A European tale of bitter-sweet humanity


FICTION: SkylarkBy Dezso Kosztolányi, translated by Richard Aczek,  New York Review Books Classics, £8.99

THEY ARE prisoners; father, mother and daughter, all three, all ageing, all truly miserable. The couple are prematurely old and have devoted their lives to their only child, their “little bird” who must be protected from everything, from life itself. Skylarkis now 35 and spends her days sewing in the garden and cooking. It is she who rules the frugal household. She has determined the domestic routine; she decides how they live, what they eat, the early hours they keep, the absolute isolation of their existence. Set against the backdrop of a fictional Austro-Hungarian provincial town dominated by a central square through which everyone has to pass in order to get anywhere, Skylark, first published in 1924, is an astute study of paternal guilt in which intense devotion eventually relaxes sufficiently to allow slight twinges of resentment to emerge.

It is 1899 and the slow death of the Austro-Hungarian Empire has already begun. On the wider international stage, the “Dreyfus business” is in full flight. But Ákos Vajkay and his wife are not concerned with politics or change. Instead their life is consumed with the matter of their daughter; her very being is the stuff of their consciousness. As the novel begins, the family is in a flutter; Skylarkis going on holiday, a visit to relatives in the countryside has been accepted. “Mother and Father were busy packing. They were wrestling with a worn, brown leather suitcase.”

A minor tragedy has been averted. The toothbrush which might easily have been forgotten, has been fetched and wrapped “carefully in tissue paper.” The excitement is undercut by anxiety; the coming separation. Skylarkwill be away for a week, but for her parents, it seems an eternity. The trio set off for the railway station. “They might just have been taking one of their daily walks: Mother to the right, Father to the left and Skylarkin between.”

Dezso Kosztolányi (1885-1936) belonged to a remarkable generation of Central European writers. This novel is a masterpiece. From the opening sentences, he is drawing on nuance and subtle detail; comedy and pathos. Every gesture speaks volumes.

“Ákos Vajkay said nothing. He tramped along in silence, looking at his daughter.” This is not about beauty. The girl is wearing an enormous hat “with outmoded dark green feathers.”

Kosztolányi focuses on the father’s love. “Skylark was a good girl, Ákos would often say, to himself as much as anyone else. A very good girl, his only pride and joy. He knew she was not pretty, poor thing, and for a long time this had cut him to the quick. Later he began to see her less clearly, her image gradually blurring to a dull and numbing fog. Without really thinking any more, he loved her as she was, loved her boundlessly.”

The old man, although he is not old, merely worn out, blames himself. His daughter’s “pudgy nose”, her “flared, horsey nostrils” and “tiny, watery eyes” remind him of his own face and he knows only too well that his daughter is ugly. For a girl such as Skylark, there is no hope of marriage. The parents bear their daughter’s ugliness as if it were a physical burden, the tragedy that has united them. Skylark’s face, protected from the scorching sun beneath a pink parasol, reminds her heartbroken father of “a caterpillar under a rose bush.”

Through simple details such as noting that Ákos wears “a mouse-grey suit, the exact colour of his hair” Kosztolányi evokes the non-life the man had led. Throughout his working life he had served as the county archivist and had explored the past, tracing family histories back to the grand epoch when Hungary had been independent of Austria. “. . . he had earned his living from the ‘verification of lawful lineage. In his retirement, he no longer drinks or even smokes, but has sustained his interest in Hungarian noble families yet his life is preoccupied by his fears for the bleak, lonely future facing his beloved daughter and his awareness of a man that had been considered a possible suitor, although nothing happened.

Everything changes once Skylark sets off for her week in the Hungarian plains. There are tears at the train station and no one is surprised. The good citizens of Sárszeg “had long grown accustomed to the Vajkays crying in public. They cried every Sunday in Church, at mass, during the sermon, they cried at funerals, at weddings, at national celebrations.” Most of all, they cry silently for themselves and their daughter.

Kosztolányi tells his story with its theme of emotional ambivalence with a jaunty, lightness of touch that succeeds in conveying the sadness of small lives and the huge sorrows that determine them. Skylark who barely appears in the action somehow dominates it; she is both tyrant and tragic heroine. Now her parents must fend for themselves but she has given them permission to eat at the local restaurant, the King of Hungary, where Kosztolányi assembles a colourful group of characters, the local personalities as well as Miklós Ijas, an edgy assistant newspaper editor who considers himself a tormented poet.

Once the parents agree that they are devastated by Skylark’s temporary absence; they begin to live. After a tentative visit to the theatre for which they dress themselves carefully, the old lady even buys a handbag, the Vajkays enter into the gossipy café society. Ákos rejoins his old drinking buddies and realises that they too, have aged as he has. His wife rediscovers the pleasures contained in a box of chocolates and daringly decides to open the long closed piano, abandoned after Skylark realised that she would never master playing. The days pass, the return of the beloved daughter seems to be less of an answer to their prayers than a death sentence for them all.

There are echoes of Chekhov and also of Joseph Roth. Ijas, the poet, longs for the Big City, in this instance Budapest.

While Skylark’s parents are torn between wanting their girl home and wishing that perhaps fate might intervene, the no longer young girl, who may well be a tyrant, is also aware of her plight. She often cries herself to sleep, pressing the pillow to her mouth. “It was an exercise she had perfected through many years of practice.” So for all the humour and the easy comedy this lively study of small life is as profound as a prayer, as subtle as a lament.

Kosztolányi was born in Subotica, a small town, that was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and is now in Serbia. His father was the headmaster of the school from which the future writer was expelled. No favouritism there. Kosztolányi arrived in Budapest and fell in love with it. He spent three years at university studying Hungarian and German but left to become a journalist. After publishing two collections of poetry he turned to fiction and also translated Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll; Goethe and Oscar Wilde. This new edition from the ever excellent New York Review Books Classics series includes Hungarian writer Péter Esterházy’s witty and informed introduction which was originally written in 1993 for Chatto’s unfortunately short-lived Central European Classics series edited by Timothy Garton Ash. There is no denying that Dezso Kosztolányi is one of Central Europe’s admittedly, very many, literary masters; Skylark is a wonder and will lead readers to his first novel Nero, The Bloody Poet(1922) and Anna Édes(1926); the great writers of the past continue to surprise and Skylark, so lovingly translated by Richard Aczel, articulates a bitter-sweet humanity all of its own.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Timesand author of Second Readings 52: From Beckett to Black Beauty, published by Liberties Press