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Antal Szerb’s superb novel, originally published in Hungarian in 1937, is now acknowledged as a classic of European literature. The story follows the misadventures of Mihaly as he travels to Italy on honeymoon with his new wife, Erszi. In Venice, he begins to tell her the story of his youth, dominated by his great friendship with the charismatic siblings Tamas and Eva Ulpius, who live in a crumbling mansion in Budapest.

From that moment on the marriage begins to fall apart, as it becomes clear that Mihaly can never escape the ghosts of his past. Bewitched by his memories, he sends Erszi back to their hotel while he loses himself in the alleys of Venice, before embarking on a chaotic journey across Italy, searching for Tamas, for Eva, and anyone connected with them.

Tragically, Antal Szerb, of Jewish descent, died in a concentration camp aged just 43. He was offered a chance to escape by admirers of his work but chose to die along with the rest of his generation. Peter Hargitai, an expatriate Hungarian poet, author, and academic now resident in Florida, had a meeting with Szerb’s widow in 1988. When he questioned her about the central enigma of the book, the identity of Tamas, and the elusive intertwining of the Ulpius siblings, she replied “Tamas IS Eva”.

As a native Hungarian speaker Hargitai brings an expert ear to this new translation, and a focus on the sexual ambiguity of this extraordinary masterpiece. Is it Eva, or is it Tamas, who is the object of Mihaly’s obsession? Mihaly, haunted by his memory of the morbid, erotic games played by Tamas and Eva, with himself as sacrificial victim, searches through a Europe soon to be ravaged by war. Bizarre, surreal and at times macabre, this is a brilliant translation of an exceptional novel

Peter Hargitai was born in Budapest, Hungry, in 1947.

©1937 Antal Szerb (P)2021 Antal Szerb

Critic reviews

"Just one who's read it has failed to love it" (Nicholas Lezard, Guardian)

"A stealthy masterpiece...both comic and beautiful" (The Telegraph)

"A Hungarian classic, beautifully translated. Peter Hargitai, a distinguished author and translator in his own right, has given three decades of his life to Szerb and his novel. The present translation is a revision of the one originally published in 1944. It is a labour of love that well rewards the reader, supple and idiomatic and faithful at all times to the turns - and to the high eloquence too - of Szerb’s masterful voice" (Robert Zaller, Royal Historical Society fellow, Hungarian studies)

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  • 25-02-21


As the translator of this European masterpiece, I was picky about choosing a voice artist. Jack Bennett’s narration does not disappoint. I was actually spellbound. It is obvious that the narrator is invested in the story on the level of a consummate director. He wisely keeps it in neutral when narrating Mihály’s recollections of his adolescent years at the Ulpius house. His subtle inflection of the various characters helps us to differentiate them: The mannered speech of the sleazy János Szepetneki stands out in stark relief to the sensitive, passive Mihály; the Persian accent of the opium magnate Suratgar Lupthali is credible and compelling – as is the harried speech of Rudy Waldheim, the quirky absent-minded professor. Little things like a cough make a Franciscan monk’s lung ailment all the more real; and the accelerated breathing in an emotional scene where János tries to catch up with Mihály give the audio book a rare visceral reality. This experienced voice artist knows just when to pause when silence is pregnant with meaning. It is in moments like these that the actor, film director and voice-over artist in Jack Bennett shine. Because he is immersed in the story, we, in turn, become immersed in this richly nuanced adventure.

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