Dezsö Kosztolányi - Like all the world’s pain is encapsulated in a soap bubble; so much wonder is in the subtle descriptions

Dezsö Kosztolányi , Skylark, Trans. by Richard Aczel (New York Review Books, 2010)

«Dezső Kosztolányi (1885-1936) was born in Subotica, a provincial Austro-Hungarian city (located in present-day Serbia) that would serve as the model for the fictional town in which he later set several novels, including Skylark. His father was the headmaster of the local gymnasium, which he attended until he was expelled for insubordination. Kosztolányi spent three years studying Hungarian and German at the University of Budapest, but quit in 1906 to go into journalism. In 1908 he was among the first contributors to the legendary literary journal Nyugat; in 1910, the publication of his second collection of poems, The Complaints of a Poor Little Child, caused a literary sensation. Kosztolányi turned from poetry to fiction in the 1920s, when he wrote the novels Nero, the Bloody Poet (to which Thomas Mann contributed a preface); Skylark; and Anna Edès. An influential critic and, in 1931, the first president of the Hungarian PEN Club, Kosztolányi was also celebrated as the translator of such varied writers as Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Goethe, and Rilke, as well as for his anthology of Chinese and Japanese poetry. He was married to the actress Ilona Harmos and had one son.

«It is 1900, give or take a few years. The Vajkays—call them Mother and Father—live in Sárszeg, a dead-end burg in the provincial heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Father retired some years ago to devote his days to genealogical research and quaint questions of heraldry. Mother keeps house. Both are utterly enthralled with their daughter, Skylark. Unintelligent, unimaginative, unattractive, and unmarried, Skylark cooks and sews for her parents and anchors the unremitting tedium of their lives.
Now Skylark is going away, for one week only, it’s true, but a week that yawns endlessly for her parents. What will they do? Before they know it, they are eating at restaurants, reconnecting with old friends, attending the theater. And this is just a prelude to Father’s night out at the Panther Club, about which the less said the better. Drunk, in the light of dawn Father surprises himself and Mother with his true, buried, unspeakable feelings about Skylark.
Then, Skylark is back. Is there a world beyond the daily grind and life’s creeping disappointments? Kosztolányi’s crystalline prose, perfect comic timing, and profound human sympathy conjure up a tantalizing beauty that lies on the far side of the irredeemably ordinary. To that extent, Skylark is nothing less than a magical book.»

«Mother and Father dote on their daughter, nicknamed Skylark. Why, then, do they only begin to savor life when she goes on a short holiday? and what will they do when she returns? "The author slyly depicts a smalltown life that remains curiously relevant today with his exploration of the tension between the politics of the left and the right, atheism and Christianity, and parents and their children" —Publishers Weekly

«Dezso Kosztolányi belonged to a remarkable generation of Central European writers. This novel is a masterpiece. From the opening sentences, he is drawing on nuance and subtle detail; comedy and pathos. Every gesture speaks volumes… for all the humour and the easy comedy this lively study of small life is as profound as a prayer, as subtle as a lament.» —The Irish Times

«Skylark is the ugly spinster daughter of a retired middle class couple in a provincial Hungarian town. Their lives revolve around her, but when she goes to stay with relatives in the country for a week they quickly adjust. They learn to appreciate restaurant food and go to the theatre — and Ákos meets up with the members of his old club, the Panthers, who have kept up their weekly carousing and card playing despite their age. The night before Skylark is due to return, ideas are voiced which have never been thinkable before.
Skylark (Pacsirta, 1924) is no thriller, with most of it describing ordinary household and social activities — waiting for a train, walking to the station, going out to dinner, and so forth. It moves along easily, however, with distinct episodes and character sketches following one another in quick succession and with a balance between sparse narrative and "close up" description of details. Ákos Vajkay is the only sustained study, but many others are brought to life, sometimes in just a few paragraphs: a railway employee who had once walked with Skylark, various Panthers, the editor of the local paper, dreaming of Budapest and a broader world, and of course Skylark herself and Mrs Vajkay. Some characters almost beg for caricature or a comic treatment, but Skylark never drops into comedy — nor, though it continually verges on the tragic, does it become a tragedy. Eschewing melodrama, Kosztolányi's is a subtler range.
A portrait of Austro-Hungarian provincial society in 1899, a collection of fine character sketches, and a balanced and pleasing story, Skylark is a superbly executed short novel. This edition also includes a useful introduction by Péter Esterházy, describing Kosztolányi's life and literary background.» - Danny Yee

«...Skylark... is a masterpiece.
Skylark has an interesting, yet somewhat mundane, premise. Set in a small provincial Hungarian town in 1899, Mother and Father are sending their daughter Skylark away for a week-long holiday to visit an uncle’s estate. Skylark is in her mid-thirties, yet her parents fret over her preparations as if she is a little girl. They worry about how she will cope. Were they foolish to send her away for a week? How will they cope? Skylark takes care of them, fixes all of their food. What are they going to do without their beloved daughter? During all of the preparations, as we attempt to figure out the family dynamics, we get this wonderful description of Father and Mother — as mouses:
'Father wore a mouse-grey suit, the exact colour of his hair. Even his moustache was the same light shade of grey. Large bags of crumpled, worn, dry skin hung beneath his eyes.
Mother, as always, wore black. Her hair, which she slicked down with walnut oil, was not yet altogether white, and her face showed hardly a wrinkle. Only along her forehead rant two deep furrows.
Yet how alike they looked! The same trembling, startled light in their eyes, their gristly noses narrowing to the same fine point and their ears tinted with the same red glow.'
Meanwhile, Skylark (“They had given her that name years ago, Skylark, many, many years ago, when she still sang. Somehow the name had stuck, and she still wore it like an out-grown childhood dress.”) sits outside waiting for them to call her:
'She did not move at once. Perhaps she hadn’t heard.
In any case, she liked to sit like this, head bowed, peering at her work even when she had tired of it. The experience of many long years had taught her that this posture suited her best.
Perhaps she heard some sound, but still did not look up. She governed herself with all the discipline of an invalid.'
As you can see, much of the joy in this book is in the great descriptions, always perfect but unexpected: mousey parents, a name like an out-grown childhood dress, a woman governing herself with all the discipline of an invalid. These descriptions create such a wide range of possible interpretations. On the surface parents and child love one another — perhaps too much. Or is one being bullied by the other? Finally Skylark goes in to see her doting parents, but the contrast is immediately present:
'The elderly couple watched with fond smiles as she drew near. Then, when her face finally revealed itself between the leaves, the smiles paled slightly on their lips.'
Why the paled smile? Do they fear her? Do they pity her? Do they despise her? But soon Skylark is on a train, and Father and Mother are bereft. They really do miss their daughter. Trying to figure out how to spend their time, they begin making their way to the only restaurant Skylark deemed passable while she was away. Their presence on the street is a strange sight:
'The interest that had met the couple in the restaurant followed them out into the street. Strangers turned to look at them as they passed. Not that there was anything unusual about their appearance. People simply weren’t accustomed to seeing them there in the street, like old couches that belong in the living room and look so strange when, once or twice a year, they’re put outside to air.'
Again, so much wonder is in the subtle descriptions. All that I’ve summarized above takes place in the first few pages of the rather short novel. Father and Mother still have a week to suffer through. Only, to their surprise and not-slight horror, they find that they enjoy themselves. The food at the restaurant is wonderful. Skylark, who must have a sensitive stomach, always produces such bland dishes. They reunite with old friends and go to the theater, something they don’t usually do becasue Skylark’s eyes are sensitive and cannot cope with the theater smoke and the closed-in area.
I must stop summarizing the plot now. I think it is obvious this book is about a father and mother who are basically voluntarily enslaved by their daughter who is sick or ugly or both. However, the book is so much more than that, both in scale and intimacy. This is Hungary in 1899. Father and Mother read the newspapers, but they aren’t interested in the events that we, with hindsight, know are important. But why should they care? Their lives are in complete stasis with so much emotion and power carefully covered up below the surface. This week without Skylark threatens to destabilize the existence they have created.
'In a state of excitement, things that normally pass unnoticed can seem pregnant with significance. At such times even inanimate objects — a lamppost, a gravel path, a bush — can take on a life of their own, primordial, reticent and hostile, stinging our hearts with their indifference and making us recoil with a start. And the very sight of people at such times, blindly pushing their lonely, selfish ends, can suddenly remind us of our own irrevocable solitude, a single word or gesture petrifying in our souls into an eternal symbol of the utter arbitrariness of life.'
The ending of the book is masterful. As one would hope with a “masterpiece,” the threads don’t tie up in the way we might expect, and the pattern turns out to be far more complicated than we imagined — and much sadder. Much is said in this line:
'Nothing had been settled or resolved. But at least they had grown tired. And that was something.'
I can’t recommend this book highly enough.» -

«I’m going to admit that I haven’t been the staunchest fan of Hungarian literature. Not that I’ve read that much, but I haven’t been thrilled by what I read. Skylark is the most enjoyable Hungarian novel I’ve read to date... The plot is simple enough. Skylark is the improbable nickname given to the only daughter of Akos and Antonia Vajkay. Skylark is middle-aged, dumpy and unattractive, but she is extremely precious to her parents. They all live together in a little home stuffed full of “the ghastly icons of provincial life” in the boring small town of Sarszeg. Skylark and her mother do the cooking together and generally enjoy each other’s company. Akos is fifty-nine but looks sixty-five, and he’s on early retirement from his job in county administration. Their days are ordered, modest and utterly predictable, and Akos finds that the “last years of his life he spent increasingly preparing for death.” Life has slowly shrunk for Akos:
“He had not moved in society for years. He neither drank nor smoked. Not only his family doctor, Dr Gal, but also the professor he had consulted in Pest had warned against arteriosclerosis and forbidden him from taking alcohol and – more distressingly – from smoking his beloved cigars.
The only passion remaining to him from the past was to sit in his cramped and perpetually damp study, leafing through a volume of Ivan Nagy’s great tome on Hungarian noble families.”
When the book begins, Skylark is going away on holiday for a week to visit an aunt and uncle in the country, and her parents are devastated at the thought of her week-long absence. They simply cannot imagine the days without her, and when she leaves, many tears are shed at the railway station. For the first day the parents imagine Skylark’s journey, anticipating each stage of her adventure. They dread the week ahead asking each other “how will we bear it?” And Akos even hints optimistically “someone might … turn up” for Skylark, now an acknowledged, unattractive old maid.
For the first day, the time drags for Akos and Antonia, and then they reluctantly venture out into town:
“Already some weeks earlier it had been agreed that, for these few days – it was only a week, after all – they wouldn’t cook at home. Skylark, who presided in all culinary matters, recommended the King of Hungary, Sarszeg’s largest restaurant, as the one place where the cuisine was still tolerable.
The three of them detested restaurants And although they had hardly visited this one, they could talk about it for hours with sneering condescension. The dishwater soups, the tough and gristly meat, the carelessly concocted desserts they served up to the poor unsuspecting bachelors, who had never tasted good home cooking.”
Eating at a restaurant, initially endured as a necessity becomes the event that springboards Akos and his wife back into the vital strains of Sarszeg’s society. Soon all bad habits are resumed. They are courted by some of the town’s most notable flamboyant personalities and find themselves riveted by the town’s intrigue, gossip and scandalous dramas.
Skylark is a bitter-sweet tale–at once it’s joyous and yet also very sad in its examination of the narrowness of our lives and the decisions we make. All families have a unique dynamic, and it often takes being connected to a family unit to understand its pathology. As Tolstoy notes in Anna Karenina:
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
This quote even fits this seemingly boring little family fraught with its own secret little disappointments. The story begins with the parents known as just mother and father, but as the tale develops they become well-rounded human beings that exist beyond any parental function–indeed with their daughter gone they seem to come to life. But at the same time the story is also sympathetic to Skylark. She’s long past what is considered the marriageable age, and when she’s put in the company of her younger flirtatious cousins she’s in the way. Skylark’s great failed, legendary romance with Geza Cifra (a man whose “summer pimples bloomed brightly like ripe cherries” ) is examined in all its humourous and yet poignant details.
Not a great deal happens here, and yet at the same time the very smallness of the tale of a crucial week is delivered with a delectably natural precision. The tale dissects the Vajkay family dynamic and peels apart the layers revealing the refuge and also the crutch the family can provide to its less successful members. In contrast to the Vajkay family is Miklos Ijas, would-be poet and assistant editor of the Sarszeg Gazette. He’s a lonely soul whose family has been decimated by scandal. Tainted by the past, he remains outside of mainstream society, yet he is one of the few people to understand the protective relationship the Vajkays have with their daughter. And he seems to envy the ties between this close-knit family. There’s a sense that we are witnessing a world that will soon disappear. Indeed the novel is set in 1899 and already we can hear the rumblings of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The introduction by Peter Esterhazy offers biographical information on the book’s author, Dezso Kosztolanyi. This was welcome as I had never heard of this author before. So thanks once more to NYRB. I enjoy Skylark immensely and found that this good-natured tale grew on me as it continued. Here’s one last quote showing Kosztolanyi’s lively use of language:
The market seethed in the sweltering heat, humming with noise and ablaze with every imaginable colour. Red peppers shone as brightly as the florid scarlet paint in the paint-shop window across the square. Cabbages displayed their pale-green, silken frills, violet grapes glistened, marrows whitened in the sun, and yellowing melons, already past their best, gave off a sickly choleroid stench.”
This edition is translated by Richard Aczel» -

«This short, perfect novel seems to encapsulate all the world’s pain in a soap bubble. Its surface is as smooth as a fable, its setting and characters are unremarkable, its tone is blithe, and its effect is shattering.
Any story about people is implicitly concerned with fate: How has it come about that this thing rather than that thing has happened to this person rather than that person? Much fiction employs one sort of crude causation or another to strongarm events into a clumsily trumped-up case asserting that A has led inexorably to Z, or, at the other pole, drops in front of us a heap of arbitrary incident and demands that we marvel at the inscrutability of life’s course—which in fact is something we can do perfectly well on our own.
And as we’re well aware that one thing rather than another happens to each person, why should we be interested in what happens to someone who was made up in the first place? We look to fiction writers to divine the true relationships—or true lack of them—between the elements that constitute a human life. In Skylark, we encounter lives that contain no hidden exits or negotiable margins, and we come away from the book feeling that we have experienced the inalterable workings of destiny.
Dezso Kosztolányi ingeniously poises his leading characters to expose, over the course of a week—not only to us but also to themselves—the tangle of intractable emotions that has taken years to develop and binds them hand and foot. The current of satire that runs through Skylark—sometimes faint and melancholy, sometimes rollickingly gleeful—as well as the book’s brevity, might suggest a slight work; on the contrary, the book is essential, a distillation of the heart’s properties. And as there’s no way I can think of to discuss it without revealing the toylike plot to which its depth and dazzle attach, I suggest that you put this review aside right now, go out and buy a copy, and read it without looking at anything that’s printed on the back cover.
A couple goes away for a little while and their child, left alone, creates all kinds of chaos, of which, by the time the parents return, there is no trace. Skylark unfolds from the inversion of that simple stock premise: in this case, it is the child who goes away and the parents who run amok.
By means of a few aggressively naive expedients—a jocular, pseudo- Victorian chapter heading, a local daily newspaper, a calendar, and “the sauntering brass hands of a grandfather clock, which sliced the seemingly endless day into tiny pieces”—the author situates us firmly in the Vajkay household of Sárszeg, a Hungarian provincial town of his invention, just after noon on Friday, September 1, 1899. In this cozily stifling milieu, Mother and Father Vajkay bustle about anxiously, packing the luggage of their adored daughter, Skylark, who is about to depart for an unprecedented week away from home, to visit her aunt, uncle, and cousin in the country.
The preparations for Skylark’s imminent journey—Her comb must be fitted into her luggage! The toothbrush has nearly been forgotten!—seem almost too taxing for Skylark’s parents, who are depicted as little mice. “How alike they looked! The same trembling, startled light in their eyes, their gristly noses narrowing to the same fine point and their ears tinted with the same red glow.”
We do not catch a glimpse of Skylark herself until Mother and Father, finally finished with the packing, summon her to set out for the train:
A girl sat on a bench by the flowerbeds, beneath the horse-chestnut tree. She was crocheting a tablecloth from a ball of yellow cotton….
She did not move at once. Perhaps she hadn’t heard.
In any case, she liked to sit like this, head bowed, peering at her work even when she had tired of it. The experience of many long years had taught her that this posture suited her best.
Perhaps she heard some sound, but still did not look up. She governed herself with all the discipline of an invalid…
“Skylark! ”
The girl raised her eyes to the veranda, where, on the top step, her mother and father stood waiting.
They had given her that name years ago, Skylark, many, many years ago, when she still sang. Somehow the name had stuck, and she still wore it like an outgrown childhood dress.
Skylark breathed a deep sigh—she always sighed thus deeply…. So it was time, she thought; the train would soon be leaving; tonight she’d be sleeping at her uncle’s on the Tarko plain. She waddled along a little like a duck.
The elderly couple watched with fond smiles as she drew near. Then when her face finally revealed itself between the leaves, the smiles paled slightly on their lips.
“It’s time to go, my dear,” said Father, looking at the ground.
Many things have become clear in these few lines: that the person whom we have been thinking of as “the girl” is older than we had assumed, by a very great deal; that she is, or considers herself to be, in some way disabled; that she was a happy child whose adult existence, though it might consist of nothing more arduous than crocheting yellow yarn near the flower beds in her own backyard, is an ongoing struggle that demands rigid self-control; that her appearance governs her behavior at all times, even when she is alone; that she is anticipating her visit to relatives as something of an exile; that she has been assured, however inadvertently, by people who love her, that she is too ugly to be looked at.
The little family sets off for the train station in formation, as is their custom, with Skylark flanked by her parents. When they approach the square, Father—Ákos—first lags behind and then strides ahead. But as they pass the café and the customers observe Skylark, “not disrespectfully, just the way they always did: with a look of grey, benevolent sympathy, lined in red with a certain malevolent pleasure,” Ákos slows his step and walks defiantly at his daughter’s side.
Skylark herself appears to be oblivious to the stares that she and her family receive, though surely her pink parasol—the accoutrement of a pretty girl, as grotesquely unsuited to Skylark as her pretty girl’s nickname—and her “enormous hat with outmoded dark-green feathers” are themselves evidence of defiance as well as of unconscious parody. What can she do but brazen it out? For a woman considered seriously unattractive, perhaps the most humiliating thing of all is to be caught trying.
The Vajkays settle their daughter on the train as solicitously and worriedly as though she were indeed a little child or an invalid, shed some of the inexhaustible supply of tears that are always on the verge of spilling from their eyes, and return home to grieve some more at the bewildering prospect of being without their daughter to take care of and to take care of them for an entire, long week.
'The Vajkays didn’t keep a maid…They had taken on the odd girl here and there, but these never stayed more than a couple of weeks. Skylark was so strict, keeping everything locked away, especially the sugar, and so demanding that the maids all fled before their time was up. They didn’t want a new girl in their home now; after all, they had to be careful with money, had to count every penny. Besides, the girls all stole and gossiped nowadays. And anyway, what could a maid do that they could not? Skylark and her mother did everything themselves, and better too. Cleaning was a joy, and as for cooking, they loved nothing more.'
It will be difficult for Mother to manage on her own this week, and
'Skylark, who presided in all culinary matters, recommended the King of Hungary, Sárszeg’s largest restaurant, as the one place where the cuisine was still tolerable.
The three of them detested restaurants. And although they had hardly visited this one, they could talk about it for hours with sneering condescension.'
It seems that Skylark has a weak stomach, which conveniently precludes the family’s going out in public for dinner as well as eating rich—unhealthy!—foods. In fact, the Vajkays hardly go out at all; Skylark’s delicate eyes can’t tolerate the smoky lamps at the theater, and really, what could they possibly want outside the home? Skylark and Mother are happily occupied in their housekeeping, and Ákos, a retired county archivist, has given up sociable pursuits and pleasures:
'He’d wait for his wife and daughter to get up in the morning, then wait for them to go to bed in the evening. He waited for the table to be laid, then waited to see it cleared again. He pottered about restlessly with an anxious glow in his eyes….'
It comes as no surprise, then, that the King of Hungary’s cooking turns out to be wonderful. It’s pure joy to read Kosztolányi’s demonically seductive descriptions of the restaurant’s goulash soups, pastas, roasts, cheeses, pastries, the “long wooden board packed with a battalion of vanilla slices, whose rich egg fillings shone a gorgeous gold beneath their crumbling red-brown pastry crusts, sprinkled thick with icing sugar.” Even the menu, which Ákos studies with “the magnifying glass he normally reserved for deciphering litterae armales,” is in itself a voluptuous pleasure.
The stroll to the King of Hungary takes Mother and Father past shops that display in their windows all kinds of fascinating indulgences:
'So many messages and promises beaming out towards them. What can I do for you, sir; at your service, madam; all life’s paraphernalia, take your pick. Brand-new goods, never been touched, to replace the old and worn. Silk purses, exquisite velvets and first-class fabrics in tasteful piles, handkerchiefs and walking sticks, perfume bottles tied with satin ribbon bows, meerschaum pipes and humidors, scrunchy cigars and gold-tipped cigarettes.'
And once at the restaurant, inevitably, the Vajkays run into acquaintances from former days, including Ákos’s old pals, the Panthers, a group of eminent Sárszeg citizens dedicated to “popularising the consumption of alcohol and promoting gentlemanly friendship,” who welcome the elderly couple effusively and chide them for their reclusiveness.
Many of the old guard have collapsed by now “from chronic alcohol poisoning and cirrhosis of the liver, which was how most men in Sárszeg met their end,” but a number of Ákos’s erstwhile friends and acquaintances are left, and the Panthers are still a frolicsome crowd. At their table on this Saturday are “the cream of Sárszeg society” including, among others, the gregarious commander in chief of the local fire brigade, the manager of the local branch of the Agricultural Bank, the dignified physician who is out all hours of the day and evening avoiding his wife’s conspicuous infidelities, the dangerously drunken Latin scholar and teacher, and the dim-witted right-wing dandy who arranges duels and attends as second. Even the town’s theater company is represented, by the troupe’s studiedly bohemian director and a dashing actor, whose “face was candid and reassuring.” These glamorous figures gallantly press tickets for the current production upon the Vajkays:
“When is it for?” asked Mrs Vajkay.
“Tomorrow evening,” the leading man was quick to reply. “What is it we’re playing?”
By the next afternoon, the barber has spruced Father up to go out on the town, and Mother, who has acquired a swanky new crocodile handbag for the occasion, puts on her good dress, which though many years old has been worn only “for Easter, Corpus Christi, or some similar occasion.” At the smoky, bustling theater, Father buys Mother a box of fancy chocolates, tied with gold ribbon, and the couple settles down in their seats.
By writerly magic, Kosztolányi sees to it that even as we roll our eyes, we are entranced by the grimy theater and the appalling show with its lazy, fourth-rate performers. We read not only with our own senses but as though we have been invested with the Vajkays’ as well, which are aroused and sharpened by sudden release from years of subjection to Skylark’s punitive cooking and coddling, by the pressure of their subliminal awareness that they have colluded in her isolation and paid with their own, by the irrepressible combustion of the incompatible feelings each has for their poor, afflicted, jailor daughter. The sheen of life flares from the pages: the local restaurant, the town blowhards and casualties, the mundane window displays, the idiotic play—all, remarkably, seem glistening, vibrant, irresistible.
Ákos usually manages to experience his daughter in a benign, generalizing blur:
'Without really thinking any more, he loved her as she was, loved her boundlessly….
Yet…Even if she simply changed her hairstyle, or put on a winter coat at the end of autumn or a new dress for the spring, he could be miserable for weeks before he grew accustomed to her altered appearance.'
But now that he is not in danger of really seeing her and having to get used to her all over again, not only is Ákos able to use his eyes, but the brutal nightmares that plague him, in which Skylark, calling out for his help, is kidnapped and murdered, lapse. They are on vacation from their resentment and despair, and from the inevitable accompanying shame; they are also on vacation from the immense amount of energy required to excise all this from consciousness. Now they can begin to incorporate themselves into the world around them, and their fragility, anxiety, and sense of ambient danger simply waft away along with their violent and violently repressed feelings.
Ákos, whose “only passion remaining…from the past was to sit in his cramped and perpetually damp study, leafing through a volume of Iván Nagy’s great tome on Hungarian noble families, or Géza Csegheo ‘s precious and thoroughly entertaining little book on the history of coats of arms,” even extravagantly screws a light bulb into the unused living room fixture, and he and Mother pore over a newspaper as if it were the first one ever to have been printed:
'They didn’t understand much of what they read, but felt none the less that they were not entirely alone. Millions struggled just like them. And it was here that all those struggles found a common meeting place.'
On Thursday night, the night before Skylark’s return, Ákos—wearing “dove-grey gloves and carrying a silver-pommelled cane”—joins the Panthers in their weekly get-together at the clubhouse, where he stays far into the night, drinking a dizzying quantity and gambling with remarkable brio and huge success.
But what is the dispatched cat doing while the mice play? We have accompanied her on her devastating journey to Tarko , during which the neutral presence of strangers releases her unrestrainable sobbing. And then, once Mother and Father receive the telegram—”Arrived Safely “—with which they had equipped her and for which they have been waiting with nearly intolerable anxiety, we forget all about her—until, that is, on Wednesday, two days before she is due home, when a letter from her arrives.
Ákos is the one to receive the letter, which he reads sitting on a park bench. And after he has finished it, it somehow disappears, in the way that critical and fraught items, like the keys or a claim check that one has just had in hand, can disappear. And so Ákos is left to report on it to Mother:
“What did she say?” asked his wife.
“She’s fine. Having a wonderful time.”
“And her health?”
“She’s perfectly well. Only a slight toothache…. But she rubbed rum on it…. Good, strong rum, and it went away.”
Yet we have just seen that Ákos has understood his daughter’s misery perfectly and it has wounded him to the quick:
'How squalid it all was, here and at the theatre, too, among the shabby props and decorations. There was no justice in the world, no justice anywhere. Everything was meaningless. Nothing mattered at all.'
As the reader might note, Mother hasn’t pressed her husband very hard at all for more information from her beloved daughter’s letter. The tactics that the Vajkays employ to protect each other from themselves are clearly not meant to be foolproof; although they must not speak openly or directly to one another about unhappiness, they cannot help but send smothered and inarticulate signals of panic and rebuke. Skylark’s long, excruciating letter home is a tour de force of transparent dissimulation; the perky account of all the fun she’s having with her relatives hides her acute loneliness and mortification the way a lace tablecloth would hide a bleeding corpse on the kitchen floor.
It’s not a negligible detail that while we know Father by his name, Mother’s name, Antonia, is hardly ever used. She remains “Mother,” and it falls to her to make order out of Ákos’s drunken eruption of grief when he returns from the Panthers’ Thursday night melee near dawn, winnings from the card game spilling out of his pockets, and violates the strangulating silence they have held for so long. Abruptly, they and their lives are on trial.
Ákos charges himself with the prosecution: Skylark is hideous, she’s a burden, they hate her, they would not even be sorry if the daughter he’s contrived to get murdered so often in his dreams were…
Although at this juncture even Mother cannot entirely suppress the awareness that she, too, might feel something of the sort, this is a mortal struggle and she must step up to the defense. She rouses herself from bed as Ákos is taking off his dapper club attire: what Father is saying is nonsense, he’s drunk, they adore their daughter, they are all happy, everything will be fine.
“Thus Skylark’s aging parents stood face to face, barefoot, almost naked….” Which version of the past, present, and future set forth during this harrowing confrontation in the dead of night will prevail? In fact, each version is not only plausible, but—though partial—accurate.
Skylark is the most penetrating and convincing rendition of true ambivalence that I have ever read, and at this climactic moment, the fission of alloyed but contradictory passions that have been heating and expanding within both Mother and Father all week is nearly unsustainable, even for the reader. In the end, Mother manages to domesticate the conflict. Once again, just in time for Skylark’s return, despair and clarity will be put under lock and key. Now life will return to its former fearful paralysis—the condition that can be borne. In order for pain and desolation to die, pleasure and vitality must die along with them.
Theater ticket stubs and other criminal evidence of Mother and Father’s wild week are hurriedly destroyed. The piano is closed and Mother’s telltale sheet music is put away, cigar ashes are swept up, the furniture is moved back to where it was a week earlier, and Skylark’s precious needlework, cast aside and rumpled, is located and pressed. Neither Mother nor Father alludes to the “childish and tasteless” scene of the early morning. Skylark gets off the train proudly displaying gifts from her aunt and uncle and cosseting her dear new pet—an ugly caged pigeon. Everything is fine.
That parents and child must never disclose their anguish to one another does not mean that they are entirely mute. When Skylark goes to her room the night of her cheerful return, again her tears are released: above her bed,
'like the plaster Jesus which hung above her parents’ bed, stood an image of the Virgin Mary, rocking her large, dead child on her knees and pointing to her heart, pierced by the seven daggers of maternal pain. In days long since gone by she had listened to Skylark’s childish prayers, just as the prostrate Jesus heard those of her parents. For a second she flung out her arms towards the image in a gesture of passion which, however, she immediately suppressed. Patience. Patience. There are those who suffer so much more.'
Kosztolányi was born in 1885, grew up in the city of Szabadka, which provided a model for Sárszeg, and died of throat cancer in 1936. Although he is known in English only by Skylark and his perhaps equally wonderful Anna Édes (another of his five novels, The Darker Muses, was published in English in 1990 but appears to be unavailable), Kosztolányi was prolific and very famous. He came to early prominence as a poet, was also a journalist, wrote many short stories, and contributed to an eminent literary journal called Nyugat (West). He was a marvelous and influential stylist; it is clear on the evidence that he was brilliant and witty, and he is said to have been charming, handsome, and elegant.
Skylark was begun in 1923, a political and psychological millennium distant from 1899, in which it is set. By the time the book was written, World War I had dissolved the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Szabadka had been subsumed by Yugoslavia. Hungary had endured several revolutions and counterrevolutions, and Budapest itself had been occupied by Romanian soldiers. Probably nowhere in Europe, and certainly not in Hungary, would it have been possible to find the sense of stasis—only distantly imperiled—that is so critical to Skylark.
The story depends to a great extent on the insularity of the imaginary Sárszeg and the assumed continuity of its culture. Ákos’s confidence in the past—his assurance that it sets the pattern of the future—and his smugness about being its steward would have seemed, after the war, to be evidence of mental illness rather than a sociologically appropriate, conservative foible. Nor would the constant alteration of circumstances during and after the war have allowed him to maintain the fragile gauze over the lens through which he must see his daughter.
The otherworldy impartiality of the narration, the intensity and the apparently effortless lyricism, and the meld of satire and elegy all suggest retrospect and even an irony-inflected nostalgia for something that, however unsatisfactory, is over and done with.
Though a dark penumbra of death—from industrial pollutants and from alcohol—surrounds Kosztolányi’s lively Sárszeg—”Hearing the endless peal of deafening bells and seeing all these funeral concerns, the unsuspecting visitor might have imagined that people didn’t live in Sárszeg at all, but only died there”—change and disruption themselves are not a threat discernible to its residents. As Father reads the newspaper to Mother, we hear the loud rumblings of the avalanche that is soon to engulf them, but they don’t. The disasters looming right overhead are simply too complex and too large to be properly perceived:
'The Dreyfus affair. Second hearing before the military tribunal at Rennes. That notorious French captain. Handed secret documents over to the Germans…. Talk of the death sentence.
The woman wasn’t interested.
“Kaiser Wilhelm in Alsace- Lorraine.”
“The German Kaiser?”
“The very same. Says the territory always was and always would be German….”
“There won’t be another war, will there?” The woman sighed.
“The French and the Germans,” Ákos explained, “have never cared much for each other. But they seem to have settled their differences this time….”
“Strike,” said Ákos. “An English word…. The workers don’t want to work.”
“Why not?”
“Because they don’t want to.”
“Why don’t they make them?”
Ákos shrugged….
“Here, too. ‘Shameless agitators among our people.’ ‘Peasants promised half an acre in the name of the prime minister.’ They’re calling it ‘communism.’ They want to redistribute the land.”
“Who do?”
Enough of politics. They were more interested in tragedies and disasters.
“‘In the state of Ohio,’ Father read, ‘a train plunged from a railway bridge. Two dead and thirty severely injured.’”
“Dreadful,” said Mother…. “And how are all those poor injured people?”
And it is imperative that within the confines of the book nothing will ever be able to change for Skylark. Beauty is a social fact, as a friend of mine once put it, and the reader must accept the unanimous edict of Skylark’s society: Skylark is ugly—not appealingly plain, not jolie-laide, not “unconventionally beautiful,” just ugly.
Hers is not the sort of ugliness, familiar to us from so much wishful literature, that is eventually to disclose a disguised beauty to the sophisticated, original, or morally gifted—few of whom, in any case, are likely to be found in Kosztolányi’s Sárszeg, where one of the chief entertainments of the local “intelligentsia” is to meet the night train that rolls through from Budapest and gaze at its glamorous passengers, luxuriously ensconced by the windows and visibly indifferent to the inhabitants of this sooty little provincial town.
Nor is the reader afforded the solace of finding herself to be more discerning or insightful than the residents of Sárszeg by virtue of discovering in Skylark a redemptive or beautiful soul. She doesn’t have one. Her character—formed, or deformed, by her appearance and the response to it—is largely graceless: she is helpless and help- lessly tyrannical, self-deceiving, ferociously judgmental—irreversibly reduced. She is not truly dreadful and neither is her life. She is an ordinary enough woman, but the pity we feel for her is limitless and terrifying; it is pity neither for the special case whose life is inexplicably a hell, nor for the many, many unjustly disadvantaged—but simply for the suffering, who are everywhere.» - Deborah Eisenberg
Dezsö Kosztolányi, Anna Édes, Trans. by George Szirtes (New Directions Publishing, 1993)

«Anna Edes is a dark and deeply moving naturalistic novel, a classic work of twentieth-century Hungarian literature. A skillful portrayal of the cruelty and emptiness of bourgeois life, it was first published in 1926 and enthusiastically received by the intellectual coffee-house society through which it circulated. The novel was later acknowledged by authors such as Thomas Mann as a model of language and form, and in turn established Dezso Kosztolanyi as one of the most significant writers of Eastern European fiction. Anna is the hard-working and long-suffering heroine, the unhappy maid destroyed by her pitiless employers. Her tragic relationship with them is played out against the political turbulence in Budapest following the First World War. Yet her endurance and revenge are depicted with keen psychological as well as historical insight, becoming, in the words of the translator, "not merely an argument about social conditions but raised to genuine tragedy."

«This long out-of-print novel by Hungarian writer Kosztolanyi (1885-1936) takes place in Budapest just after the end of WW I. The city is occupied by Romanian troops after having undergone two brief social revolutions. The novel focuses on the plight of a young peasant woman who comes to work as a maid for the Vizys, a pathologically self-absorbed middle-class couple who are struggling to maintain their social standing amidst the ever-changing political climate. Pleased with Anna's almost robotic work ethic, Mrs. Vizy becomes obsessed with maintaining her servant's loyalty through psychological manipulation. A metaphor for the inhumanity of Hungary's precarious bourgeoisie, the novel follows Anna's victimization by her employers, her fellow servants and the Vizys' dissolute nephew as she struggles to achieve even the slightest emotional connection. Kosztolanyi's characters are ironic to the point of caricature, except Anna, whose inexplicable simple-mindedness limits the reader's sympathy for her. The novel nevetheless provides fascinating insight into a volatile period in Europe's history, laying bare the barbarism and hypocrisy inherent in all strata of society.» - Publishers Weekly

«Though perhaps not readily familiar to American readers, Anna Edes is one of Hungary's best-known classics. Published in 1926 (it was published in the United States in 1947), the novel is a commentary on the country's social ills as symbolized by the title character, a decent working woman exploited by her wicked employer. A strong title for public and academic foreign literature collections.» - Library Journal

«Anna Édes begins with a short, surreal chapter on 'The Flight of Béla Kun', imagining the revolutionary leader piloting an aircraft, his pockets stuffed with pastries and jewels, waving and grinning to the crowds below. The novel is set immediately after that, beginning in 1919, with a return to life somewhat as usual at 238 Attila utca, where government bureaucrat Kornél Vizy and his wife Angéla live.
The Vizys were certainly not ready for nor did they much appreciate the idea of a classless society. But things now return to some sort of normal (by their standards), and as the transition comes, Mrs. Vizy's major concern isn't the occupying Romanian army but her maid, Katica, who is proving to be entirely too undependable. Mrs. Vizy appears to have a congenital servant problem -- she's never been able to hold onto a maid for more than six months -- but now she lucks into something better: Anna Édes.
Anna is something special. A teenager from the countryside (but with a bit of city experience), she offers the proper mix of innocence and obedience. She doesn't steal, for one, and is able to do most of what's required of her. And she knows her place, doing what Mrs.Vizy demands.
The book moves to two highpoints. The first is when the Vizys' nephew Jancsi seduces Anna when the Vizys are away for a few days, a brief slumming it fling for him (with all the expected consequences). The second is the double-murder of the Vizys and the ensuing trial.
Kosztolányi is very strong in the smaller scenes he sets. The short affair between Jancsi and Anna is particularly well handled (down to the chicken in Anna's bed when Jancsi joins her there), and the characters of Mrs.Vizy and Jancsi are very sharply presented. Vulnerable Anna, passive and dutiful, for the most part reacting (and doing as she is told) rather than acting isn't always entirely as satisfactory. Kosztolányi doesn't seem quite sure of what he wants her story to be. She is central, and yet the focus often doesn't seem to be on her -- so, for example, the reader learns more about how Jancsi gets over Anna than her getting over him.
Anna Édes also offers an appealing, detail-rich picture of that particular time and place, Kosztolányi manages to convey a great deal in what seem to be even simple observations:
'Not that she understood anything of electricity, but then neither did they. When she turned on the light she saw the room brighten but still checked to see the bulb was burning. It was the same with the telephone. For the first few days she talked in sepulchral tones into the wrong end until she discovered her mistake. Thereafter she relaxed into an easy acquaintance with it. She had seen greater marvels out on the plains. She simply accepted the fact that such things existed.'
Somewhat frustratingly, Anna is never really allowed to come into her own, always overwhelmed by stronger forces, be they Mrs.Vizy or, ultimately, the court (where words are practically put in her mouth). She is a sympathetic character, but unlike so many of the others remains an enigma. Kosztolányi is clearly on the side of the country girl, but while he gets to the very root of a character like Jancsi he seems scared off by Anna's open innocence, unwilling or unable to explore (or fathom ?) it.
In Anna Édes Kosztolányi seems to be starting a new book several times, unsure quite what he wants to do with her. What he offers is good - often very good - but also frustrating.» -The Complete Review
Dezsö Kosztolányi, Esti Kornél

«The character of Esti Kornél is Kosztolányi's alter ego, brilliantly introduced as a near- and then clear double of the author. Esti is the practical joker on whom the author can blame some of his wilder ideas and pranks (and they're pretty wild). At the beginning of the book the author tries to track his other half down: hearing he is a hotel he goes to the room in question but can't find him - until he suddenly appears, in front of a mirror.....
Esti suggests they collaborate on a work, a fragmentary collection of episodes from his life. Esti is even willing to let the author take full credit for writing it - as long they use his name for the title...
The pieces include some that are personal ones as well some completely invented stories. He describes a stay at a super fancy hotel, for example, or his efforts at convincing a conversation partner that he is an able and willing participant in a conversation while in fact barely able to speak or understand a word in that language - something he keeps up for an entire train trip.
Some of the stories are more obvious and elaborate invention, such as a trip to a city where absolute honesty reigns, where advertisements emphasise how terrible the product (or book) is and cafés warn what bad clientele they attract - a world where expectations are so low that reality turns out not to be half so bad after all.
Among the most inspired pieces is the story of the inveterate kleptomaniac who feels compelled to steal, no matter what. After getting out of prison he gets hired to translated a British mystery, but he can't help himself, returning to his old ways, pilfering as he goes along, stealing things right and left from one version to the next: each wallet described has a little less money in it in his translation, each woman a bit less jewelry, every household is missing a bit of silverware.
Kosztolányi is a cheerful writer, but there's a streak of very dark humour here too. A life-saver who at first asks for nothing and then, slowly, much too much is ultimately disposed of without too many qualm, for example. And Esti's attemtps to help a down on their luck family are also exercises in futility - which he finally gives in too in the comic-ugly conclusion.
The premises are generally clever - though almost all very simple, taking one idea to its extremes. Yet it's the seeming normality of these situations that Kosztolányi does so well. Sure, these are odd situations, and yet if one finds oneself in such a spot...
Good fun.» - The Complete Review


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