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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Pendragon Legend

Szerb Antal

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To purchase The Pendragon Legend

Title: The Pendragon Legend
Author: Szerb Antal
Genre: Novel
Written: 1934 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 313 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: The Pendragon Legend - US
The Pendragon Legend - UK
The Pendragon Legend - Canada
The Pendragon Legend - India
La légende de Pendragon - France
Die Pendragon-Legende - Deutschland
La leyenda de los Pendragon - España
  • Hungarian title: A Pendragon legenda
  • Translated by Len Rix
  • Previously published under the same title in a translation by Halápy Lili (1963)

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Our Assessment:

A- : good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 24/11/2007 Alberto Manguel
Forbes . 31/10/2007 Richard Hyfler
FAZ . 24/12/2004 Kolja Mensing
The Guardian A 17/6/2006 Nicholas Lezard
The Independent . 10/7/2006 Paul Bailey
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 11/1/2005 Hans Christian Kosler
Wall Street Journal . 19/12/2014 Sam Sacks
Die Welt . 31/12/2004 Elmar Krekeler
Die Zeit . 9/12/2004 Ulrich Baron

  From the Reviews:
  • "Szerb, however, aware that gothic literature had long become its own parody, played his story for laughs. The result is a dark tale of spiritual quest told in the style of the Marx brothers." - Alberto Manguel, Financial Times

  • "The book contains an encyclopedic array of gothic effects: exotic locales, apparitions by moonlight, babbling prophets, frightened clerics, an outraged peasantry. If parodying gothic literature were all he was up to, one might not be impressed. (...) But plenty of words have passed under the pen since then, so Szerb, who didn’t seem to have any bias against popular literature, was also able to draw on the conventions of all manner of mysteries and adventures. And it’s all done with considerable narrative verve and great economy." - Richard Hyfler, Forbes

  • "Aus heutiger Sicht ist das ironische Spiel mit den Genres stellenweise etwas ermüdend, und wer die elegante Zeichnung der Charaktere in Reise im Mondlicht mochte, wird von den etwas dünnen Figuren in Szerbs Debüt wohl enttäuscht sein. Dafür finden sich hier einige knappe Verweise auf die aktuelle politische Situation, die in dem späteren Werk beinahe ganz fehlen." - Kolja Mensing, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The novel shoots back and forth between London and Wales; and, quite astonishingly, there is not a false note in it. (...) Szerb is a master novelist, a comedian whose powers transcend time and language (again, thanks to Rix for his tender approach to the source material), and a playful, sophisticated intellect. (...) There is so much in this book that it is impossible to summarise, except to say that it is a romp, but one which romps within itself; it has fun with the conventions, and has fun with having fun with them, too. It is an absolute treat, deliciously ludic, to be read with a big smile on your face throughout." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Szerb was fluent in German and English and greatly interested in unusual religious beliefs. His knowledge of Rosicrucianism and the occult informs this often very funny book, which takes many affectionate potshots at the period's popular fiction. Szerb, who produced a history of English literature, knew his Shakespeare, Blake and Milton, but also the frothier writings of John Buchan, Edgar Wallace and P G Wodehouse." - Paul Bailey, The Independent

  • "An academic jeu d’esprit, the novel was Szerb’s valentine to English literature, with teasing pastiches of John Cowper Powys, P.G. Wodehouse (whom Szerb translated into Hungarian) and the early, comic fiction of Aldous Huxley." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "Ein riesiges schauriges Post-Blake-Post-Collins'-Post-Poe-Post-Edgar-Wallace'sches Maschinentheater setzt Szerb ein. Er tut es mit Lust und bewunderungswürdiger Leichtigkeit. Es ist unerläßlich für den Roman. Aber es ist als Schneemaschine ein bißchen zu effektiv. Es hüllt dieses zwischen sanft ironisiertem Schauerroman und wissenschaftsskeptischem Essay, zwischen Gegenwarts- und Europa-Satire, zwischen philosophischer Exkursion und Kolportage doch einigermaßen geradlinig schlafwandelnde, schlanke Ungetüm doch so blickdicht ein, daß man seine inneren Konturen bestenfalls ahnen und es sich allzu leicht mit der Betrachtung seiner schönen Hülle zufrieden geben könnte." - Elmar Krekeler, Die Welt

  • "Antal Szerb würfelt Elemente der Kriminal- und Gespenstergeschichte, des Liebes- und Kolportageromans zusammen, ohne sie sonderlich ernst zu nehmen, und das ist das Problem dieses eleganten, oft wunderbar komischen, doch im Kern nostalgischen und antimodernistischen Romans." - Ulrich Baron, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Pendragon Legend is set in England, but the narrator is a Hungarian whose "occupation is to assist elderly Englishmen in the pursuit of their intellectual whims", János Bátky. In his early thirties, he's a bookish sort with a particular interest in 17th-century mysticism (the alchemists and the like) and a particular weakness for the ladies. The story gets going when he is introduced to the Earl of Gwynedd, Owen Pendragon, and he's invited to come have a look at the volumes in the Pendragon Library.
       The Pendragons are notoriously reclusive, and the opportunity to study the treasures in the library is certainly a great one, but János finds a lot more than he bargained for when he travels to Wales. For one, he goes there in the company of the gregarious and larger-than-life Maloney, who befriended him at the British Library. It turns out that rock-climbing obsessed Maloney didn't latch onto the Hungarian by accident: there's a larger conspiracy going on; indeed: "One of the greatest fortunes in Britain is at stake".
       The secretive and withdrawn Earl also has good reason for keeping to himself: as his niece notes after yet another misadventure: "This is the third time in a month that someone's tried to kill my uncle." And not long after János' arrival there is indeed a violent death. There are also all sorts of mysterious goings-on -- and there's also the Pendragon legend itself ..... (This is a family whose motto -- or, as one of the characters melodramatically puts it: "or rather their curse !" -- is: "I believe in the resurrection of the body" .....)
       János is almost never quite in the know or on top of things. It's hard to know who to trust, and those who want to get at the Earl repeatedly try to make it look like János is helping them out, putting him in all sorts of awkward positions. His weakness for the fairer sex also complicates matters.
       The Pendragon Legend doesn't take itself too seriously. Near the end, János praises Aldous Huxley as: "the cleverest and wittiest of all English novelists", and there's a lot of similarity in approach and tone to Huxley's early novels (The Pendragon Legend was written in 1934). Szerb offers nicely exaggerated types, but gets away with it: he doesn't seem to overdo it, even though much is near the absurd. It's a particularly successful mix of English and central European sensibilities and humour, and it makes for a very entertaining read.
       János is often blinded by romance (and/or sex), but he recognises and admits to his weakness. He longs for several of the women in the novel (and succumbs a few times, as well), but is able to see them in a different light as well. (Part of his charm, however, is that he never seems to learn, at least as regards women (both in the particular, as well as in general).) Along the way he also has good fun with all sorts of other types -- and the mystical background (as well as the fortune at stake) and the Welsh and London settings also add to the atmosphere, making for quite a layered text, offering all sorts of pleasures. (There's mystery, adventure, a Gothic touch, a bookish note, some romance, some sex, some spying and double-crossing, and quite a bit more.)
       Among the most appealing aspects of the books is the way people fail to communicate, talking at but not with each other. The apparently oblivious Maloney, Lene's seduction of Osborne, and any number of other of often very funny examples leave János bemused but also apart from the rest. Occasionally he can play along, but only with some sense of disappointment, as when he aims to please Cynthia:

     "I believe you even speak Sanskrit."
     "Fluently," I replied. But she believed that too.
     "And you must surely know the Russian novelists. Tell me something about Dostoevsky or Béla Bartók. I've a friend who never stops talking about them."
     "I never met Bartók," I said, untruthfully, shocked at her ignorance. "But I knew old Dostoevsky really well. He and my father were at primary school together, and he often came for supper. He had a beard like Pierce Gwyn Mawr's."
       Misrepresentation is widespread, and matters are further complicated by the Earl's unwillingness to believe one of those trying to do him harm could possibly be conniving against him. It's fairly clear who the 'spy' in the household is that constantly leaks information about the Pendragon-goings-on, but that is yet another case of warped communication, of someone being used to ends they can not see.
       The Pendragon Legend is somewhat simple and exaggerated, but thoroughly enjoyable. Szerb strikes just the right tone in his narrator -- neither too gullible nor too wise (and someone willing to put intellectual pursuits aside if it means enjoying the company of a good woman) -- and the somewhat convoluted story has enough appealing elements to easily keep the reader in suspense throughout. Good fun.

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The Pendragon Legend: Reviews: Szerb Antal: Other books by Szerb Antal under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Szerb Antal (1901-1945) was President of the Hungarian Literary Academy.

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© 2006-2021 the complete review

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