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The Pendragon Legend (1934)

by Antal Szerb

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4531240,409 (3.87)76
At an end-of-the London season soiree, the young Hungarian scholar-dilettante Janos Batky is introduced to the Earl of Gwynedd, a reclusive eccentric who is the subject of strange rumours. Invited to the family seat, Pendragon Castle in North Wales, Batky receives a mysterious phone-call warning him not to go... Antal Szerb's first novel The Pendragon Legend (1934), set in Wales is a gently satirical blend of gothic and romantic genres, crossed with the murder mystery format to produce a fast-moving and often hilarious romp. But beneath the surface, the reader becomes aware of a steely intelligence probing moral, psychological and religious questions.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
Whatever I had expected of this book, they did not come true at all because this book turned out to be the most unpredictable read of 2020 so far.

In a way, this book was a bit like going for a walk in the hills and suddenly being slapped across the head by a fish falling from the skies. And in a way, that also describes 2020 so far. So, it's been a timely read.

In all seriousness, Antal Szerb was having fun here in this collage of all the genres that I can only describe as a satire of all of the popular fiction that had been written up to the book's date of publication...and somehow preempting Scooby Doo, Indiana Jones, The Da Vinci Code, and I am sure some "rad" 70s fiction that I am glad I have not discovered, yet.

We get a scholarly MC, who ends up banding with a motley crew on the way to a Welsh castle, which may or may not be haunted, to visit an aristocrat, who may or may not also be an evil practitioner of the occult ... or a version of Dr. Frankenstein ... one can't be too sure.

We also have weird prophets, superstitious priests, potential human sacrifice, a whole lot of atmospheric fog that appears just at the most thrilling moments. We have Englishmen with upper lips so stiff that it takes a whole lot of questionable femininity to make them wobble, and we have an Earl's daughter, who spoils the usual script of a murder mystery that ends in falling for the crime-solving hero.

This was a romp. It was fun, but for crying out loud, don't ask me what I've just read.

"I was back in my historic bed (Queen Anne, I believe). With time, this room had come to seem like home. A not entirely restful home. Somewhere above my head the giant axolotls swam. A few yards from my window stood the balcony Maloney had fallen from. And there was the vivid memory of the night rider circling the house with his flaming torch. It was home to me, as a trench would be to a soldier. I pulled my head down under the blanket."
( )
  BrokenTune | May 25, 2020 |
This novel was the slightly frivolous by-product of a year Szerb spent doing research in Britain for his work on literary history. It's a bizarre and very entertaining pastiche of half a dozen genres of popular literature, especially gothic novels, murder mysteries and John Buchan/Dornford Yates thrillers.

The narrator, János Bákty, is a Hungarian scholar, working on 17th century English mystics in the British Museum Reading Room and a little bit less wise in the ways of the world than he thinks he is, who accidentally gets an introduction to the reclusive Earl of Gwynedd, and is invited to come and have a look at some interesting books in the library at Pendragon Castle.

As is only right and proper, he gets an anonymous phone call warning him not to go, and shortly before setting off for Wales he meets a Suspiciously Friendly Stranger and a Femme Fatale who both happen to be heading that way as well. Evidently he has unwittingly got mixed up in something dangerous...

Things continue with strange occurrences in the middle of the night, ghostly horsemen, stolen manuscripts, secret passages, Rosicrucians, desperate dashes over the mountains in bad weather, a kidnapping, the narrator failing to spot glaringly obvious clues, sexual temptation, and in short just about everything you would want from an adventure story (apart from a proper car chase, perhaps).

There are Dornford-Yates-like levels of crass sexism, but it's transparently there as a joke at the narrator's expense: ... no woman has ever yet taken an interest in an intellectual matter for its own sake. Either she wants to woo the man by a display of attention, or she is seeking to improve her mind, which is even worse. ... But the instant I gauged her true intellectual merit something was released inside me, and I became aware again of how young she was, and how lovely. I can never feel much attraction to a woman whom I consider clever—it feels too much like courting a man. But once I had realised she was just another sweet little gosling, I began to woo her in earnest.

I particularly enjoyed the beefy German woman-of-action, Lene, an Oxford undergraduate who uses Emil und die Detektive as a practical guide to detective work, and has set herself the apparently impossible task of getting an effete upper-class Englishman to have sex with her. (Ultra-violence turns out to be the answer...)

There are all sorts of scholarly allusions and obscure jokes, as you would expect. I was a bit puzzled by the name of the village where Pendragon Castle is situated, Llanvygan. As there's no "v" in the Welsh alphabet, I was starting to suspect that it must be some kind of Hungarian counterpart to Llareggub. But Googling it turns up someone who speculates that it might be meant as an archaic spelling of "Llanfeugan", which would be the church of St Meugan, an early British saint of dubious authenticity sometimes said to have Arthurian connections. However, for the same money you could go further: Wikipedia suggests that variant spellings of Meugan include Mawgan and Machan. Could this be a jokey reference to Arthur Machen buried so deep that only a philologist could find it? Nothing I've learnt about Szerb could rule that sort of thing out...

Great fun, and it does make you think a bit about some of the conventions of sensational fiction. ( )
2 vote thorold | Dec 8, 2019 |
Given the subject matter of this book I expected to like it far more than I did, but the tone that Szerb wrote the story in tempered my enjoyment rather severely. Its most impressive quality isn't one that I put much value in, and unfortunately I kept being reminded of other books that I think handle similar subject matter in a more impressive fashion. Nevertheless, it's certainly not a bad book, and I'm planning on giving another Szerb book a try in the near future.

The Pendragon Legend is an adventure story with a dollop of the supernatural thrown in, set in Great Britain despite the Hungarian protagonist. Unfortunately, Szerb took the British sensibilities to heart while writing this book, with the tone maintaining a stiff upper lip throughout. This should be an exciting story, with the protagonist staying in a mysterious manner house with a noble that keeps himself secluded while performing bizarre and secretive experiments. After a ghostly rider appears, and several murder attempts occur, the protagonist finds himself wandering abandoned castles and dark crypts, racing to save lives and solve mysteries. This should be visceral stuff, but the writing never communicates the sense of foreboding, mystery, suspense, or terror that the story could have featured- and it would have been better served if Szerb's writing made me feel more emotion. Even when a child is kidnapped for the purposes of a Satanic ritual I didn't feel anything, because the book presents the information as more of a curiosity than something that actually matters to the characters, or the story. The tone most strongly reminded me of Scooby-Doo, though only Scooby-Doo goofy on a couple of occasions, and as such it undercuts the action actually taking place.

The problems caused by the tone are exacerbated by the characters, most of which are no more than stock characters of the sort that typically populate adventure novels or else are eccentric in ways that define them enough so that Szerb didn't feel the need to give them any real characterization beyond those quirks. The main character is a bit better, but you never get the sense he's invested in the happenings that are surrounding him. He's largely an observer, and whenever something extraordinary happens he quickly reverts to discussing his thoughts on women or referencing Casanova. Seriously, Casanova must be mentioned about six or seven times in the book, and besides some broad parallels I don't think the references add anything, at least nothing sufficient to outweigh the annoyance the repetition inspired in me. Other characters also muse on relationships or life more generally, but the motivations of these characters are so simplistically rendered that they never feel like people, and so their musings in turn feel stilted.

Because the tone doesn't imbue the scenes with emotional impact and because the characters aren't sympathetic or fully fleshed out it's hard to care about the story, so the writing is left to shoulder much of the burden. The writing has good flow, and to its credit The Pendragon Legend has an interesting style that feels far more modern than books of this era (the 1930s) typically do. If I had randomly pulled this off of a shelf and began reading it I would probably guess that it was written in the 90s, with its light and easy take on the material. In that sense it's a book ahead of its time- unfortunately, being a trailblazer for this style of writing doesn't particularly serve the story it's trying to tell. I kept being reminded of the work of Umberto Eco while reading this book, since he's another author that has explored mysteries with the hint of the supernatural or mysterious (The Name of the Rose) and also the world of secret societies, mystic rituals, and the like (Foucault's Pendulum). Unfortunately, The Pendragon Legend pales in comparison to those works, at least in my opinion.

I'm by no means writing off Szerb just yet. I'm going to give his most well-regarded work Journey by Moonlight a try in the near future. He's certainly not a bad writer, and if you want a light supernatural mystery story you might love this book, he just took an approach with the material that I didn't care for. To someone else The Pendragon Legend might be a great book, one of their favorites, but unfortunately to me it was a bit of a disappointment. ( )
3 vote BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
Szerb must have had a lot of fun writing this book, because I had a lot of fun reading it! It combines murder and mystery, the lure of old books, conflicts over legacies, the occult, the wilds of Wales, and engaging characters, while at the same time satirizing all of the above.

János Bákty, a young Hungarian toiling away at the British Library, not unlike Szerb himself, first encounters the Earl of Pendragon at a party he almost didn't attend. The beneficiary of a small inheritance, Bákty devotes his energy to helping "elderly English gentlemen in the pursuit of their intellectual whims." Thus, at the time he meets the Earl, he is already immersed in the study of 17th century English mystics, especially Fludd, a subject that turns out to be of deep personal interest to the Earl, who promptly invites Bákty to Pendragon.

Before Bákty travels there, he not only learns more about the legends of Pendragon (including previous earls deeply engaged in Rosicrucianism, a mysterious midnight horseman who exacts vengeance/justice, and an abandoned castle) but also accidentally (?) meets a wildly adventurous but apparently ignorant man named Maloney who, it seems, is great friends with the earl's nephew Osborne, and they are planning to go to Pendragon themselves. Before they can all go, Bákty receives a mysterious phone call warning him to stay away and encounters an alluring woman who gives him a ring to give to the Earl but makes him promise not to say who gave it to him.

Then the three young men travel to Pendragon, where Bákty meets Osborne's sister Cynthia and encounters various strange household servants. It would be an understatement to say that complications ensue: scary and mysterious night-time sounds, missing bullets from a gun, and an apparent madman in the neighboring village are only the beginning of a tale that includes the all-too-real as well as the supernatural and esoteric. "Here at last was the great and terrible adventure my anxieties had been leading me towards for ten long years," Bákty thinks.

Bákty is an endearing character, in part because the reader is able to sense that the may, at times, be a little too trusting (although he occasionally has a glimmer of unease). At one point he thinks, "it almost hurt to think how stupid I had been, how helpless and utterly, utterly stupid." Bákty's love of scholarship is contagious:

"It seemed as if I had only to open a door to see directly into the era of Asaph Pendragon. Every now and then I was overwhelmed by a strange, disconcerting happiness. I felt preternaturally old, a relic from the age of folios staring out in astonishment at the mankind of today." p. 101

And as the saga ends, he has actually learned something:

"I'm saying nothing, Lene. I can't. There are some things that have an inner truth, but become nonsense when spoken. It just isn't possible to explain . . .We live simultaneously in two worlds, and there are two levels of meaning. One can be understood by everyone, the other is beyond words and is utterly horrible." p. 302

But Bákty is far from the only delightful character in this book (including the delightfully evil ones). While the Earl remains somewhat mysterious, most of the other characters are fascinating including, in addition to those already mentioned, a stalwart and sexually advance young German woman (the Lene Bákty addresses above). And the rugged Welsh landscape is itself a character. In addition, Szerb has a wonderful sense of pacing: I found it difficult to put this book down. I will definitely continue to read more of Szerb.
11 vote rebeccanyc | Mar 8, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (6 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Antal Szerbprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dandoy, GyörgyiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Duró, GáborAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fahlström, SusannaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Großmann-Vendrey, SusannaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hegedüs, GézaForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marsden, SimonCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Poszler, GyörgyAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rix, LenTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ventavoli, BrunoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Surely thine hour has come, thy great wind blows,
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The Wind Among the Reeds, W. B. Yeats 1899
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"My way is to begin at the beginning" said Lord Byron, who knew his way around polite society.
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At an end-of-the London season soiree, the young Hungarian scholar-dilettante Janos Batky is introduced to the Earl of Gwynedd, a reclusive eccentric who is the subject of strange rumours. Invited to the family seat, Pendragon Castle in North Wales, Batky receives a mysterious phone-call warning him not to go... Antal Szerb's first novel The Pendragon Legend (1934), set in Wales is a gently satirical blend of gothic and romantic genres, crossed with the murder mystery format to produce a fast-moving and often hilarious romp. But beneath the surface, the reader becomes aware of a steely intelligence probing moral, psychological and religious questions.

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