Thursday 10 April 2014

The Third Tower- Antal Szerb

I'm a big fan of Pushkin Press. Thanks to them Stefan Zweig has started to become a author that people recognise, it seems that the next author on their list to promote seems to be Antal Szerb. Like Zweig Szerb was a central European writer who was a bestseller in the period running up to the Second World War. He wrote novels, biographies, short stories and studies of the changing political climate he experienced in a world that was swiftly turning itself over to fascism. Szerb was an academic who was barred from university posts in the increasingly fascist Hungarian state. In 1943 he was deported to a concentration camp where he was beaten to death a year later. Another important and deeply talented voice that was cut off by the barbarities of the Nazi experiment.
I have a few of his better known works on my to read list, but decided to start my exploration of his works with this collection of notes from a tour of northern Italy taken in 1936. As a bit of an italophile myself, I couldn't think of a better introduction to Szerb. I was right, this is a truly delightful collection of musings about a changing Italy. This is no stuffy travelogue but instead is a fun, irreverent record of travelling from Venice to Bologna. Along the way Szerb muses on the cheap trains offered by the fascist state, and on the quality of the tourist experience. His writing style feels incredibly modern, the little snippets about the food, the difficulty of finding a good hotel room and even about the bourgeois attitude of fellow writer Zweig wouldn't be out of place on a modern blog or other social media.
Szerb feels hemmed in by the crowds of tourists that he encounters during his journey, he finds the adulation of Mussolini disturbing and cannot see how everyone in Italy has been duped by the incessant cheerfulness of the newspapers. His insight is incredibly poignant as is his recognition that war must surely be on the horizon. Szerb only finds true peace when he leaves the rest of the tourists behind and visits the third of San Marino's towers set high above the city. He sits at the base of the Montale and realises that no matter what the future brings, the memory of beautiful moments can never been taken away.
      "The happiness I feel here at the foot of the Third tower is something I must not give up for anyone: for anyone, or anything. I cannot surrender my soul to any nation state, or any set of beliefs."
Reading this is all the more poignant when you think about how much would be taken away once war began three years later. 
The Third Tower is a charming snapshot of a lost Italy and of a moment when the horrors of the 1940s had yet to happen. As always with Pushkin the translation is light and lovely, here there is the added benefit of period photographs to illustrate Szerb's travels. I am now really looking forward to reading my next Antal Szerb book.

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