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….
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.”
“Because they don’t want to.”
“Why don’t they make them?”
“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.”
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.
I was astonished to discover that The Geisha, the musical comedy that the Vajkays attend, is in fact something that actually premiered in London in 1896 and that the breathtaking lyrics (“Happy Japan, Garden of glitter! Flower and fan, Flutter and flitter… Merry little geishas we !” etc.) came as a gift to both the author and Skylark ‘s excellent translator, Richard Aczel. ↩