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.
Understanding the genre, Szerb is a controlled writer: when in the early pages, his narrator admits “I don’t know whether it was in fact in or in imagination—I can’t always tell them apart,” it is a reflection of the narrator, but by the end, when he is completely lost, we can’t blame him, for we too are unsure. These touches of character and plot march parallel to the ideas Szerb puts into play, as when characters debate philosophy, allowing for movement between science and magic, or imagination and experience. This manifests in the prose itself: “The apparition remained there for a moment, then vanished. Then reality returned in a triumphant explosion of noise.” The apparition is there, it’s acknowledged, but as something other than reality. It is in the finer details, like the perfectly intact tower standing at the center of the old Pendragon castle ruins, as if it too has immortality.
The participation in the genre comes out of love for it, and love comes out in the details. Think of a past lover: what better way to fondly remember them than by focusing on a detail, a quirk that only the devoted would notice? Szerb makes sure there is an anonymous threatening phone call, imagination as a source of horror, a mysterious old woman, disguises, pranks for false scares, a master of the castle who seems to have a split personality, time in a library—pick something, and the love there.
Perhaps the most interesting and complicated way that the tropes of the genre are made new is also the greatest proof of the quality of Rix’s translation. The Pendragon Legend lives in a specifically British take on the gothic genre. The Hungarian narrator is an other, a weird, esoteric scholar from a foreign land, teased by the British. But the playful confusion is that this is a Hungarian book, so there is always a tongue tapping against the cheek, and sometimes trying to dig through to the other side. We’re gifted the British laughing at foreign names: “Magnificent! T-z-s-c-h! Five consonants for a single sound. That’s really grand.” But it is in a way that mocks them, and mocks the British novels that see foreigners as adorably, confusingly, bizarre. In case the reader doesn’t notice that the Brits’ words are meant to be mocking them, then János Bátky is willing to pick up the cause, being repeatedly bemused by the absurd clichés of the British himself. For Len Rix to produce a translation that moves from a Hungarian tale both poking fun at and participating in the English perspective into an English-language tale that does the same is as challenging a balancing act as Szerb himself managed in the first place.
János’s humor isn’t limited to mocking the English; it’s in fact his strongest character trait besides his unfolding desire to be caught up in the very manner of adventure in which the Pendragon legend entangles him (this is a man who spends most his time in a library but sleeps with a revolver under his pillow). When your narrator’s life is at times threatened, and he is on a quest to solve the type of questions he’s been wanting to have posed all his life, it adds to the pleasure when he is bright, likable, and funny, though thankfully, not flawless—János is at times petty, sexist, classist, and dismissive. As to that brightness, it is both in personality and intelligence, but with the latter is another wry wrinkle of parody by Szerb—he is careful to make sure the author is more intelligent than his character, and so an attentive reader can be too, chuckling and noting when the suspiciously helpful Maloney asks János to carry a package for him, and János is happy to help whereas we await trouble. With János’s enthusiasm for role-playing detective and gothic romance hero, and his growth into it (though even while raiding familial tombs he is devoted to his scholarship), he carries much of the book himself. That said, the way he is used and manipulated by Szerb makes him a puppet though if a lively one, a blank slate who doesn’t notice from where his own motivations and feelings could be arising.
János being both a prop and a character with heart is true of other characters as well. The Pendragon Legend is book is full of absurd and entertaining types: the Earl of Pendragon castle, locked away in his lab, experimenting on making newts immortal, the Irish, tall-tale–telling Maloney, the grandly promiscuous, man-conquering, hard-drinking, and brave Hungarian Lene, and the prim, women-fearing nephew of Pendragon, Osbourne. It’s a cast of characters, all familiar and already absurd, made more absurd, with clichés made obvious, then fooled with, so the characters are infused with a spirit that brings them to life.
When, after too many side excursions, The Pendragon Legend again propels forward and begins the race to the conclusion, to answers to the questions of legend and mysticism, to characters meeting or failing to meet their goals, to final confrontations with the villains, to solving that old death and finalizing the inheritance, readers can be satisfied with some answers, while still—because this is a book of ideas, as the best genre works are—be left asking questions. After all, this is the tale of how a man like János, passionate, yet malleable, can lead into danger, even bring about more horrors, all by a mad pursuit of knowledge. And it’s only afterward that he is able to understand that “There are some things that have an inner truth, but become nonsense when spoken,” that is, that some truths are best unspoken, and that some nonsense is terrifying.
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