Tag Archives: Dezső Kosztolányi

One by one the lights were going on in the worn chandeliers of middle-class life.

Anna Édes, by Dezső Kosztolányi and translated by George Szirtes

In his excellent introduction to Anna Édes, translator George Szirtes says of Kosztolányi that in “a generation of elegant stylists, Kosztolányi was the most elegant.” It’s a line so good it’s quoted on the back of the book. Like much of the introduction, it cuts cleanly to the point. Kosztolányi is a consumate stylist, unflashy and effective. 

Anna Édes is the story of a provincial middle-class couple in 1919, the Vizy’s, and of their relationship with their new servant, Anna Édes. The Hungarian Soviet Republic has just collapsed, after less than six months in power, and the novel opens with its leader fleeing the county in a self-piloted plane with gold chains hanging from his wrists and sweet pastries filling his pockets.

Before the Soviets gained power Mr Vizy was a senior civil servant, well regarded, well paid, and no more than normally corrupt.

Vizy was an outstanding bureaucrat, hard working and conscientious. This was a fact recognized both by his inferiors and superiors. Nor did he lack a social conscience: if someone in trouble turned to him he would immediately write the necessary memo to the relevant organisation.

Mrs Vizy is a society wife, bored and purposeless. Her days are empty, occupied with nothing but her endless search for the perfect maid: one who does not steal; is not lazy; does not break things; is not in Mrs Vizy’s view a whore.  

With the communists in power the Vizys had to lie low. They lived in fear of fear every soldier and official, any of whom could do as they wished with such perfect examples of the old order. Their building caretaker, Ficsor, had more status under the communists than they did and could if he wished have denounced them.

With the communists gone the old order is back, and that means the Vizys are back too. Now they can denounce Ficsor. Mr Vizy might get his job at the ministry back. Anything is possible. Here, immediately after the fall of the communists, Ficsor calls on the Vizys:

‘Good day, your excellency,’ [Ficsor] bellowed, loud enough for the whole house to hear. ‘May I have a word with your excellency?’

‘Oh, it’s you Comrade,’ responded Vizy.

‘Your humble servant, your excellency.’

‘Do come in, Comrade Ficsor.’

It’s a lovely little comedy of manners. Nobody is quite sure how they stand, Vizy survived the communists by being cautious, but if Ficsor wants to survive in future he needs to be seen to be servile.

In order to get the Vizys on his side Ficsor offers Mrs Vizy what she most wants in the world. A new maid, and not just any new maid but a peasant girl whose only interest is work. A girl who’s diligent, doesn’t need much by way of comfort or money, and who won’t run around with men. What Mrs Vizy really wants isn’t in fact a human being at all, but a robot. But this is 1919 and robots don’t of course exist. That’s ok though, because if you can’t find a machine to work for you, you can always find a person and treat them like a machine.

What follows is a middle-class dream. Anna’s work isn’t perfect at first, but she really does have no real interests beyond work and she doesn’t complain at sleeping on a makeshift bed in the kitchen or at the mistress withholding her wages to keep them safe for her. She’s almost a slave, but in part a slave of her own volition – it’s clear that she could if she were more motivated leave the Vizys and find better employers.

With the old order restored the Vizys are soon successful again, sought after. They hold dinner parties in which the wives discuss their servants and coo over how marvellous Anna is. Anna is a consumer good, a person become status-indicator for her mistress. An aging doctor argues for compassion, for the essential equality of the servant classes, but even he sees that equality as more a matter for heaven and noble aspiration than as something to be practically implemented.

This isn’t a simple diatribe against the bourgoisie. Mr Vizy is a self-serving hypocrite who seems to genuinely believe himself virtuous but who really only advances his own interests, Mrs Vizy is a dissatisfied neurotic who takes out her own frustrations on each maid in turn each of whom is the one person she has power over in the world, their friends are self-satisfied and smug, but none of them are actually particularly bad people for all their failings and the working classes are no better.

Ficsor helps prise Anna out of a good job that she loves so that he can effectively sell her to the Vizys in return for their patronage. Anna does nothing to help herself. The other servants of the other families in the Vizys’ mansion block are snobs or gluttons. In their different ways, everyone is demeaned by their master and servant relationships.

Kosztolányi doesn’t hammer the reader with any of these points. Rather he relies on simply leaving the reader to see for themselves how people behave, and on wonderfully witty and acerbic asides like this:

Things were getting better. True, there were still problems. There was runaway inflation. People eyed each other nervously in the oppressive atmosphere. They denounced their neighbours in anonymous letters. Those who once refused to recognize their friends as ‘good Communists’ now hastened to offer this long-denied recognition and readily handed them over to the authorities.

This is a novel about, in part, people reduced to property. As Kosztolányi observes at one point, “Maids fulfil much the same function for their mistresses as whores do for their husbands. When they’re not needed they can be sent away.”

Years ago in one of my first jobs, the man I worked for got changed in front of me. He didn’t ask if I minded, he didn’t attempt to conceal himself. He just took off one set of clothes and put on another. I was there, working, but to him I was no different to a chair or office computer. I was one of the pieces of equipment in his office, and why would you be embarassed to get changed in front of a chair?

Decades change, countries change, people sadly don’t.

 I want to avoid spoilers in this review, which means that unfortunately I can’t discuss the most interesting parts of the book (and if you want to discover them for yourself I’d read that excellent introduction after, instead of before, the novel). All I will say is that Anna Édes gets into complex issues of motivation, and over its length becomes more than social commentary. As he did in Skylark, Kosztolányi shows the tragedy in the quotidian. He shows no villains or heroes, but flawed humanity with an eye which is compassionate, but unsparing.

I’m going to end on a quote that actually doesn’t fit this review at all, but which I liked too much to leave out. If I were reviewing for a newspaper I couldn’t include this, but what’s the point of blogging if one can’t be unprofessional? This is one of the Vizys’ neighbours, the aging doctor who is the nearest the novel has to a conscience, reflecting on mortality and meaning:

‘… I have a patient who is seventy-six years old and who has just started to learn English. By the time she has learned it she will probably be dying. But let us suppose that she doesn’t die just yet, that she survives until she is a hundred – she will die having learned English. Will that have been worth it? Is it worth it for us to start on anything even at the age of twenty? Of course it is: one has to fill in the time somehow.’

Guy Savage has also reviewed Anna Édes, here.

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Filed under Hungarian fiction, Kosztolányi, Dezső, Szirtes, George (translator)

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