How children suffer for their parents, and parents for their children

Skylark, by Dezső Kosztolányi

There are some books I don’t want to write about. Instead, I just want to quote them. Passage after passage. These are books where once I finish them I have to accept that there’s nothing I can say about them that a quote wouldn’t say far more eloquently.

But, this wouldn’t be much of a blog entry if it were just a series of quotes. So, even though what I have to say is redundant in the face of Kosztolányi’s prose, I’ll add to his words with some of my own.

Skylark is a Hungarian novel written back in 1924, shortly after the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It’s set in 1899, during the last flower of that empire. It’s translated by Richard Aczel who has either done a wonderful job or is a gifted writer in his own right (or both) and it is here published by NYRB Classics.

Skylark is a 35 year old woman, which means she is no longer young by the standards of her time and culture. She is unmarried and lives with her elderly parents. The reason she is unmarried is a simple one: she is very ugly.

Skylark and her parents live their quiet lives in a provincial town. They seldom go out and have few visitors. Over the years, Skylark’s blighted hopes of marriage have led them to retreat into their own unit. They are self-contained, and perhaps happy. Change comes though when Skylark goes to spend a week with relatives in the country. Skylark cooks for her parents and in her absence they must go to the local restaurants. That means her parents reenter the social world, and discover that it is not as bad as they have been reassuring themselves.

As plots go it’s hard to find many less dramatic. Here an elderly man being welcomed back by old dining companions is a major event; a trip to the theatre equally so. The Dreyfus affair trundles on in the background, but Budapest is far away and Paris even further. In Skylark’s town of Sárszeg time seems to stand still. Things are as they seem they always have been and perhaps as they always shall be (though the reader knows 1914 is not far distant).

Not to put too fine a point on it, I thought Skylark a quiet masterpiece. That’s a big word, and not one I use often. Still, Kosztolányi earns it with a book that dazzled me with the calm precision of its prose and the deadly accuracy of its observations.

I should perhaps caution that others are less taken. John Self of The Asylum commented that although he had read it he had found nothing in it sufficiently interesting to merit a blog post (that’s not a direct quote, but hopefully is broadly accurate). I wrote recently about the chemistry between a book and a reader, for John clearly it was lacking here. Not so for me.

Kosztolányi’s great gift is his language. His style is economic. Here’s the opening paragraphs of the book:

The dining-room sofa was strewn with strands of red, white and green cord, clippings of packing twine, shreds of wrapping paper and the scattered, crumpled pages of the local daily, the same fat letters at the top of each page: Sárszeg Gazette, 1899.
Beside the mirror on the wall, in a pool of bright sunlight, a calendar showed the day and the month: Friday 1 September.
And through the window of an elaborately carved wooden case, the sauntering brass hands of a grandfather clock, which sliced the seemingly endless day into tiny pieces, showing the time: half past twelve.
Mother and Father were busy packing.

Reading that I know where I am: Sárszeg. I know the year, the month and even the day and the hour: half past twelve on Friday 1 September, 1899. I know that someone is going away, but the reference to the clock lets me know too that the days are not normally so eventful. Also of course I know that the couple here, Mother and Father, are defined by reference to a child.

What of that couple? Here are their descriptions:

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.

Two short paragraphs, yet containing so much. There’s a sense for me of disappointment and of a withering. Those deep furrows speak to me of sorrows endured.

One of the many great joys of Skylark is Kosztolányi’s character portraits. As well as Mother and Father, and Skylark herself of course (of whom more shortly), there are people such as a young man whose “summer pimples bloomed brightly like ripe cherries” and a waitress “as pale as a damp bread roll.” This is prose that for me is a joy to read.

Central to it all is Skylark. I’ll leave Skylark’s own description for those who read the book. Here though is her room (and perhaps more than her room):

The room had once looked like a chapel, chaste and white.
But the paintwork had faded with time and the silk cushions had grown soiled and a little grey. In the cupboard stood empty cosmetic jars, prayer books from which the lace trimmings of devotional pictures protruded with German inscriptions, velvet-bound ornamental keepsake albums, fans scribbled thick with names, ball programmes, perfume sachets and hairpieces hanging from a length of string.
Beside the door in the darkest corner of the room, facing north, hung Skylark’s mirror.

Well, I said at the beginning of this piece I wouldn’t just quote. It really is hard not to though on this occasion.

The tragedy at the core of the story is swiftly apparent from the quotes above (all of which save the waitress come from the first thirty pages). Skylark’s ugliness has denied her an exit from the family home, but her presence has foreshortened her parents’ lives so that now they live together wrapped in a web of illusory comfort. Their existence rolls down the years, like the town of Sárszeg there seems a timeless quality to their lives. Father spends his days on genealogy, heraldry and tidying his affairs (“The last years of his life he spent increasingly in preparation for his death.”), Mother looks after the Home and Skylark looks after them both. They are complete.

With Skylark absent and the parents forced out of their small existence for the first time in years, the view shifts outwards taking in the wider life of Sárszeg. Father dines with the Panthers, the town’s drinking society who count the success of a night by how many times after it a man vomits. He takes Mother to the theatre where they are astonished by the wit and skill of the local players (who to the reader’s eyes seem woefully provincial). Father begins to enjoy a drink again, and a cigar. Mother buys a new bag. Their lives are flowering.

The question this raises is whether the break in routine created by Skylark’s brief absence marks a real chance of change in all their lives, or whether this is simply an Indian Summer before the final onset of autumn and winter.

Skylark is a novel with a powerful sense of wasted and frustrated lives. Skylark and her parents smother each other in the prison of their mutual love. A local poet writes to fashionable magazines but they do not print his works. The happiest here are those without ambition. The local fire chief and social lion of the town is delighted with life in Sárszeg as it is. He has no unmet goal and sleeps content. It is only those who reach beyond what is on offer who are unhappy.

All of which makes this sound a profoundly depressing novel. Well, to an extent certainly at times it is. It’s also though shot through with a lively wit and a fine comic touch which makes some scenes extremely funny. I spoke earlier of being dazzled by it, that’s because so often it sparkles.

I adored this book. For me, it was a perfect combination of prose, tone, wit and observation. I’ll be seeking out more Kosztolányi. Time I think for a quote from a different source, this one from Trevor Berrett of The Mookse and the Gripes whose own review alerted me to this marvellous novel.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Nor can I, and I thank Trevor again for his recommendation.

For those wishing to read more, after reading Trevor’s review I found that Guy Savage over at His Futile Preoccupations had also covered it. His review is here. Both he and Trevor have insights that I found extremely valuable (and which I avoided rereading while writing this, so I’m off to look at them again now).

A final quote from Skylark. Three sentences that for me encapsulate the essence of the book.

Nothing had been settled or resolved. But at least they had grown tired. And that was something.

Skylark

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34 Comments

Filed under Central European Literature, Hungarian Literature, Kosztolányi, Dezső

34 responses to “How children suffer for their parents, and parents for their children

  1. How odd that so many people have been reading this recently.

    I’m with you, in the “quiet masterpiece” column.

  2. Lovely piece Amateur, I like how you brought the food elements out. Chapter five is indeed a marvel.

    Nice catch with the tuba player too.

    I don’t know why it’s proving so widely read. When I saw it at Trevor’s it just sounded so wonderful I had to read it. Your writeup would have had precisely the same effect.

    A marvellous book, one of my favourites so far this year in fact.

  3. “The question this raises is whether the break in routine created by Skylark’s brief absence marks a real chance of change in all their lives, or whether this is simply an Indian Summer before the final onset of autumn and winter.”

    I hadn’t thought of this aspect of things, but that’s an excellent point.

    Finding Skylark and enjoying it as much as I did was a big deal for me as I haven’t enjoyed Hungarian literature that much. Now I wonder what else is out there untapped yet to savour.

  4. BTW, isn’t is marvellous the way the author makes food so memorable? I am not a food person at all and passages about food leave me cold, but I enjoyed the way food sneaks into the descriptions of people (as you noted above).

  5. I think I could enjoy this book. My only reservation is that the quotes used by you and the other review I read suggest that the author has a fondness for long descriptions, not something I care for. As always, hard to judge from only a few snippets.

  6. I am a food person, those passages had me feeling quite hungry.

    I did have to laugh though at a comment at one point about the lightness of French food. It’s not a trait I associate with French cuisine (which I love). It does say something about how heavy the Hungarian stuff is.

    On other Hungarian works, I have some Miklos Banffy yet to read. Apparently there’s two other Kosztolányi’s out there though whether in print I’m not sure. I’ll have to check what else I have.

  7. Jim,

    There’s a lot of description here, but there’s a lot else too. It’s a dense work given how lightly written it is.

    I would say it’s only a little over 200 pages long. If you don’t like it, at least it’d be over quickly…

  8. Glad to see you loved this one too, Max. An exceptional book. By the way, New Directions has another Kosztolányi coming in February 2011 (The Adventures of Kornel Esti). I thought I saw or heard that NYRB Classics was putting another out too, but I don’t see it in the catalogs I have — maybe just a good dream.

  9. By the way, I meant to remark on the difficulty I had writing this review, as I also wanted to just quote away. I found myself writing a passage and thinking it would just be better to write the whole chapter as it weaves back and forth, changing and giving ever more satisfying insights.

  10. Good news about the New Directions issue.

    I did have sympathy with you on the quoting front. I remembered that comment from your review, but it wasn’t until I started mine I realised quite how much an issue it was.

    Like you, I avoid reading other people’s thoughts while writing my own. I note we picked out some of the same passages. It’s curious how sometimes some phrases leap out.

  11. leroyhunter

    There’s so much that seems attractive about this one…am really looking forward to it. I was very impressed by Trevor’s review, Guy also gave it a thumbs up, I’ve seen it called “a masterpiece” in print by a critic I generally respect….and now you’ve capped it Max. A must-buy.

    Only trouble is, even my NYRB pile is a bit daunting at present. Oh well, no harm to let some time pass and come to it without some of the detail fresh in my mind. Or maybe I should just stop reading reviews.

    Interesting point about the translation / translator…I suspect the truth must be that a lot of both qualities you mention must go into something that evidently reads so well.

  12. Excellent review — marked down for next winter which is when I do Central Europeans.

  13. My writing is of a different time period, but the heading you put on that blog to me was one of the most attention-getting I’ve seen in days on the net.

  14. I often let a book sit a few months before picking it up even if it does impress me Leroy. I have a folder of blog recommendations in my favourites which I save to, and every now and again check to see what I wanted but didn’t at the time have room for.

    Kevin, I’ll be looking forward to that winter.

    Shelley, it’s a quote from the book. My only contribution to it was picking it as the title. Thanks though, I’m glad it worked.

  15. Great review Max. You have me wanting to read this one.

    Have you (or any other comments) read Embers by Sandor Marai? It’s also a Hungarian novel set at about the same time as this one and written close in time too. I was very impressed by it (which is part of what makes me interested in this one). I was just wandering if anyone had read both and had any comparative thoughts.

  16. I haven’t Kerry. I think there’s a George Szirtes translation, though I could be wrong on that. I couldn’t find a writeup of it on your blog, are you planning one?

    The recommendation is certainly welcome. I’ll add it to the TBR pile.

  17. I’ve never heard of the author or the book (or, if I have it hasn’t stuck) but this really sounds like my sort of book – quietly observed lives ( with food too!! How could it go wrong!) Your quotes have got me in hook. line. and sinker. have no idea if or when I might get to it but I sure would love to fit it in.

  18. George Szirtes – I wish! The English Embers is translated by Carol Brown Janeway from German. Meaning, it’s a translation of a translation.

    Skylark (tranlated by Richard Aczel, not Esterházy, who just writes the introduction) is at least only translated once.

  19. I don’t normally edit blog entries for content after posting them up, but getting the translator wrong was a shocking error. Thanks for the correction Amateur.

    Péter Esterházy to his credit does write a very fine introduction.

    On the Embers, a translation of a translation? Not sure about that, too many steps removed. I may look for an out of print version with just one level of translation.

    Whispering, it’s become a bit of a bloggers’ favourite this one. Add it to your pile and read it whenever the chance happens to arise…

  20. Max,

    “Translation of a translation” does not sound so great. But it is a fabulous book. If you can find a translation straight from Hungarian, that would be great. I do not believe one exists. (An Amazon reviewer reports having read both the Hungarian and the English and that they compare favorably.)

    You can see my short take on it in my “2009 Reading Roundup” which also contains a link to a nice review by Windswept Fiction.

    Regardless of how you come out on Embers, I have added Skylark to my list. Who knew Hungarian literature was so rich a vein?

  21. I love Skylark — I was the one Amateur Reader cited as “overemphasizing sadness.” I couldn’t help it, I suppose. Beneath all the comedy-of-manners sketches, there was so much aching in Skylark, her parents, even how the town couldn’t believe they were out and about. The funny parts: How, after seeing Skylark off, her parents cried in the street. The author made it sound so humorous, even when we shouldn’t laugh. And then there are times when we know we ought to laugh, but we don’t have the heart to.

    I reviewed it here, if you’re so inclined. It was Trevor’s review that clued me to this too.

  22. Kerry: I read Embers but didn’t care for it. I thought it was just ok–nothing more. It was the plot rather than the style.

    I really enjoyed Skylark, and it’s a bit funny as this book has renewed my flagging interest in Hungarian lit.

  23. Sasha,

    I think there’s a lot of truth in that. There is an undercurrent of sadness. It’s very funny in places, but the anguish remains. Thanks for posting the link to your review, I’ll take a look.

    Kerry, thanks for the comment on the Amazon reviewers and the links. I’ll check that out. It’ll be interesting to see if I like it more than Guy did.

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  25. John Self of The Asylum commented that although he had read it he had found nothing in it sufficiently interesting to merit a blog post (that’s not a direct quote, but hopefully is broadly accurate).

    It is! I liked Skylark but because of the expectations set up by the praise it has received more or less everywhere, I was disappointed by it. Perhaps a revisit in a year or two – when my expectations will be lower from my own disappointed earlier reading! – will be worthwhile. Anyway I’m glad so many others have got so much out of it.

  26. Hype is a dangerous thing. I was glad of Trevor’s slightly less positive review of the latest David Mitchell for that reason. A writer that interests me writing about a place and time that interests me, it was good to hear something other than unalloyed praise as my expectations were getting simply too high.

    If you do revisit it, I hope it works better for you. Thanks for dropping by.

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  30. leroyhunter

    So, two-and-a-half years later, Skylark was picked up. No exaggeration to say I barely put it down until I finished.
    The food! Extraordinary. I was looking up goulash recipes last night.

    Just a wonderful novel. It goes without saying I’ll read more Kosztolányi. This is turning out to be the Year Of Hungary, reading-wise.

  31. Glad you liked it Leroy. The goulash part still makes my mouth water. Hungarian fiction’s been very good to me actually – it seems almost hard to find a bad one, perhaps because with so few translators from Hungarian they never get translated.

  32. Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)

    Another that quite catches my fancy. Beauty and Ugliness are things that fascinate me, and I spent a little time on my degree reading psychology papers on the development of personality in relation to physical appearance. Fascinating stuff. Another one to look out, I think. Rich pickings so far.

  33. This is just a tremendous novel Matthew. I’ve reviewed his Anna Edes too here, but this is the better of the two. Given your studies I think you’d find it particularly interesting, though I do warn you that it’s desperately sad.

    Also, not one to read when you’re hungry. Just revisiting this post to leave a comment makes me think of the description of goulash in the book.

  34. Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)

    Oh, I’m always quite happy to read a desperately sad book, in fact I probably prefer my reads that way. It does sound like a really good read; sadly my library doesn’t have a copy so I shall have to seek further afield.

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