Pushkin Press £12 Order for £10.80 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Queen's Necklace, By Antal Szerb
A sparkling slice of 18th century life
Wednesday 21 October 2009
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.
Is the comedy album making a comeback?comedy
Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beachart
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Man tweets about bad service, gets kicked off plane, told to delete tweet before re-boarding
- 2 Crash victims in car flattened by shipping container emerge with just minor injuries
- 3 Students offered grants if they tweet pro-Israeli propaganda
- 4 Exclusive: David Cameron’s Big Society in tatters as charity watchdog launches investigation into claims of Government funding misuse
- 5 Joey Barton and Yossi Benayoun become involved in Twitter row over Israel-Gaza conflict
Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor 'wheel on people who have mental health problems' says comedian Jo Brand
Fifty Shades of Grey trailer: First look at Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey
Orange Is The New Black season 3: Pornstache isn't coming back
Fifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage from US parenting groups
Coolio has sold his soul to Pornhub
A day in the life of Vladimir Putin: The dictator in his labyrinth
The 'scroungers’ fight back: The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Arizona execution lasts two hours as killer Joseph Wood left 'snorting and gasping' for air
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Ukrainian military jet was flying close to passenger plane before it was shot down, says Russian officer
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Massive rise in sale of British arms to Russia
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: victims’ bodies bundled in black bags and loaded onto trains