Quiet, Shattering, Perfect


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)
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…

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