The Pendragon Legend: Antal Szerb

★★★

The Hungarian Antal Szerb is probably best known to most of us for Journey by Moonlight (which I began earlier in the year and need to come back to), but The Pendragon Legend is his first novel, written after he’d spent a year studying in England in 1929-30. It’s an adventurous parody of the kind of Gothic thrillers popular at the time; but, for me, it never quite managed to transcend its sources and become a satisfying story in its own right. I felt it had the enthusiastic and uneven feel of a writer trying to find his feet.

The story gives a playful impression of being semi-autobiographical, which adds to that ‘first novel’ flavour. The protagonist is a scholarly Hungarian dilettante, who is studying at the British Museum in London, just as Szerb did. There are occasional references to real people who must have moved in Szerb’s world, such as Julian Huxley, the biologist brother of Aldous (whom Szerb cites as being still Professor of Biology at King’s College, although he actually left in 1927, two years before Szerb was in London). This gave the book the strange feel of being an in-joke, perhaps written to share among a group of friends who would appreciate the references.

The protagonist, János Bátky, is introduced at a  society party to the elderly and eccentric Earl of Gwynedd. To their mutual surprise, the two men discover that they share an interest in the 17th-century English mystics and, in particular, the alchemist Robert Fludd. It turns out that the Earl’s ancestors were fascinated by alchemy and the occult, and so he invites Bátky to his Welsh family seat at Llanvygan to continue his researches in their library. Bátky is delighted and sets off in company with the Earl’s nephew Osborne and an ebullient young Irishman named Maloney, looking forward to a few restful weeks of self-indulgent study. But lazy academic musing is going to be quite out of the question.

Even before they arrive at Llanvygan, Osborne points out the family’s previous seat: the bleak, half-ruined and forbidding Pendragon Castle, perched up on a cliff above the present house. Although the Earls of Gwynedd haven’t lived at Pendragon for many years, it still casts its shadow over them and there are dark family legends which – as Bátky will discover – show no sign of fading meekly into myth. By going to Llanvygan, he enters a world of strange noises at midnight, unexplained thefts, black riders plunging through the night and shocking scientific experiments. There’s also a bitter struggle over a contested will, in which the parties are willing to go to any lengths to get their own way. Darker than all these, however, is the lingering evil influence of Fludd’s patron, Asaph Christian Pendragon, 6th Earl of Gwynedd, with his mysterious links to the Rosicrucians. Bátky and his companions will face a race against time to thwart the Earl’s enemies and discover the truth behind the Pendragon family legends, before the powers of the occult can triumph.

It’s basically fairly camp pulp fiction, wearing its best literary evening clothes. In itself, I have no problem with that – I like a clever tongue-in-cheek story as much as anyone else – but the occult elements are laid on very thickly and I could never quite work out whether they were meant to be chilling or slightly absurd. All in all, there was a disconcerting feel of The Da Vinci Code about it, although, not being a fan of Dan Brown (putting it mildly), I found The Pendragon Legend much more enjoyable. As the visions and esoterica mounted up, I began to sense that Szerb was happily throwing in everything he could think of to add to the razzle-dazzle, without actually thinking too much about the characterisation or plot at the heart of his book – both of which suffer in comparison.

Szerb does, however, seem to be thoroughly enjoying himself and – this being the first complete book by him I’ve read – I was struck by his sense of humour. He makes affectionately sly digs at the English, from an outsider’s perspective, and he is entirely ready to skewer his characters’ pretensions. They are all fairly well-off people who think themselves to be far more intelligent than they really are, and he makes Bátky particularly pompous and shallow. At one point he berates Osborne’s sister, Cynthia, for showing an unsuitable sympathy towards the working class. She replies, in surprise:

‘You speak like someone who has no ideals.’
‘True. I am a neo-frivolist.’
‘And how does that differ from old-fashioned frivolity?’
‘Mostly in the ‘neo’ prefix. It makes it more interesting.’

One thing that I particularly disliked was that Bátky is an insufferable misogynist and I give Szerb the benefit of the doubt in assuming that it’s a trait of the character and not the author – not having read enough of Journey by Moonlight to judge the matter properly. Not only that, but he’s a complete snob, stating at one point that the most interesting thing about women is their setting: a wealthy woman has a remarkable charm on account of her station, whereas a woman who has to work for a living is little better than a man and thus of no interest to him. Plus, this educated Hungarian can’t abide a woman who actually has the temerity to be interested by academia:

But no woman has ever yet taken an interest in an intellectual matter for its own sake. Either she wants to woo the man by a display of attention, or she is seeking to improve her mind, which is even worse. The first of these is after money; the second is in pursuit of edification, but has other motives which are no less self-interested: she wants to adopt the pose of a woman of culture, as if it were some sort of cloak to be worn at the opera.

I don’t know why it was necessary to give Bátky these little rants, unless it’s to establish how hypocritical he is, because actually he’s just as susceptible to women as anyone else. It grew annoying, because every time I was just settling into the story, Bátky would pop up with another little speech about how manipulative, conniving and unreliable women are – all while mooning over the suitably aristocratic Cynthia. Although the Maid of Llanvygan herself comes across as fairly bland, there is one particularly glorious woman in the story: Bátky’s colourful German fellow student, Lene Kreutzsch, who is cheerfully insatiable in every aspect of her life and tramples all Bátky’s cherished ideals about what a woman should be like. The hale and hearty Lene is on a perpetual quest to add to her romantic conquests, relentlessly organises everyone around her, and is always keen to don a disguise in order to play detective. I enjoyed her very much. I wondered whether her name – Kreutzsch – was coincidental, as it sounded so similar to kreuz, with all the Rosicrucian enigmas floating around in the story.

Overall, this is a fun, slightly trashy novel that doesn’t demand too much concentration. A blend of occult horror, ghost story, detective novel and philosophical mystery, it ends up an engaging jack of all trades, but master of none. I’d love to hear thoughts from anyone else who’s read this. Am I being too mean? Am I failing to understand its brilliance as a parody? To those who haven’t read it yet, I would recommend it for a fun diversion, perhaps on a long journey, and it’s definitely something you should seek out if you enjoy the esoteric and fancy a bit of a Rosacrucian romp. Personally, I’m looking forward to getting back to Journey by Moonlight, where – as I recall – the hero is no less self-centred, but the story somehow feels considerably more controlled and elegant.

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2 thoughts on “The Pendragon Legend: Antal Szerb

  1. Heloise says:

    I haven't read anything by Szerb yet, but several quite positive reviews on various blogs, and from those had rather high hopes for this author, higher than at least this novel seems to warrant. I hope the rest of his work is better, then…

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