Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Jesse Browner

Jesse Browner is the author of the novels Conglomeros (Random House, 1992), Turnaway (Random House, 1996), The Uncertain Hour (Bloomsbury, 2007), and Everything Happens Today (Europa Editions, 2011).

His The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down: An Informal History of Hospitality in Western Civilization was published by Bloomsbury in 2003.

Earlier this month I asked Browner what he was reading. His reply:
It is difficult to credit, or to explain, just why so many masterpieces were written in Hungary in the early part of the twentieth century. Perhaps it has something to do with the rich loam created by a decaying empire. In any case, whenever I tell anyone about my thing for mid-century Middle-European literature, they always have another obscure favorite for me to add to my list: Sándor Márai’s Embers, Miklós Bánffy’s They Were Counted, and most especially Dezsö Kosztolányi’s Skylark.

Most recent of these (for me) is Antal Szerb’s 1937 novel Journey by Moonlight. I’m not sure where I heard this, but apparently all Hungarians grow up reading Journey by Moonlight, which would make it their equivalent of The Great Gatsby or Huckleberry Finn. When you stop to consider that it’s about a man who abandons his wife on their honeymoon to descend into a maelstrom of depression, paralysis, fraud and crippling nostalgia, it makes you rather grateful that the Hungarians were unable to hold on to their empire. But it is very truthfully, as one back-cover blurb puts it, a “burning book.”

Mihály’s dilemma, as he travels through Italy trying to avoid those who would either restore him to the straight and narrow or, conversely, destroy him for his perfidy, is that he is incapable of vanquishing the ghosts of his youth. These include in particular the memory of his best friend Tamás, who committed suicide for highly suspect ontological reasons, and of Tamás’s sister Éva, who disappeared after her brother’s death and before Mihály could declare his love for her. And even as he darts and flits and circles warily the shadow of his own siren suicide, Mihály draws these ghosts in towards him, like moths to a flame, for their own final danse macabre.

Believe it or not, the book is also very funny and in no way lugubrious, despite all that. I was able to read it with breathless concentration on a beach in the South Pacific, which has defeated countless other stabs at high-mindedness in the sun. I’m not sure what they’re up to now, but the Hungarians were really onto something a hundred years ago, and if you’re new to their product, you could do a lot worse than to start with Journey by Moonlight.
Visit Jesse Browner's website.

--Marshal Zeringue