43. Skylark – Dezső Kosztolányi
I’ve been reading some pretty brilliant books recently, and not finding time to write about them, so prepare yourselves for some enthusiastic reviews coming up soon. And let’s start the ball rolling with Skylark (1924) by Hungarian novelist Dezső Kosztolányi, translated into English by Richard Aczel, and a heartfelt köszönöm to him for doing so. It’s gone on my list of 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About.
Skylark came to my attention when Claire/Captive Reader put it in her Top Ten Books of 2011. I added it to my Amazon wishlist, and waited… it felt, for some reason, like the sort of book which should really come as a gift. Lucky for me, Our Vicar and Our Vicar’s Wife spotted it there, and it arrived in my Christmas stocking last year. So, consider this a tick on the list for my Reading Presently project (where I’m intending to read, in 2013, 50 books which were gifts.)
Before I get on to the wonderful writing and moving story in Skylark, I have to talk about the book itself. If I’m ever asked why I don’t want a Kindle, my one word reply will now be: “Skylark“. This NYRB edition is quite stunningly beautiful – not just the lovely colours and image on the front, and that turquoise/mint green I love so much on the spine, but the feel, the flip-flop of the pages, the perfect flexibility-to-sturdiness of the cover… the physical book is a work of art here, and I am so pleased that the content matched up.
The novel starts as a not-quite-young-any-more woman called Skylark leaves her provincial town for a week, to stay with relatives. Actually, it starts while her parents are packing for her departure:
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.
The stage is set for the importance of the home – and the way that it is subverted and disturbed by Skylark’s departure.
One might expect (I did expect) that a novel which starts with a character getting ready to leave her home will follow that character on her travels. Particularly so in a novel whose title bears the name of that character. What Kosztolányi does so cleverly is, instead, focus on the effects of her absence, leaving the reader to bear witness to the unsettled lives of Skylark’s father (Ákos) and mother (known simply as Mother or ‘the woman’ throughout.)
They have a very obviously unhealthy dependency upon their daughter – but, at the same time, long more than anything for her to marry. A man who has been polite enough to smile at her is built up into a potential – and then a definite – suitor; when he fails to follow up on this non-existent intimation, he becomes a figure for bitter hatred, much to his confusion. Mother and Father can barely cope with Skylark leaving town for a week, let alone forever, but this is still their aim in life, even while they realise that it is almost impossible.
And why? Because Skylark is ugly. Extremely ugly. Not horrendously disfigured or anything, simply deeply unattractive. From what we see of her before she leaves, and hear about her, Skylark also seems domestically very capable (if unambitious), unimaginatively kind, practical, and pretty dull. But her parents, of course, love her dearly.
This narrative is so clever and subtly written. It is a mixture of quite pathetic inability to manage in their daughter’s absence, with a glimpse of what life would be like without her. They eat interesting foods at restaurants and talk to their neighbours; Ákos gets drunk at a local club (which resembles the Freemasons in some fashion), and this leads to the most moving, vital, and brilliant scene of the novel – where all the couple’s unspoken fears and thoughts come tumbling out. Kosztolányi gives the viewpoint of both husband and wife, so we see the scene through two sets of eyes simultaneously. It is heartbreaking and extraordinary, but it is not the sort of confrontation that ‘changes things forever’. Things cannot really ever, we sense, be changed.
They had given her that name years ago, Skylark, many, many years ago, when she still sang. Somehow the name had stuck, and she still wore it like an outgrown childhood dress.
That passage is from early in the novel, and I marked it as being the one which suggested to me that I’d be onto something special. It was also the first sign of something I thought throughout Skylark, which was that Kosztolányi’s writing reminded me of Katherine Mansfield’s – which is about the highest compliment I can pay to writing. He has the same delicate touch, and the same way of showing ordinary people stepping outside of their normal routines, even slightly, and finding that everything is changed thereby, however unnoticeable this is to others. The subtlest shift in the way acts are performed – the way Skylark holds a birdcage; the seasoning Ákos puts on his risotto – are shown by Kosztolányi to hold enormous significance.
Like a short story by Katherine Mansfield, I imagine Skylark would benefit from being read in one sitting. At 221 pages, it could be done. I, sadly, seemed to read almost all of it on bus journeys to and from work, and thus the reading experience was too broken up. I will have to read it again when I have an entire afternoon to spare.
The only part of this edition I didn’t much like was the introduction by Péter Esterházy, since it barely spoke of the novel at all. Apparently he is one of the most significant contemporary Hungarian writers, but I wish he’d written this introduction more as a fan of Skylark, and less as a fan of his own thoughts.
I’ve been thinking about the style I aim at on Stuck-in-a-Book, and how I want my posts to be a bit amusing – but it’s very hard to be funny when I have nothing but praise for a novel. So instead, I’ll finish by saying that I went to a 1970s murder mystery party on Saturday (the one I mentioned I was writing), and somebody said that I looked like a fraudulent spiritualist from an Agatha Christie novel – must have been the floral bandana that did it. With that image in your mind… go and buy a copy of Skylark; make it this beautiful NYRB Classics edition.