REVIEW by Jemma L King

NWR Issue 104

The Third Tower: Journeys in Italy

by Antal Szerb

The Third Tower is Antal Szerb’s 1936 collection of sensitive and intellectual notes written as he travelled Italy against the growing shadow of fascism. Szerb, of Jewish Hungarian extraction, journeys into Mussolini’s Italy where ‘only wonderful things’ seem to happen. The book begins as an academic travel journey – where to go, what to eat, but justified paranoia seeps increasingly into the narrative. Conscious of the shifting sands of European politics and geographic borders, the author looks upon his beloved Italy as would ‘a dying man’:

I simply must go to Italy – while Italy remains where it is, and while going there is still possible. Who knows how much longer that will be; indeed, for how much longer I, or any of us, will be able to go anywhere?’

Books and films based on the period have a tendency to focus on Nazi Germany, so there’s a real sense of discovery in seeing the inner workings of another quasi-Nazi state. There are also some fascinating parallels with the propaganda of contemporary super-powers. Alluding to the constant promotion of Italy’s superiority within the media, Szerb writes:

This non-stop, unceasing celebration, this relentless mass euphoria. It’s as terrifying as the Day of Salvation. {The Italians} are as perfectly conditioned as Huxley’s humanity of the future. Man in his natural state is dissatisfied. Anyone who is not should be treated with suspicion.

Amongst the jollity, Szerb’s narration drifts to sinister comparisons. Sitting on a piazza in San Zanipolo, the writer compares the throngs of local sailors in their white uniforms to ‘Englishmen among the natives’, recalling of course, the uglier side to British history. Szerb’s scholarly background lends him a command of this ‘forwards/backwards’ storytelling and this allows his account an authority and a satisfying sense of historical texture. His approach is also postmodern in many ways – some chapters are mere snapshots. ‘A Thought’ for example, is just 54 words long.

A brief word on cover design and printing: The second that I picked this book up, I’d decided that this would be one to open only at the perfect moment, when the sun and moon aligned just so, and sounds in my immediate environment had fallen below the normal human hearing range. I’m confident that many book buyers now intentionally purchase the physical item as a protest against the ghostly, formless e-book alternative. Pushkin Press have clearly made it their USP to produce books that beg to be bought as ornamental baubles. The Third Tower’s cover is cut from thick matt paper and so finely corrugated that my finger nail was needed to test whether the pattern was indeed, three dimensional. The notes themselves are printed on premium paper and notch-bound by an independent Cornish printer – in fact, the reader has to sever most of the pages from their adjoining sibling pages before being able to read them.

So, overall, I’d describe this book as ‘perfect’, a term I’d normally hesitate to use but here it is appropriate. Szerb’s notes are not only a quality read but they should be more widely acknowledged given the trueness and tragedy of his story. ‘Italy is mine, not Mussolini’s. I am mine alone in my self-completeness’ he writes defiantly. The author’s quiet but resolute rectitude is heart-breaking in light of his biography: Szerb was murdered in a Nazi Labour camp in 1945. His notes, filled with courageousness and defiance in the face of emergent evil seems timely reading material given the continent-wide swing to the far right in our recent European elections.

Jemma L King’s second poetry collection is The Undressed


previous review: The Undressed
next review: Openings: A European Journal


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