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Quiet, Shattering, Perfect

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.

  1. *

    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.

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