Tag Archives: NYRB Classics

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

Was there ever so pampered an ass as mine?

A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O’Brien

Singing in the Rain is one of my favourite films. If you don’t know it, it’s about the advent of talkies and how some film stars couldn’t make the transition from the silents to the new world of sound. Many careers were ended effectively overnight.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a semi-autobiographical novel. Its unnamed narrator is the son of a once glamorous Hollywood couple. As the novel opens, the father is a star famous for working with John Ford among many others. The mother has been a successful actress in her own right, both on stage and screen.

This isn’t a novel of glittering lives though. Although the father’s career does survive the end of the silent movie period, after the war he finds he’s no longer in demand and by the time the narrator’s eight years old his parents are separated and their glory days are distinctly over.

This then is a coming-of-age novel set in what in one sense is a very unusual context, golden-age Hollywood with parents who used to be household names. In another sense though it’s a very common context, that of growing up with parents who hate each other and who seem smaller to an adolescent than they did to a young child. Their way of life is unusual, but it’s a way of life which, for all that, is like any other.

The novel opens with the narrator’s memories of when things were fine, the days at the Casa Fiesta when his parents were still together, rich and in demand. They have staff, they get preferred seats at the baseball and gifts from the players, there are exotic presents and horse riding and all the trappings of Hollywood success.

All that happiness though just sets the scene for what follows. The narrator’s mother is a monster of selfishness, the father weak and confused once he’s no longer needed by the world. The mother goes looking for the perfect man, travelling across Europe and blaming others for everything that goes wrong. The father ends up living with his wife’s mother who treats him with contempt. Where once he had grand adventures, now he makes up tall tales to make his life seem better than it is.

It sounds bleak, but curiously it isn’t. That’s in part because of O’Brien’s gift for dialogue. Many of the conversations are painful ones, but many others are extremely funny (a family friend’s monologue about his life in the avocado business stands out).

It’s the writing though that’s most impressive about the novel. It’s intelligent and subtle. By way of example, early on when the narrator is a child things are described largely without comment – they’re accepted as simply being what they are, as a child would; we’re left to form our own views of people’s behaviour and what it means. Later, as the narrator enters adolescence, he becomes judgemental and the language of the novel becomes judgemental too. It also becomes angrier, teenage emotions invading the prose style itself.

The descriptive passages are excellent. This is very much a Californian novel (not that it was written there I think) and as I read it I could feel the light and the space, even when the narrator was living in the cramped corner of his mother’s sculptor-lover’s studio. O’Brien brings his locations to life. I could see Casa Fiesta, Hollywood, the huge home of Mr. Caliban (a family friend and successful director the narrator goes to live with for a while), Vegas. There’s a strong sense of period too, it’s the 1950s and sex, prosperity and a new freedom are in the air.

One of the reasons I write a blog is that it forces me to think about what I read. The act of writing about a novel makes me engage with it. When I sat down to write this blog entry, I had the two quotes I’m about to use already in mind, one as an example of a playful use of language that worked, and the other as an example of where it didn’t work. Writing my blog, I realised that the second example is cleverer than I realised.

O’Brien is a writer who likes language and who likes to play with words. That’s not play with words in a punny sense. Rather, he plays with them in the sense that he’ll take a word and make it stand out or make the reader suddenly engage with the prose as prose. Here’s my first example, from very early in the book:

These were the Malibu days, the Casa Fiesta days, when I ambled with the ungulates in the chaparral, heard visiting priests celebrate mass in the private chapel to Our Lady of Guadalupe, played with the toys my parents brought me from their travels, the stuffed baby condor from the Andes, the tiny samovar, the voodoo doll, the tortoise shell I used to bathe my puppy in.

He “ambled with the ungulates”. It shouldn’t work, but actually I think that’s a great paragraph. Originally I had noted this next quote as an example of where it didn’t work, but I was wrong. Here it is:

It seems that the wire mattress, rusted and rotted by his nocturnal diuresis, a condition wholly attributable to his state of mind, which caused him to forget to do things the rest of us accomplish through habit and instinct, had collapsed under his weight.

What I had originally planned to write was that the sentence collapses under its own weight. Then I realised, well yes, so it does. It collapses under its own weight in the same way the bed collapses. It’s yet another piece of subtle writing from a novel that rewards a close and thoughtful read.

I’ve not talked here about O’Brien’s own background growing up in Hollywood. I’ve not in fact read up on it much as my interest is in the novel as a novel, not how much draws from life. That said, O’Brien’s knowledge of Hollywood runs through the book and there’s a casual familiarity with the movie business that does make it all the more convincing. Here’s the narrator talking about making movies:

“All right,” I said, “I’ll tell you something. If I was making a picture about Jesus Christ, I’d play up the anger in the temple thing, the fainthearted thing in the Garden of Gethsemane. And I’d get a knockout to play Mary Magdalene. You see it? The human element. …”

At the end of the day though this isn’t primarily a Hollywood novel. It’s a novel about the narrator’s parents and their failed marriage and ruined lives. As it goes on it gets darker – showing people who were once larger than life now small and petty. It’s a compassionate novel though for all that, and there’s a clear wish that things had worked out better for them:

My inquiries into human understanding had taught me that my father was as constantly constant as a rock and my mother as constantly inconstant as the sea, and that wasn’t much to go on. A rock as big as my father you could not throw, but you could hide behind it and rest in its shadow. When it fell into the sea, it sank.

I have Guy Savage to thank for bringing this book to my attention. His excellent review is here (it postdates this review now as Guy subsequently updated it), and he spoke of it further in the comments section to one of my own entries (I forget which sadly).

A Way of Life, Like Any Other. I don’t always like the NYRB covers, but this one I think is wonderfully evocative and very well chosen. There’s also a nice introduction by Seamus Heaney.

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Filed under California, O'Brien, Darcy

Kisses are like confidences: they attract each other, they accelerate each other, they excite each other

No Tomorrow, by Vivant Denon

Vivant Denon’s No Tomorrow is a pretty much perfect slice of literature. Less than 30 pages long, it’s elegantly written, glitteringly amoral and utterly sensuous. When I finished it, I restarted and read it again, it’s that good.

Vivant Denon was a courtier in the court of Louis XV, then later an associate of Napoleon and a director of the Louvre. A survivor then. He was an accomplished artist, but only wrote one work of fiction, this one, a solitary achievement so astonishing that for much of its life it has been attributed to other writers. How, after all, could a man write such a work and yet nothing else?

First published back in 1777 (though this is a translation of the slightly revised 1812 edition), No Tomorrow is the tale of how a young man of just 20 is seduced at the opera by an older woman, taken back to her husband’s estate with whom she is seeking to effect a reconciliation, spends a night with her and then in the morning is sent on his way – though not before meeting her other lover. It is a story of brief pleasures, fleeting love and of the delicate blend of artifice, wit and desire that characterises the Ancien Régime.

No Tomorrow drips with style, it’s written with both elan and subtlety, here is the opening paragraph:

I was desperately in love with the Comtesse de ______ ; I was twenty years old and I was naive. She deceived me, I got angry, she left me. I was naive, I missed her. I was twenty years old, she forgave me, and, because I was twenty years old, because I was naive – still deceived, but no longer abandoned, I thought myself to be the best-loved lover, and therefore the happiest of men. She was a friend of Mme de T______, who seemed to have some designs on me yet did not wish to compromise her dignity. As we shall see, Mme de T______ possessed certain principles of decency to which she was scrupulously attached.

The narrator clearly is no longer twenty, there is a cool detachment here, a knowingness. As Peter Brooks points out in a truly excellent foreword, that he was deceived does not necessarily mean he was not best-loved, not the happiest of men. Honesty, so important to modern conceptions of relationships (it certainly is to my concept of them), is here at best an optional extra, at worst vulgar.

No Tomorrow charts the narrators seduction by Mme de T______, and it was only on my second reading I saw how utterly she controls the entire process, how every opportunity seized by her young lover is provided to him, how artifice begets chance. It follows their initial brief contacts, leaning together in a carriage, to their stroll arm in arm along a river, to their eventual (and inevitable) sexual encounters.

Nothing here is explicit, and yet everything is. It’s clear that when first they have sex it is in a rush of passion, then with the initial frenzy spent the second time they are longer in their pleasures, taking time over each other. Denon describes it all, without once directly showing the act itself. The result is a novel that is erotic, yet never pornographic. Equally, although nothing here is innocent, pleasure here is shared rather than at the expense of others (as in Liasons Dangereuse) and so there is an almost celebratory air to the whole work.

As you’d expect, Denon is a fantastically witty writer. Lines such as:

The moon was setting, and its last rays soon lifted the veil of a modesty that was, I think, becoming rather tiresome.

are hard not to adore. Equally, the dialogue is at times superb, the sequence when the narrator discusses Mme de T______ with her normal lover is viciously barbed and beautifully layered in meanings. Really, could any comment be so innocuous and so insulting as the following:

But, I must say, you seem to know this woman as well as if you were her husband: really, one could easily be deceived.

I’ve avoided saying too much about this work, after all, “Discretion is the most important of the virtues; we owe it many moments of happiness”. Although by its nature it isn’t really susceptible to spoilers, it is a masterpiece (a term I do not often use) and if you haven’t read it you deserve the chance to discover it for yourself.

I was introduced to No Tomorrow by The Asylum, here, John brings out points in his last two paragraphs that I haven’t repeated here, but definitely agree with. On reading John’s review I was initially concerned that £7.95 ($12.95) was excessive for a tale so short, I was wrong. Literature is not measured by breadth. And, for the record, John also right about the cover, it does fit the book.

The NYRB edition of No Tomorrow is translated by Lydia Davis. If you head over to John’s blog, you’ll see that he reviewed a different translation. We both quote the opening paragraph, so you can directly compare the two. I have to admit, I struggle to see how Davis’s translation could be bettered, and it’s becoming apparent to me I should pay more attention to the NYRB Classics range than to date I have.

By way of close, if No Tomorrow isn’t one of my favourite books of 2010 come the end of December, I shall have had a very good year.

No Tomorrow

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Filed under 18th Century, Denon, Vivant, French, Novellas, Short stories