Review: The Queen's necklace

A vibrant historical novel, the latest in a reissued series by a forgotten 20th-century writer reinforces his reputation

By David Herman, February 4, 2010
Antal Szerb: a writer of greatly imaginative fiction rediscovered

Antal Szerb: a writer of greatly imaginative fiction rediscovered

By Antal Szerb
Pushkin Press £12

Pushkin Press’s translations (by Len Rix) of the work of the Jewish Hungarian writer, Antal Szerb, must be one of the most exciting literary discoveries of recent years.

Szerb’s novels, Journey by Moonlight and Oliver VII (both Pushkin Press, £7.99) came first, to great acclaim. “Szerb belongs with the master novelists of the 20th century,” said the Daily Telegraph. “Szerb is a master novelist”, wrote the Guardian. Now comes The Queen’s Necklace, a history of a 1780s scandal involving Marie Antoinette. It is the greatest yet, an astonishing work.

Just as we cannot read The Queen’s Necklace without thinking of what was to become of Marie Antoinette in the Revolution, so it is impossible to read Szerb’s work without the shadow of his fate. In 1944, he was deported to a Nazi prison camp and executed during a forced march near the end of the war.

Antal Szerb was born in Hungary in 1901, the son of assimilated Jewish parents but he was baptised a Catholic. He travelled through Europe in the 1920s but returned to Hungary where he published his first novel, The Pendragon Legend (1934), a tale of mysticism and romance, set in a Welsh castle. Then came Journey by Moonlight (1937), the story of a young Hungarian businessman, Mihaly, who, on his honeymoon in Italy is torn between his sense of family duty and a dark world of morbid, romantic memories and desires.

Szerb’s range was striking — novelist, poet and essayist, he was also a literary historian and professor of literature. He wrote both a history of world literature and a history of Hungarian literature. His account of Marie Antoinette sparkles with erudition and fascinatingly explores subjects ranging from gardening and art to the causes of the French Revolution. Part-thriller, part-scholarly treatise, written with a novelist’s eye for plot and detail, it is hard to imagine a more enjoyable history book. It tells the true story of a pair of French con-artists who made a fortune by persuading a cardinal to buy a fabulously expensive diamond necklace, in a scandal which drew in Marie Antoinette and shook the French monarchy to its foundations.

Szerb immersed himself in the libraries of Paris (“now closed to me for the indeterminate future”) to research the lives of his cast of grotesques and tricksters and created a book that is both dark and playful. He spares nothing in his accounts of torture, prison and the madhouse and expertly places his gripping story in a larger historical and cultural context.

The shift from the baroque to the pre-romantic is traced through changes in attitudes to space and privacy, manners and the irrational. It is a breathtaking performance.

Journey by Moonlight is another eccentric (in the best sense) mixture. Tightly constructed, it combines the gothic — references to ghosts, death and cemeteries — with the erotic, stemming from an adolescent infatuation, and carries echoes of Edgar Allan Poe.

Set in pre-war Italy, there are only one or two references to fascism. This may seem odd, and the later choice of Marie Antoinette as a subject, even odder for a Hungarian Jew writing in 1942. But at the heart of The Queen’s Necklace is the end of a civilisation, the end of “the sweetness of life”. Translator Len Rix and Pushkin Press deserve thanks for the rediscovery of a genius.

David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer.

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011