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Latest Review: "The Pendragon Legend" by Antal Szerb

The latest addition to our Reviews section is by P.T. Smith on The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix, and published by Pushkin Press.

If there’s one thing you should know immediately about Pushkin Press, it’s that their latest Pushkin Series covers are some of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. The book formats are great, too—compact, French flaps, with a nice texture to the cover . . . I want all of them like I want one of these. I’ve used the pony comparison more than once, I know. But I hope it illustrates how serious I am.

In addition to being a regular reviewer, Patrick was also a judge for the France vs. Ecuador match in the World Cup of Literature this month. France moved on in Patrick’s round, and will be going up against Argentina in the second bracket.

Here’s the beginning of his review:

Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is paid to these books. Put out by presses more focused on quality than profit, it is a definition of quality as challenging literature, beautiful prose, new directions for the novel—and that’s all wonderful. But sometimes, other quality is overlooked. We know that Scandinavian crime novels can be counted on to make it into translation, but horror, science fiction, fantasy, comedy? They seem to be more rare, and for someone who reads as all over the map as possible (both the map of nations and the metaphorical map of literature types), it can be disappointing. Then comes along something like The Pendragon Legend, a gothic tale and gothic parody, written by Hungarian author Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix and published by Pushkin Press.

The Pendragon Legend is about a Hungarian scholar, János Bátky, narrating his story of scholarly obsession with English mysticism and legend. He isn’t quite a believer, but is willing to be. Soon enough, and without fail—considering the genre—mysterious strangers begin to show up, he gets himself invited to a castle in Wales inhabited by the current head of the Pendragon family of legend, and soon there is death, the quest for immorality, terror, possible cults, mystery, a ruined castle, kidnappings, chases, fleeings, romance with one woman, sex with another (dangerous) woman, etc. On top of this, Szerb’s writing is self-aware and mocking, along the line between a genre piece and a parody of one—a challenging task, but Szerb manages. That the book was originally published in 1934 likely helped this success. Though well past the heyday of the gothic genre, there was still life left in it, and such life is necessary for genre and parody to co-exist in the a work. It may drag a bit in the third quarter, but if the weakness of a novel is that the meandering occasionally takes over the fun, and keeps the final reveals out of sight a little too long, then with patience, or some quick reading, the fun still far outweighs any boredom.

While engrossed in his studies of “English mystics of the seventeenth century,” János is introduced to the Earl of Gwynedd, Owen Pendragon, the current resident of the new Pendragon castle, whose family is found repeatedly in János’s studies, wrapped up in the Rosicrucians, alchemists, and magic. He manages himself an invite to the castle, meets, “coincidentally,” another man, the entertaining Malony—who also just happens to be invited to the castle—and soon the two encounter hauntings, conspiracies around an old death that was possibly murder, and an inheritance on the line. When enemies begin to surface, and allies are hard to discern, it’s unclear if their motivation is that inheritance, instead related to the Pendragon family motto “I believe in the resurrection of the body” and possible mystic truths behind that faith, or if the two are tied together.

For the rest of the review, go here.

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