By Jennifer Levasseur
Two travel confessions.
One: I’ve always enjoyed books written about well-known, iconic places written by outsiders. Think Edmund White’s The Flâneur, Chatwin on Patagonia, Rebecca West on the Balkans. They will never be the “true” insider accounts, but they illuminate another kind of reality. While locals write as though about a too-close family member, the besotted foreigner undresses a location like an enamored lover. Even when the besotted visitor’s grumpy and confused, it takes him years to notice (and even longer to share with others) the wrinkles and blemishes, and by then he loves even the problem spots so much that they appear as assets.
Two: While there’s an obvious and suitable pleasure found in reading about a place while traveling through it, I find a decadent joy in reading about an equally exotic place when far from home, somehow pitting the two unfamiliar places against each other in a physical (where your feet hit the pavement) and mental (where you’re living in your head) vortex of displacement.
The Hungarian novelist Antal Szerb has become my unlikely travel companion over the years. His brilliant novel The Pendragon Legend (set in London and Wales and romping through—and having fun with—the tropes of the romantic and gothic novels while following a murder mystery and delving into theological questions) punctuates my memories of Santiago, Chile, somehow coloring my visits to the presidential palace, where Allende died in the 1973 coup. The novel’s playful yet heady questions about identity and faith mingle with my incomprehension of Chilean Spanish and the jolt of a city whose literature did not prepare me to walk its streets.
Later, in France, I read Szerb’s Love in a Bottle, stories set all over Europe and in as many voices. Each of his novels—full of deceptive light and dangerously disarming humor—is distinctly Szerbian but seem like the works of alternate Szerbs, each one alive with loaded references, geographical layers of knowledge and immersed in a different culture. He seemed to know more, see more than just about anyone else.
As soon as I boarded the plane to Venice, I regretted the lack of Journey by Moonlight, his novel that begins on a honeymoon in Venice—that city eager to amplify any romantic relationship: to flame the fire of a passionate one or shatter one with even a hairline crack. Instead, I comfort myself with The Third Tower: Journeys in Italy, Szerb’s loose, casual pieces written in 1936 during what he feared would be his final trip there, moving from Venice to Vicenza, Verona, Bologna, Ravenna, San Marino. The melancholy is palpable. He died in a concentration camp near Balf in 1945.
I’m perversely disoriented reading Szerb for the first time in the place about which he’s writing, though the nearly eighty years that separate us contain many foreign countries. The short pieces read like letters to a future self, filled with whimsical and keen observations of a place loved and feared. He writes, “…whenever I travel to Italy, I go there as if for the very last time, and why, when I first set eyes on any of its towns, it is as if I am not just returning, but bidding it farewell. … My impressions of Italy always feel like the last visions of a dying man.” He was thirty-five years old.
A few pages later, he refines—and defines—his mood. “Whether things were going well or badly, whether I was miserable or happy, meant nothing beside the fact that it was there, in Venice, that I was happy or unhappy, that things were going well or badly. … I was filled with the elation by the mere fact that I was there, and that, by sharing in the life of that exalted sphere, I was more completely myself.”
Szerb remains isolated and introspective throughout his Italian journey, referring to his trusty Baedeker as the only necessary companion. The heat oppresses him and throws desire versus feeling into relief: he wants to “set out to taste some really good local vintages,” but he slumps into orange juice instead.
Throughout, he mentions only details that appeal to him, no long historical treatises on building materials or political figures. Never attempting to impress, he allows the banal to sit beside the disarming and shocking. As he moves between cities, no one is more examined that himself. Szerb, though, is never a soft interpreter, not even when he’s the subject. In “The Confession of a Bourgeois,” he expresses his distaste for the hoards of poor holiday seekers on cheap train tickets, even as he loathes bourgeois superiority—all while enjoying a first-class ticket to mull it over in peace. He admits, “Money itself I love, and I wouldn’t mind having a lot more of it.”
At the end of his travels, he has fallen even more deeply into melancholy. He wonders whether he actually loves Italy as much as he thought, and whether he can love anymore with the abandon of his youth, even if he includes his own self in that love. He paraphrases Milton, whom every traveller since has, even unconsciously, followed in thought: do my travels matter if through every place I must take myself?
While this makes Szerb—and perhaps travel—seem demoralizing (of course both can be), it also contains the multitudes of both. The elation. The joy. The confusion and the pull and push against expectation. The certainty that we must take ourselves along on the journey—on any and every journey—but we can choose to leave pieces of us behind and pick up extra baggage on the way, the inner stuff that can’t be unloaded even after every suitcase and parcel is unpacked and stowed. Even Szerb, watching the buildup to the destruction of Europe, believed in the hope of this. In a deeply un-Szerbian phrase, we’re left with “trust in your inner stars. Somewhere, always, a Third Tower will be waiting for you.”
Trust and expectation. Yes, that does seem like enough for now.