Oliver VII Paperback – Jan 2 2007
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"Szerb belongs with the master novelists of the 20th century." - Paul Bailey, Daily Telegraph
"Journey by Moonlight is a burning book, a major book." - George Szirtes, Times Literary Supplement
"[T]here is more to it than fable. It actually has much in common with Journey by Moonlight the flight from identity, the alleys of Venice, the choices that must be made between duty and pleasure, or between two women. And it has its comedy, too." - Nicholas Lezard, Guardian
"A writer of immense subtlety and generosity, with an uncommonly light touch which masks its own artistry. His novels transform farce into poetry, comic melancholy into a kind of self-effacing grace... Antal Szerb is one of the great European writers." - Ali Smith
About the Author
Antal Szerb (1901–1945) was born into a cultivated Budapest family of Jewish descent. Graduating in German and English, he rapidly established himself as a prolific scholar, publishing books on drama and poetry, studies of Ibsen and Blake, and histories of English, Hungarian, and world literature. His novels, available in Pushkin Press, include The Pendragon Legend (1934), set in London and Wales, Journey by Moonlight (1937), The Queen's Necklace (1943), and Oliver VII (1943). He was beaten to death in the forced-labour camp at Balf in January 1945.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
OLIVER VII is not great literature. Its characters are one-dimensional. There are no unique insights. Szerb evokes no special worlds or worldviews. Fate is playful and comical and not a profound confrontation with conscience or duty. Even so, this novel does share many features with Szerb's superb novel Journey by Moonlight (Pushkin Paper). As Len Rix observes in his terrific afterward, these include protagonists who start as misfits, flee from their responsibilities, and have strange adventures as they quest for their true selves. In JOURNEY, Szerb uses these preoccupations to create outstanding fiction. In OLIVER, the same material produces, well, entertainment.
Rix also observes that OLIVER reveals Szerb's "sly wit, benign good humor, and capacity to surprise us at every turn... and is unswervingly playful."
Recommended as a beach book, provided the amazing JOURNEY is read first. Rounded up to four stars.
Standard protocol dealing with "spoilers" weighs against further summary of the plot. Suffice it to say that the madcap farce never wanes. As the novel proceeds, new twists and deceptions arise every few pages, but all are resolved or finessed with ingenuity or good fortune. The novel is a frothy Bohemian operetta mixed with a Marx Brothers movie. Antal Szerb tells the story deftly and with abundant good cheer. OLIVER VII is a delicious piece of Central European entertainment.
There is, however, a serious aspect to the novel. It was the last novel that Szerb wrote before he was compelled to wear the yellow star, then consigned to the ghetto, and finally transported to the labor camp where he was beaten to death in January 1945. He had had plenty of opportunities to escape Hungary, one involving an academic post at Columbia University. But he declined them all, in large part out of loyalty to Hungary and those he loved. In a sense, he internalized the line of the greatest Alturian poet that serves as the motto for this novel: "Duty is not a bed of roses."
This short novel - novella, really - is set partly in Venice but mostly in Alturia, a fictitious kingdom in Mitteleuropa, closer in spirit to Ruritania than Hungary. If the whole book does not quite live up to the scintillating wit of its opening, it makes a hugely enjoyable read. Like Joseph Roth, another great Jewish writer who grew up in the last days of Austro-Hungary, Szerb betrays a certain nostalgia for the Habsburg monarchy. The Oliver VII of the title is a monarch who would rather not be king - until, that is, love persuades him otherwise. Unlike Roth's often mordant works, this is an effervescent comedy without a trace of bitterness, its levity recalling a Franz Lehar operetta. Such light-heartedness is remarkable for a work written in the depths of the Second World War, when the Jewish population of Hungary was facing ever-increasing persecution. (Szerb himself declined to escape to safety abroad when he could have done.)