My idea of matching book to destination didn't quite work out, since neither of these novels is actually set in Budapest, nor even in Hungary: The Pendragon Legend is a sort of Gothic-adventure pastiche set in Wales and England, and Journey by Moonlight follows the peregrinations of the main character, Mihály, as he wanders Italy in search of his past (or perhaps of a past that never existed).
This is a novel of nostalgia; of nostalgia for the void of memory, for death. But that's not quite it. Rather, this is a nostalgia for a richer kind of nostalgia, a feeling once experienced but not fully identified, of a sensual longing for oblivion. Emotion is experienced always at one remove: a yearning for a sense of yearning you imagine you once had, as a child. A yearning to be able to yearn for the present moment, in the memory of your future self. Nothing more than an adolescent fantasy, perhaps. But the performances of adolescence are often played out in memory with a strange force of feeling that has become, or always was, entirely alien to us.
It is difficult to convey a sense of the novel's tone, its irony, now gentle, now mordant; the deadly serious and profound treated always with a certain playful humour and lightness of touch; or to convey the impression one gets of the main character, by turns self-pitying and philosophical, a man of conviction and of cowardice, his words wheedling at times, at times almost wise. Mihály is, to be sure, naïve, emotionally illiterate, unable to face the realities of adulthood; but he also sees that the knowledge of what it means to live life is not easily won, that there is always something missing from a life traded out in the economies of marriage, work and happiness, that knowing how to live is in large part learning how to die.
Mihály's opinions about the bourgeois life he never quite brings himself to reject are often amusing, sometimes true. His thoughts on the 'great abstract mythology' of money, and its religious rites, for example. Often his voice is indistinguishable from the drily acerbic voice of the narrator, as here:
Work was the promised reward for a young man setting out, for completing his studies, and work was the penitential act and punishment for those who met with failure.
And then there are his thoughts on love, often shot through with an adolescent cynicism we most of us hope to outgrow, but just as often speaking of emotions I recognize: the polarities of love, the necessity of distance, and the illusion of closeness. Or, when sitting down to dinner with his wife, 'he could already, a little, look upon her as a lovely fragment of his past, and he was filled with solemn emotion.' 'He loved to relocate himself in his past, at one precise point, and from that perspective re-assemble his present life...and this re-ordering would always give the present moment a richer charge of feeling'; or else 'converting the present into a past': '"what will such memories hold, what associations of feeling?"' This compulsion to aestheticize the moment lived, to commit it proleptically to the memory of a future self, is surely shared by anyone who reads literature, and is influenced by it. It can diminish the experience itself, of course – but every aesthete knows that the cultivation of the memory is far more important than the living of the experience.
Mihály's religious historian friend Waldheim explains to him that death is an erotic instinct, and that all ancient cultures were drawn to the seductive force of the death-hetaira. Christianity, once the darkest of death-cults, says Waldheim, later 'succeeded in sublimating and rationalising the yearning for death, or, in plain language, they watered down the desire for death into desire for the next world, they translated the terrifying sex-appeal of the death-sirens into the heavenly choirs and rows of angels singing praises.' The death instinct, though, persists as an unconscious drive, as Freud tells us – or is this, too, a modern delusion, part of some atavistic fantasy, a yearning after some ancient, elemental 'charge of feeling'?
How do we distinguish between the games we play with memory and history, and the tricks memory and history play on us? How is it possible for any gesture, any act – even suicide – to be anything other than disingenuous? And is it possible, when it cannot be said without quoting Rilke, to say with genuine feeling:
"'If this landscape is reality....if this beauty really exists, then everything I have done in my life has been a lie. But this landscape is reality.'"