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The Queen's Necklace, By Antal Szerb

A sparkling slice of 18th century life

The Hungarian writer Antal Szerb wrote this book in 1941-42, after which he was transported to the forced-labour camp at Balf, where he died almost three years later. The book is a deceptively light-hearted meditation on the events, customs and attitudes that made the French Revolution inevitable. Although it contains a wealth of intriguing stories – some tragic; some comic to the point of absurdity – it is in no sense a novel.

Szerb's method is anecdotal. He offers tidbits of information about the likes of the gullible Cardinal Rohan; the scheming Jeanne de Valois; the inventive conman Cagliostro; the jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge, who created the necklace fit for a queen; Mme Campan, the courtier at Versailles who wrote a famous memoir, and King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. There are many others, all deftly sketched. Yet the main character is the delightful guide to the follies and misfortunes of those figures from history. This man of fastidious intelligence is the author himself.

Late in his cunningly arranged jigsaw of a narrative, Szerb confesses that he has been in love with everything historical from the age of four. Of all the great 20th-century writers, he is the most unashamedly bookish, with the sole exception of Borges. Here he makes obeisance to Carlyle, Talleyrand, the historian Funck-Brentano, Taine, Sainte-Beuve and Stefan Zweig. Whenever he quotes, he does so to effect, suggesting they have said it better than he can. This is a work of considerable scholarship but it is no chore to read.

As his dedicated translator Len Rix observes, Szerb believed that reading should be a pleasurable activity, and in both his fiction and non-fiction he never strays from that belief. This wonderful book is informative about the clothes in fashion in the 18th century, about music, paintings, scurrilous pamphlets, architecture, drink and food, prostitution, freemasonery, literature, politics and religion. The Queen's Necklace defies categorisation. It is unique and original.