Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 22, 2020

The Third Tower, Journeys in Italy (1936), by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix

Back in 2016 I had a subscription to Pushkin Press, and every few weeks one of their lovely little books would arrive, and as I added it to my Goodreads TBR, I’d think, this will only take an hour to read… But as is so often the case with me when I subscribe to bookish things, I don’t tend to read them when they arrive, and too often they languish.  But I shouldn’t have let this one wait so long, it really is a bit of a treasure.

This is the blurb:

A typically brilliant, ironic and moving travelogue by one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.

In August 1936 a Hungarian writer in his mid-thirties arrives by train in Venice, on a journey overshadowed by the coming war and charged with intense personal nostalgia. Aware that he might never again visit this land whose sites and scenes had once exercised a strange and terrifying power over his imagination, he immerses himself in a stream of discoveries, reappraisals and inevitable self-revelations. From Venice, he traces the route taken by the Germanic invaders of old down to Ravenna, to stand, fulfilling a lifelong dream, before the sacred mosaics of San Vitale.

This journey into his private past brings Antal Szerb firmly, and at times painfully, up against an explosive present, producing some memorable observations on the social wonders and existential horrors of Mussolini’s new Roman Imperium.

I’d never heard of Antal Szerb.  The Pushkin Press site summarises a longer article about him at Wikipedia.

Antal Szerb was born in Budapest in 1901. Though of Jewish descent, he was baptised at an early age and remained a lifelong Catholic. He rapidly established himself as a formidable scholar, through studies of Ibsen and Blake and histories of English, Hungarian and world literature. He was a prolific essayist and reviewer, ranging across all the major European languages. Debarred by successive Jewish laws from working in a university, he was subjected to increasing persecution, and finally murdered in a forced labour camp in 1945. Pushkin Press publishes his novels The Pendragon Legend, Oliver VII and his masterpiece Journey by Moonlight, as well as the historical study The Queen’s Necklace and Love in a Bottle and Other Stories.

Having just spent the last week reconstructing my TBR Excel file — which involved removing over a thousand books from the shelves and sorting them alphabetically and recording their details in the new file before putting them all back again — I am restraining my impulse to order The Pendragon Legend and Journey by Moonlight but this is only because I know there is *no* room on the S-shelf.  Plus, just today I bought another half dozen treasures home from Bound Books in Hampton Street after picking up a reserve from the library.  (And a good thing I went today too, we are locking down again in Melbourne because of a surge in COVID_19 community transmission.  Just when I was starting to venture out, thank goodness I got a looooong overdue hair cut yesterday!)

The Third Tower is a reminder to pay attention to current affairs.  Though Szerb was aware that being able to travel was something that he expected to change, he went to Italy on impulse, only to observe that the beautiful sites that lure us still, were compromised.  While he berates himself for being a snob about it, he is aware that the crowds he wasn’t expecting are there because Mussolini has made train travel so cheap and because nationalism is on the rise.  Pushkin Press has emphasised the sites Szerb visits with sombre B&W reproductions of photos from that era, contrasting these images with the colourful memories we have if we’ve travelled to Italy.  As Szerb muses about the cities and their landmarks, the crowds, the trains and the meals, we—reading this in the C21st, grasp his unease at fascism revealing itself before his eyes.   Everywhere there seems to be exultation — over Italy’s defeat of  Abyssinia, its menace in Spain, and all the other manifestations of Mussolini’s rise to power and his glorification of the masses.  If you believe the papers, (and clearly Szabo doesn’t) everything is fine. He suspected that there was more going on than he knew, and today we know he was right.

It’s just a short book, but it’s certainly not lightweight.

See also this review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

Author: Antal Szerb
Title: The Third Tower, Journeys in Italy
Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2014, first published in 1936
ISBN: 9781782270539, pbk, 105 pages
Source: Pushkin Press Subscription



  1. What an interesting man he sounds. The little Pushkin books have such interesting authors and he sounds like he’s right up there. Very sad though that he lost his life prematurely. On a brighter note, doesn’t the first haircut after isolation feel great?! 😁😁😁


    • It seems trivial to talk about haircuts, but I am so glad I went on Friday because there’s been a spike in infections and so some restrictions are back in place with the threat of more if things get worse.
      I was overdue for a haircut anyway because I couldn’t go after eye surgery… another thing they don’t tell you beforehand is that for a couple of weeks you can’t put your head down afterwards (as you do when they’re cutting the back or blow-waving) because it puts pressure on the eye. So I hadn’t been since late January… you can just imagine what that does to very fine unmanageable hair. I was starting to think about those hats that people wear when they’re having chemo!


  2. I read Journey by Moonlight quite a few years ago now and remember it being slightly pretentious.


    • Well, look at that, I *had* heard of this author because I read your review!


      • LOL. That happens to me all the time 🤷🏻‍♀️ As to hair, I am embracing my grey… 16 weeks without dye and I have a few inches of silver to prove it. I had my hair trimmed about 4 weeks ago and discussed options with my stylist. She was so positive / supportive about going grey that she gave me the boost of confidence I needed. Showed me how to tie it up so the two tone effect isn’t too obvious etc. Next time you see me I will be a silver fox 🧑🏻‍🦳😊


        • My problem is not the grey, there’s hardly any of it. It’s that when my hair is its natural dark brown, I look like my mother.
          And nobody wants to look like her mother…


  3. I too read Journey by Moonlight, and found it great in parts, but uneven. What an interesting character, though, and such a terrible end. As for the hair: my wife and I are returning to the look of our younger, hippier days. UK salons may be able to open from July 4 – so plenty of time to get more unkempt.


    • Simon, there is hair, and then there is hair like mine. Superfine and totally unmanageable unless I grow it long (as in *my* hippie days) or I find someone who can really cut hair.
      The Spouse can get shaggy and he just looks like Tolstoy. It’s so unfair…


  4. This sounds like my kind of book. I too read Journey by Moonlight some time ago and found it intriguing. Read it very quickly and may read it again.
    As for hair mine is mostly covered by beanies or hats as go into the ocean most days and too lazy to continually mess around with it. There is a liberation in this age journey and along with Covid 19 has shifted my views on things I had never questioned or maybe more truthfully avoided.


    • What I like about this new cut is that I have experimented with just washing it and shaking it and leaving it to dry (in lockdown, there is no one to see what it looks like) and it looks ok. Not wonderful, as when the hairdresser did it, but ok. And deliciously easy.
      My next experiment will be with a blow-dryer, to see what I can achieve should the occasion arises where I will be seen in public…


  5. You took out and replaced over a thousand books Lisa? Should I feel better about my 300-plus? The shelves are looking oddly empty now post-culling, I feel I need more books to fill them back up again. I think I really do want to live in a library…


    • Um, yes, I’m afraid so. I started collecting when I was in a panic about eBooks signalling the end of the real book, and I was also conscious of Australian new releases having a shelf life of about six months. If you don’t buy them then, then you have to hope you can pick up a second-hand copy. Plus, I like to support my favourite writers to encourage them to write more books.
      But all these sensible reasons aside, I just love being in my library with all my books.
      …Well… some of them. The ones I’ve read live elsewhere: in the entrance hall, in the sitting room, and in new shelving in our family room. (I don’t know if this will work, but I posted this to Facebook, (but the photo doesn’t show where the travel books are):


      • Alas I close my Facebook account so I can’t view the pic – but I love books in a house Lisa so it’s all good! If I could I keep everything I would but pending house moves mean a cull needs to be done, tough though it is! I have two piles next to my bed as well… mostly library books so at least they go out again!

        12 Edmonstone Street makes a tour of a house into a fascinating story, Malouf is magical! Only a superb writer could manage a feat like that.

        I’m a fellow sufferer of fine hair – in fact the haircut I had as a girl looks just like yours, I think we’re the same era – my mother had it cut short because she despaired of ever being able to do anything with it! I’ve always wanted thick wavy hair… sigh.


        • You are right, of course. This is the exact reason why I have not moved house since 1978…


  6. PS: 12 Edmonstone Street by Malouf on you TBR list is wonderful – picked up a copy at a Rotary book fair and I will never part with it!


    • I love Malouf’s writing, and have heard that it’s one of his best:)


  7. This sounds like a worthwhile read Lisa.

    And, 12 Edmonstone St is on my TBR pile – has been for years and years and years. I so want to read it.

    I have been realising for some time that I need to get stuck into my books, read and unread as they are becoming out of hand.

    Oh, and as for hair, I have fine AND thinning hair – my only saving grace is that it’s naturally curly which makes it a little easier to manage. I do wish there was more of it though!


  8. I read through your post thinking what a wonderful book this sounded and how I must get a copy, then looked on Amazon and found I’d bought a copy back in 2014 and so checked the blog to find my review… This is why I have a blog! I loved this book too, for its wonderfully evocative capturing of a lost time. He’s an author I’ve really enjoyed and I wish he’d written more,


    • That’s a lovely review, I’ve added the link to my post.
      (I’m glad I’m not the only one who forgets which books she’s read and has to check her own blog to find out…)

      Liked by 1 person

  9. i reviewed oliver iiv a number of years ago i love the little pushkins met so many great writers through them


    • Indeed yes. I’ve read many reviews of Pushkins on your blog:)


  10. […] On my bucket list is The Third Tower, Journeys in Italy, by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix […]


  11. […] The Third Tower, Journeys in Italy, by Antal Szerb, translated by Len Rix […]


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