Skylark by Dezso Kostolanyi

Book bloggers are at their best when generating enthusiasm and discussion about a book that, otherwise, has gotten little press or attention. Whether it is John Self at the Asylum generating, via his esteemed and laudatory opinion, sales for Hugo Wilcken’s Colony or Reading Matters’ “Australian Literature Month” or Kevin From Canada (and his fellow Shadow jurors) raising the profile of the Giller Prize (inspiring many, well-executed imitators), book bloggers are becoming more and more instrumental in the process of helping readers locate worthwhile books with which they will connect.

Skylark is a good example of the power of blogs to promote novel deserving a wider audience. I only read this book because of the high praise it has received from other readers:

The Mookse and The Gripes

His Futile Preoccupations…

Sasha and the Silver Fish

Pechorin’s Journal

My Porch

Coverage did get a little kick from mainstream outlets:

Deborah Eisenberg in the New York Review of Books (who also published this book)

However, only with the boost from the trusted bloggers noted above did Kosztolanyi’s novel break out of my “to be purchased” list to my TBR, and, finally, to my “read and loved” list.

Originally published in Hungary in 1924 (preceding the Hungarian masterpiece Embers by a couple decades), Skylark is a very quiet novel focused on the painfully real Vajkay family. Father and Mother live with their adult daughter, Skylark. Skylark runs the household in lieu of employment or a social life outside the family. Her parents love her, but theirs is tinged emotion:

Skylark was a good girl, Akos 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 in a dull and numbing fog. Without really thinking any more, he loved her as she was, loved her boundlessly……

He ambled along in his mouse-grey suit until they reached Szechenyi Square, the only square, the only agora, in Sarszeg, where instinctively he strode a couple of paces ahead, so as not to have to walk beside her.

Skylark is a disappointment, an embarrassment. Her parents are unsure how to deal with her in public. The few suitors she has had no longer show any interest in her. The facts indicate she will remain unmarried for the foreseeable future. The Vajkays view this is as mostly tragedy with, perhaps, a silver lining in the time Skylark spends with them as a result, the meals she cooks, and the order she brings to their lives.

Skylark, too, is disappointed in her lack of marriage prospects, but similarly takes some consolation in the help she provides to her parents.

There is a building sense, though, the love they feel is, if not forced, at least strained. Father has dreams in which terrible things are done to Skylark.

He could still see before him the figures from his dream, whom he had encountered so many times before. But even now it staggered him that his precious daughter, who, poor thing, lived such a quiet life, could be the focus of such a horrific and dramatic dream.

After these nightmares he would love Skylark still more dearly.

The lives of this small, unhappy family would likely continue indefinitely in the melancholy existence to which they have become accustomed but for an invitation to Skylark to visit some relatives. Father and Mother are hopeful that Skylark may find a potential mate while she is away, though they dread her absence. Skylark, too, anticipates a refreshing change of scenery and society. The parting at the railway is awkward, none of the three is eager for change, even if for only a week.

The dynamics of the Vajkay family are forever altered by the week apart. They discover things about themselves, the lives they had been living, and the lives they could be living that alter their perceptions of each other and the world. The way in which Kosztolanyi carefully builds the initial state of things and the internal changes of the characters reminded me of The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. From some perspectives, nothing at all has changed.

In Steinbeck’s novel, Ethan Hawley makes a decision that, ultimately, alters nothing in the external world or in the perceptions of those around him, but it completely shatters his prior self, the narrative of his life. The Vajkays are similarly altered by a week that is, externally, uneventful. Whether the family will be propelled into externally observable change is doutful, but we know that the family relationships and the way the Vajkays view themselves have been irrevocably twisted into a new, more painful shape. Just as Ethan Hawley will never be able to see the same man in the mirror, neither will the Vajkays recognize their former selves or each other after Skylark’s week away.

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9 Responses to Skylark by Dezso Kostolanyi

  1. Sarah says:

    I will hold off reading your post until I write mine, having also read Skylark recently… Like you I was inspired by the power of the blog. It was the review at Pechorin’s Journal that swung it for me.

  2. anokatony says:

    Another NYRB Classic, another winner. What I like about them is that they can’t be categorized. I also like that they are interested more in particular novels rather than authors.

    • Kerry says:

      Absolutely, Tony. And I agree with you about the wisdom and appeal of a publisher who focuses on novels (particularly when their mission is not to nurture new, unheralded talent, but to bring attention to sometimes old and always undervalued works). NYRB Classics does a fantastic job.

      Thanks for the comment.

  3. winstonsdad says:

    I ve got this but have recently read two hungarian books parallel stories and Satantango so will leave tis to later in year but heard first chapter on a nyrb podcast it does sound like a lovely book ,all the best stu

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks. I think we all have more books that we would like to have read than we have time to read, so you have my complete understanding with scheduling this down the road. Even more so given “Parallel Stories” is 1100 pages. I am not sure when I will be able to muster the will for that, though your review suggests it would be worth the effort.

      Thanks, as always, for the comment!

  4. I appreciate you may not see this comment for a while, but I’m delighted you enjoyed the book and that I was among those who helped persuade you to read it (and Emma too, hurrah!).

    Just an extraordinary work. Oddly enough John Self of The Asylum didn’t review it because although he read it he didn’t find anything interesting to say. Remarkable how we can respond so differently to the same books. A good remarkable.

    Anyway, I agree entirely with the review, and my opinion of it remains as high as it was when I wrote my blog piece on it.

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks, Max.

      I agree that it is an extraordinary work. I quite enjoyed your review too. I think I can see how John Self reached his own conclusion, but I thought it uniquely managed its quietly powerful climax. And the writing was beautiful throughout.

  5. Hey, I think your site might be having browser compatibility issues.
    When I look at your blog site in Opera, it looks fine but
    when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping.

    I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, awesome blog!

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