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23 january 2018

Skylark (1924), by Dezső Kosztolányi, is a novel poised on intersecting knife-edges: between satire and sentiment, between psychology and social observation, between sympathy and the sardonic.

The novel has almost no plot, if you define plot as the development of intersecting desires in the face of constraints. Ákos Vajkay and his wife are the retired parents of an unmarried daughter pushing thirty. "Skylark," as they call her, is too ugly to attract a genteel suitor, despite her accumulated dowry. Ákos has been a civil servant, and his avocation, genealogy, matches his professional career as a records-keeper. It has allowed him to establish a modest position in the minor Hungarian gentry. But in retirement, he has withdrawn from social life and frankly become seriously depressed. Life is no fun in a provincial town when you are father to an unmarriageable daughter.

But why exactly is it so little fun? The Vajkays begin to learn when Skylark accepts a rare invitation to spend a week out of town at the home of a relative. Their daughter has been sensibly protective of them for several years now. She has kept them from the disgusting effects of restaurant food, from alcohol and tobacco, from the perils of the social whirl. Her ugliness is not merely skin deep: Skylark is herself depressed and determined to drag her parents into her own depression. Now that Skylark is away, they have to take their meals in public. They really like it.

Ákos Vajkay had once been a regular in the local men's club and even something of an authority on card games, until his daughter put him under a kind of for-your-own-good house arrest. He begins to frequent his old circles again. His wife (a far less developed character) goes to the theater with him, and to some ladies' events. They live a little, and in the scope of just over a hundred pages, we see the whole world of a particular social class in their town live along with them.

We know that Skylark will eventually return, but what will happen then? Will her parents break free? They initially long for her to come back, but they eventually dread the hour. We get an intriguing picture of something rarely seen even in the most cynical of modernist texts: that of parents who genuinely don't like their child, but of course are forbidden by custom to reveal that dislike. Their distaste, curved in on itself and reconcentrated by social norms, becomes a kind of manic love, continually reinforced by the rhetoric of familial devotion. Only when they get really drunk can they talk openly about the absurdities of their situation.

A minor character in Skylark is the town's junior journalist, an aspiring poet trying to battle back from disgraces that have befallen his family. He doesn't play a huge role in what little there is of a plot, but at one point Kosztolányi imagines Miklós Ijas observing the Vajkay house from the outside.

He stood for some minutes before the gate with all the patience of a lover waiting for the appearance of his beloved. But he was waiting for no one. He was no lover in a worldly sense; the only love he knew was that of divine understanding, of taking a whole life into his arms, stripping it of flesh and bone, and feeling into its depths as if they were his own. From this, the greatest pain, the greatest happiness is born: the hope that we too will one day be understood, strangers will accept our words, our lives, as if they were their own. (112)
No authorial narrator ever appears; this isn't a "told" novel; but clearly Ijas stands as a surrogate for the authorial imagination. Here, in Richard Aczel's controlled and sinuous English, you can see the essence of Skylark's appeal: incisive, uncomfortably curious about other lives, but deeply empathetic all the same.

Kosztolányi Dezső. Skylark. [Pacsirta, 1924.] Translated by Richard Aczel. 1993. New York: New York Review Books, 2010. PH 3281 .K85P313