Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dezsö Kosztolányi, _Skylark_, tr. Richard Aczel

I don't quite know how, with book publishing apparently in critical condition, the people at New York Review Books are making a go of things by re-publishing obscure and neglected masterpieces. Maybe they're not making a go of it, but are instead subsidized to the hilt by some enlightened benefactor; or, to be optimistic, perhaps it is a case of virtue rewarded, since with their current track record one can buy a New York Review Books publication, even if you have never heard of the author, and be fully confident that you have something worth reading.

I had never heard of Dezsö Kosztolányi, nor of Skylark, before the NYRB version appeared, but the plot description had some appeal. We're in a small Hungarian town around the turn of the 20th century, observing the Vajkays (Ákos and Antónia), an aging modestly-genteel couple whose unmarried adult daughter (Skylark) still lives with them. Skylark takes a week's vacation with relatives in the country, and after half a day of wondering how they will ever manage to get along without her, the Vajkays begin doing things they had given up years ago: eating at restaurants (which Skylark dislikes, too much paprika), going to theater (ditto, too vulgar), Ákos going to his old club, Antónia playing the piano. To their horror, they find themselves living a much more enjoyable life in Skylark's absence. What will they do when she returns?

Go back to being Mother and Father, of course. After a brief dramatic outburst the evening before Skylark returns, they accept their lot, meet her at the station, and slip into their old hebetude as into an old out-at-the-elbows bathrobe. In the final chapter, we finally get an extended look at things from Skylarks' point of view, and they are hardly rosier: her marriage prospects are virtually extinct, and she has nothing to look forward to but continuing to keep house for her aging parents, who will at some not-too-distant time die and leave her alone in a gray blankness she can hardly imagine.

A lot of Skylark is a charming, sepia-toned gallery of small town life during the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The town, Sárszeg, is a kind of Lake Wobegon, with its own small-town characters, habits, gossip, and institutions, and Kosztolányi a kind of Garrison Keillor, perceptive about his characters' foibles and narrowness but ultimately forgiving.

But underneath the charm we also sense a small but genuine domestic tragedy: three people in a situation no one of them likes, that does no one of them much good, but to which no one of them can conceive of an alternative. It's a study in resignation to the inevitable, an Old World lesson if there ever was one; here in the New World, we learn before we go to kindergarten that if one is unhappy, one Does Something About It. Skylark is about another world, and not just in the geographical or historical sense.

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