Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi

The second installment in NYRB Reading Week takes me far away from 1970s New York City to a fictional version of 1899 Subotica (at that time the Hungarian city of Szabadka). In Dezső Kosztolányi’s Skylark, an old married couple—the husband is fifty-nine—sees their spinster daughter off for a week in the country with relatives. Skylark, the daughter, is ugly, as we find out very soon, and has no chance of ever marrying. Instead she has become inseparable from her parents, and at the thought of her leaving for a week all three cry at the railway station.

Once she’s gone, her parents feel lost. They feel they can’t maintain their normal routine and have agreed, ahead of time, with Skylark, that rather than cooking at home they will go to restaurants. They all despise restaurants, and pity the poor bachelors who don’t have a woman to give them a good home-cooked meal. But Father and Mother will martyr themselves at restaurants for a week while Skylark can get some rest in the country.

But strangely, Father begins to realize he likes restaurant food. He likes having a bit of wine with dinner, eating goulash, which Skylark never makes, and meeting up with old friends. He was once a popular man and can be again if he simply gets out of the house. The couple are soon invited to the theater, another activity they would never do with Skylark, and both enjoy it immensely. These poor late-middle-aged people go completely and charmingly wild while their prematurely-middle-aged daughter is away, playing cards and even buying a crocodile handbag!

They’ve spent their whole lives pitying Skylark and feeling so responsible for her that they never realized she was the one holding them down to their dreary life. There is a motif associated with Skylark of keys and locks; it is her job to keep the key to the pantry, and she leaves a key for her parents, and there is trouble locking her suitcase, and when Skylark is home the piano must be locked “with a little key to keep the room nice and tidy.” Nice, tidy, and locked, is Skylark. And at the culmination of their vacation from her, her parents must exorcise the painful realization that in fact, they don’t want her to come back. But they love her.

It is not a terribly happy book, and written in prose of an appropriate mutedness. But there are some good jokes, semi-Dickensian characters, and some really good descriptions of Sárszeg, the fictional city the novel is set in.

The market seethed in the sweltering heat, humming with noise and ablaze with every imaginable colour. Red peppers shone as brightly as the florid scarlet paint in the paint-shop window across the square. Cabbages displayed their pale-green, silken frills, violet grapes glistened, marrows whitened in the sun, and yellowing melons, already past their best, gave off a sickly choleroid stench.

That’s the narrator alone, giving us the town on market day. I like even better when he gets inside Father’s head as he walks through the streets.

Bronze coffins catering for every shape and size, from the tallest adult to the smallest child, stood upended in a tidy row. The shopkeeper was smoking a cigar, his wife reading a newspaper, while their angora cat sat preening itself inside an open wooden coffin. It wasn’t such a terrible sight.

This is representative of the general tone, not one with the exuberance or dreaminess of Gyula Krúdy’s Sunflower (which makes Péter Eszterházy’s exuberance in his introuction somewhat surprising, but he is certainly right in the end) but instead of mediocrity tinged with bleakness, I might say. I might stand somewhere between focusing on the sadness and the humor but will agree with Amateur Reader that it is “quietly” both.

Read about more NYRB Classics during NYRB Reading Week, hosted by The Literary Stew and Coffeespoons.