rich use money to pursue other things but for the artist there is nothing but the thought of money and how to eat and live. This applies to politicians too. That is important but the rich cannot buy love, vocation, skill, art, beauty without having to engage in labour, both of work and of children, and that engagement entangles them in their mutual need for skill, tenderness, trust that have to be acquired through honesty, work, patience, time, work. Anyway, what I am getting at is that the erotic charge of money is the desire to buy what cannot be brought, love without relationships, skill without work, beauty without grief, it dissolves on sale but what remains is a potency, a power to act, a kind of freedom that is attractive and is a kind of ‘blue’ position. The relationship between potency and resistance to commodification is important for it protects life, sex, reproduction, labour from subordination to an exclusively financial definition.