Saturday, September 17, 2011

Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi

There is something about reading in community that makes the depth of a book much greater than when I read alone.  When I saw the GoodReads group for NYRB Classics, I decided to join.  They are reading one book a month, and many of the members are "subscribers," meaning they're receiving a book or two every month anyway.  I am not so hardcore that I wanted to subscribe, besides not liking the idea of being sent a history book that I'd probably never read, oh the horror!  I have had good experiences with books put out by NYRB Classics, however - see my reviews of The Siege of Krishnapur and The Summer Book.

Skylark is the story of a Hungarian family with one adult daughter.  Unfortunately, the daughter they fondly refer to as Skylark, while loyal and hard-working, is terribly unattractive.  She has never had a serious suitor, although her parents have kept the money for her dowry set aside.  The main story in the book is Skylark leaving to go visit her aunt and uncle, and her parents have what turns into a very exciting week without their daughter around.

There are elements of this book that feel folkloric - the public crying, the walks through the town, the roles of children and their parents; all of this moves throughout the story with many unique townspeople in the background adding color.  The book is not very long to begin with, at 222 pages, but is also a quick read because of the flow of the writing.

As the story progresses, there are these moments where a scene seems pretty typical but all of the sudden a character will reveal a thought that is either profound or so incredibly honest that it is almost gut-wrenching. My favorite moment for this is when "Editor Ijas" is outside the Vajkays' home and reflecting on truly knowing other people,
 "He (Miklos Ijas) could see quite clearly before him the wretched rooms, where suffering collected like unswept dust in the corners, the dust of lives in painful heaps, piled up over many long years."
The Vajkays would never say they were unhappy, and they might actually be in denial about being so, and they certainly never acknowledge it to each other.  Their daughter being away for a while, disrupting their desperate routine, does illuminate how they have hidden themselves away from the life of the town.  It does not even appear that they needed to, especially if they would be willing to simply leave Skylark at home once in a while.

Skylark is also unhappy.  She hides it in strange ways, with strict frugality that only heightens her parents' connection of suffering and blame that they are not conscious of making.  The author shows the reader, in subtle and painful ways, that all three members of the Vajkay family are quite aware of how unhappy the other members are, but they persist in never mentioning it, or even offering comfort along these lines.  These are the moments in the novel that feel like they have so much truth to them.  I was amazed at how much I felt throughout the course of it. 

Unfortunately, it appears that this is the only novel by Dezső Kosztolányi that has been translated into English.  The NYRB Classics catalog has a few more titles that have been translated from the Hungarian, but I'm not sure how they compare. This was completely worth the read, and I'm still thinking about it a week later.

1 comment:

  1. If you're still thinking about it a week later, that's a great sign. I like that Skylark is unattractive, it's unusual to read that in books.


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