Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb: "I believe in the resurrection of the body."

"All Welshman are mad.  In England,
 every primary schoolchild knows this."
       And so the tone is set for this thoroughly enjoyable book.  I first discovered Antal Szerb on Max Cairnduff's literary review blog (Pechorin's Journal), where he has discussed all three of Szerb's novels.  Mr. Cairnduff recommends reading the books in order of publication, so I have begun with The Pendragon Legend (1934).  I wasn't disappointed. 
       First, a word on Szerb (1901-1945).  According to Wikipedia, he was a Hungarian literary scholar of considerable note.  He was Jewish in origin and was killed in a concentration camp in 1945 -- another tragic loss to the Holocaust.  You can find a more complete biographical sketch at
       The Pendragon Legend (translation by Len Rix) attracted me through its title, since I'm interested in Wales and in the Arthurian legend.  However, I discovered that the story had nothing to do with the Matter of Britain and everything to do with the mysteries that are inherent in Wales.  I also was expecting a more serious story and so I thought it started off a little slow, but I quickly began to realize that the book is a satire.  The word "satire" can conjure up the image of a biting or even bitter and black put-down of unfortunate people and events.  Not so here.  This is a gentle but insightful poking of fun at almost everything -- the British, the Welsh, the Irish, the French, all Europeans, and to top it off, the fiction genres of gothic, mystery, suspense, adventure, and paranormal (not sure that was recognized as a genre in the early 1930s).  The pseudosciences, particularly alchemy and attempts to bring the dead back to life, are significant elements of the mix.  As the kirjasto website noted above states, the novel can be categorized as a gothic fantasy detective story.
       Its characterizations (often comic) take it a notch above all the preceding.  Szerb spent a year studying in England and probably based his first-person narrator, János Bátky, on his own experiences.  Bátky is a Hungarian scholar, a dilettante -- an affable young man unaccustomed to adventures but ripe to take some on. At the moment he is studying the occult, especially in its 16th through 18th century manifestations, including the Rosicrucians.  He is also in love with the idea of aristocracy, especially as embodied in the upper crust of the British class system.  Therefore, when he meets the Earl of Gwynedd at a soiree and gets invited to visit the ancestral Pendragon home at Llanvygan in Wales, he jumps at the chance.  It so happens that the Pendragons have historical connections with occult activity, especially through one of the earlier Earls, Asaph Pendragon, who is said to have died and come back to life.  The current Earl is involved in "scientific" experiments, especially attempts to regenerate the dead using the axolotl (Mexican salamander).   
       Shortly thereafter, Bátky meets an Irishman of dubious character named Maloney, who is an ignorant but clever trickster type, quite willing to commit crimes for hire.  He is an acquaintance of Osborne, the nephew of the Earl, and it so happens that these two are also headed for Llanvygan.
       I'll insert a passage here to illustrate both the character of Maloney and the type of humor that can be enjoyed throughout the book:
       "Tell me," he asked, with some embarrassment, as we strolled along: "you're a bloody German, aren't you?"
       "Oh, no, I'm Hungarian."
       "What's that?  Is that a country?  Or are you just having me on?"
       "Not at all.  On my word of honour, it is a country."
       "And where do you Hungarians live?"
      "'In Hungary. Between Austria, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia."
       "Come off it!  Those places were made up by Shakespeare."
       And he roared with laughter.
       " ... And what language do you Hungarians speak?"
       "Say something in Hungarian."
       [Bátky quotes some poetry, translated as "Under a strange, lilac-blue sky /  The girls stroll to their assignations; / Mysterious, enigmatic / Summer afternoons."]
       "Very nice.  But you don't fool me.  That was Hindustani.  It means, 'Noble stranger, may the Gods dance on your grave in their slippers.'  I've heard that one before."  
       After arriving at Llanvygan, Bátky meets Cynthia, the niece of the Earl of Pendragon, with whom he immediately falls in love.  He sees her as the remote, mysterious female, the high-borne lady to his medieval knight.  Cynthia, however, is more interested in becoming a folklore scholar and the normally genial and likable Bátky naively reveals his snobbish male chauvinism.

       The Cynthia of my imagination was the sort of girl who, on the one hand, would swoon if she caught her beloved devouring a hot dog, but if the need arose, would be capable of giving her maid a thrashing.  She was the Lady of the Castle, proudly enthroned in her fairytale tower, blissfully ignorant of entire nations dying of hunger.
       I had not yet abandoned the hope that Cynthia really was the person I believed her to be, it was just that she hadn't been brought up properly.  No doubt her mother was to blame.  Under the influence of who knows what disappointments of her own, her mother must have dunned into her the great middle class myth that intellect mattered, and that everyone was equally human.

       This scene is in fact a clever reversal.  Just a few pages earlier, Bátky has been judging the Earl for being captive to an illusion -- for failing to acknowledge that his own great love could in fact be involved in a diabolical plot against him. 
       "That isn't true!" he yelled, finally losing control. "How dare you speak of things you know nothing about?  How can you possibly think you understand the motives behind what I do ... ?"     
       At that moment, in that spontaneous outburst of unguarded arrogance, I suddenly understood him.  ...  For a proud man no error can be more painful than to admit that in this regard he has blundered:  that the woman he has chosen is not what he thought her.  For a truly proud man the worst horror of disappointment in love is not the slight he has received:  far, far worse is the failure in judgement that led him to construct a myth with no basis in reality.  And a man as supremely proud as the Earl of Gwynedd has thereafter to maintain the illusion ... lest he be forced to admit to himself that he has blundered.
       Bátky can't apply that insight to himself; he is subject to the same kind of illusion where Cynthia is concerned.  Needless to say, the two do not come together in a permanent arrangement in the end. 

       In contrast we have my favorite character, the German woman Lene Kretzsch, who is an egalitarian and lacks any vestige of the proper aristocrat.  The only way to do her justice, and also to again illustrate the comedic elements of this book, is to quote the extract where Lene is introduced to the reader as an old friend of  Bátky's, a student studying at Oxford on a Prussian scholarship:
       However, I also went in some trepidation of her. ... It wasn't that she was ugly.  On the contrary, she was quite a handsome woman in her own substantial way, and she was always a hit with men. You might even say she was attractive, but she belonged to that class of girl whose stockings have just laddered, or who has just lost a button, or whose blouse has burst open, giving a chap the impression that she was in a state of non-stop physical development.
       This was how our friendship began: I set myself on fire and she put me out.
       There is much more to this passage, but, tempting as it is, I  can't quote the whole book, which is loaded with quotable passages.  The hilarious thing is that Lene is the one who takes Osborne, the nephew of the Earl, in hand and rescues him from his obdurate British sexual repression. 
       "[Osborne] said he hadn't enjoyed himself so much in ages.  Oh, and he hoped we'd tie the marriage knot soon."
       I was horrified.  Such a misalliance!  My snobbish heart wept blood.  The poor Earl ...  This was all the Pendragon destiny needed.  It would be the end of everything.
       "My congratulations," I muttered, with tears in my voice.
       "Come off it, you idiot!  You don't think I'd really marry him?"
       "Why not?  It's not a bad match."
       "No, my dear boy, I'm not that stupid.  Marry into such a degenerate aristocratic family?  What would my friends in Berlin say?"
       All of this makes the book sound rather like a comedy of manners, but it's really the gothic elements and the adventures into the occult that form the meat of the book.  One of my favorite passages is the long quotation from the Memoirs of Lenglet du Fresnoy (this is a real person who lived in the 17th and 18th century, although I'm not sure the Memoirs actually exist).  It's a priceless spoof of the rituals of Freemasonry and similar secret societies and is worth reading on its own, even if you don't read any other part of the book.
       The visions of the black night rider with his torch, the visit to the tomb of Asaph Pendragon in the ruins of  Pendragon Castle, and especially Bátky's experiences after he gets lost in the primeval Welsh forest form compelling gothic adventures.  Wales and its forests and "natives" can be seen as representing the primeval arcane forces that are never far below the veneer of civilization.  That veneer reveals itself in the behavior of the characters.  Whenever our trio of Bátky, Osborne, and Lene completes a venture into the occult and returns to civilization, the first thing they do is wash, change clothes, and eat a properly presented meal  And the men shave immediately; the beard represents the undercurrent of the uncivilized.  This is especially noticeable after Bátky's traumatic experience in the woods.  He has just slept all night in a meadow -- "My clothes were crumpled, torn and filthy, and my face was disfigured by several days' growth of stubble" -- but when he  arrives in Abersych, "I shaved and sat down to lunch at the inn."    
       I find this point interesting: did Bátky really experience those Satanic rituals in the strange house with no windows or was he dreaming or hallucinating?  Leaving this in doubt is one way to account for fantasy elements in an otherwise more-or-less realistic tale.  (Again, I maintain that all significant literary works have elements of fantasy in them.)  I used that method myself in my rendition of Ki'shto'ba's descent into the Underworld (in Beneath the Mountain of Heavy Fear).  In The Pendragon Legend there is no doubt that certain people did die that night, but was the perpetrator real?  It does seem so, but still ...  Readers will have to decide for themselves.
       One final remark.  I have noted over the years that the syllable "Mor" occurs with great frequency in the names of villains and places in fantasy -- to name only a few, Mordred, Morgan le Fay, the Morrigan, the kingdom of Mordor.  Curiosity made me look up the derivation of the syllable.  The Wikipedia article on Morrigan states:  "Mor may derive from an Indo-European root connoting terror or monstrousness."   It seems to be embedded in the Western subconscious, or perhaps the fact that in The Pendragon Legend the villain is named Morvin was a deliberate choice of the author.

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