The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix

Spoof in which darkness lies behind the supernatural pastiche

Paul Bailey
Wednesday 01 April 2009 15:51

There can't be many Hungarian novels set in Wales, but Antal Szerb's The Pendragon Legend is certainly one of them. Szerb wrote it in the early Thirties, after spending a happy year on a scholarship in England. The Reading Room of the British Museum was like a second home to him, as it is for his narrator, Janos Batky.

Szerb was fluent in German and English and greatly interested in unusual religious beliefs. His knowledge of Rosicrucianism and the occult informs this often very funny book, which takes many affectionate potshots at the period's popular fiction. Szerb, who produced a history of English literature, knew his Shakespeare, Blake and Milton, but also the frothier writings of John Buchan, Edgar Wallace and P G Wodehouse.

At Pendragon Castle, doors creak, lights go out, a mysterious horseman rides across the sward and things go bump in the night. There is love interest, with Janos becoming enamoured with Cynthia, the "maid of the castle", and intrigued by Lene, a Teutonic femme fatale. If all this sounds as if The Pendragon Legend is a spoof, that's because it is.

Apart from the eccentric Earl of Gwynedd, with his hidden laboratory in which he experiments on semi-extinct species, Janos has to endure the company of Maloney, a preposterous Irishman who maintains that Connemara is the seat of civilisation, and Osborne, the archetypal effete upper-class Englishman. They journey with him to the castle, and various plots are then set in motion.

Batky is a noted zoologist in his native Budapest, and part of the novel's endearing charm concerns this seemingly rational man confronting the inexplicable and supernatural. As in Szerb's masterpiece, Journey by Moonlight, the narrator is, for all his learning, an innocent at heart, gullible in worldly matters.

Fascism in its earliest manifestations is demonstrated in both works, for Szerb, a Jew born into a family of Catholic converts, was well aware of what the immediate future had in store. It's only at the end of The Pendragon Legend one realises that, behind the pastiche, there is a sense of human frailty in regard to the world's darker forces. This genial author died in a labour camp in 1945, thanks partly to his liberal and humane views. It is to be hoped that Len Rix, his dedicated translator, will render some of his other writings into English, the language Szerb knew and loved.

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