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Quiet, Shattering, Perfect

Skylark

by Dezso Kosztolányi, translated from the Hungarian by Richard Aczel, with an introduction by Péter Esterházy
New York Review Books, 224 pp., $15.00 (paper)
eisenburg_1-040810.jpg
Estate of Martin Munkacsi/Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York
Child backlit on steps, 1920s, by the Hungarian photographer Martin Munkacsi

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:

Skylark!”

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:

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