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.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in