The Queen’s Necklace

Written by Antal Szerb (trans. Len Rix)
Review by Susan Higginbotham

Published originally in 1942 in Hungarian, The Queen’s Necklace is a nonfiction work by an author known primarily to English speakers for his novels. Though its focal point is on the famous Affair of the Necklace that brought scandal upon the beleaguered Marie Antoinette, Szerb’s intent, as he tells us in the preface, was not to present the episode in a new light but to “use it as a vantage point from which to take a bearing on the approaching Revolution.”

Szerb, who was to die in a Nazi forced-labor camp just three years after he published The Queen’s Necklace, tells his story elegantly and engagingly, painting vivid pen portraits of those involved. He’s scrupulously fair to his subjects but fortunately doesn’t spare us the edge of his tongue: describing Jeanne de la Motte, for instance, he tells us, “This sort of person always possesses a certain insinuating eloquence: especially when they are parading their sorrows.” As promised, he doesn’t fix his gaze merely on the necklace affair itself but ranges about, touching on contemporary art and literature and on the cult of sensibility, for instance. As such, he adds interest to an already fascinating episode in history.