Skylark by Dezso Kostolanyi

May 15, 2012

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.


One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

July 20, 2009

I was debating whether to post my thoughts on this book, which I was glad I read but which I did not like very much. After reading the “Fired from the Canon” piece, I thought I may as well. I agree that ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE can safely be jettisoned from “the canon” or, at least, not be foisted upon unsuspecting readers.

OneHundredYearsThis go at Marquez’s masterpiece was my second attempt. The first time, I quit after having lost track of whether Jose Arcadio Buendia, Auereliano Buendia, Jose Arcadio, Aureliano Jose, Arcadio, Aureliano Segundo, Jose Arcadio Segundo, the other Jose Arcadio, or one of the other two Aurelianos…what was I saying? Anyway, these are the main male cast members. There is a little more variety among the principal women: three named Remedios (Moscote, the Beauty, Renata), an Amaranta, an Ursala, an Amaranta Ursala, a Rebecca, a Pilar, and a Sofia. The key is to sort them by generation and jiggle the handle.

So, Marquez pulled off the delightful feat of naming all his characters while only using a total of about five names. This does wonders for the environment, but it is extremely annoying. Combined with the rampant familial love, and I mean that in the unfortunate biblical sense rather than the “Little House on the Prairie” sense, I suppose it is some sort of political commentary. I get it, but it still is wearingly tiresome remembering which Jose Arcadio (or was it one of the Aureliano boys?) touched the ice. The redundant naming goes in the list of things that do not work for me. I will remember the device, but not fondly.

Nomenclature aside, I had already, before cracking this book, unfairly predetermined that magical realism is not my bag. Why even read this book then? The author won a Nobel, the book is considered a masterpiece…by people, I once thought I “should” read it. All I can say is that you ought to have better reasons than I did.

There are a few. This book does create its own world. I am not knowledgeable enough to say whether South America feels like this or to get all the inside South American references that I am sure were tucked in there, but the world inside ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE is a fully realized, if magical, world. Marquez made legendary the moment he came upon the voice for the novel. The voice incorporates his grandmother’s storytelling technique which, he explained, was to relate even the most fantastic and unbelievable events the same way she related facts. The book is fairly unique among my reading experiences. When a book can do that for you, it has achieved something.

There are also some gems in the book that I enjoyed. At one point, gypsies have come to Macondo and are putting on a circus. Jose Arca….A father has taken his children to see the wonders the gypsies have brought. His children coax him to pay their entrance into a tent where a giant guards a pirate chest. The contents of the pirate chest are the attraction:

When it was opened by the giant, the chest gave off a glacial exhalation. Inside there was only an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars. Disconcerted, knowing that the children were waiting for an immediate explanation, Jose Arcadio Buendia ventured a murmur:

“It’s the largest diamond in the world.”

“No,” the gypsy countered. “It’s ice.”

Jose Arcadio Buendia, without understanding, stretched out his hand toward the cake, but the giant moved it away. “Five reales more to touch it,” he said. Jose Arcadio paid them and put his hand on the ice and held it there for several minutes as his heart filled with fear and jubilation at the contact with mystery. Without knowing what to say, he paid ten reales more so that his sons could have that prodigious experience. Little Jose Arcadio refused to touch it. Aureliano, on the other hand, took a step forward and put his hand on it, withdrawing it immediately. “It’s boiling,” he exclaimed, startled. But his father paid no attention to him…[The father] paid another five reales and with his hand on the cake, as if giving testimony on the holy scriptures, he exclaimed:

“This is the great invention of our time.”

It’s a good scene. Apparently, it is largely autobiographical. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s father took him to a traveling circus where the little Gabriel saw and touched ice for the first time. I would have liked more of these. Of course, even here, Marquez puts in a little of the ridiculous. Here the ridiculous is kind of funny. Vonnegut and Heller did great things with the ridiculous. Marquez’s ridiculous is more often merely ridiculous rather than ridiculously funny. Or maybe it is my sense of humor. Such things are very much matters of personal taste.

Some of the more magical scenes work too. There is a strike at a local factory, many people are shot and killed, the whole thing is completely covered up, and only one of our Jose Arcadio Aureliano Buendia/Segundo characters seems to know it ever happened. At least, no one else will acknowledge it or believe him when he tells the story. The magic works because many people were “disappeared” in South America, though rarely en masse. The magical works to enhance in some sense the realism. The ability of politically and economically powerful to disappear so many was (is) almost magical, particularly when their power also enabled them to rewrite history as if the disappeared never existed in the first place, and for those with firsthand knowledge to acquiesce to the re-written history. Perhaps, only magical realism can get at this particular political history or, if not the history, then certain truths within that history.

Other times, the magical overwhelms the realism. Perhaps the intended audience is more susceptible to magical thinking or is more imaginative than I am, but with magic, like, say, a name, too much of it can suffocate a story.

This is a political book. His targets are often capitalists and despots and career generals. He has good points. South America has had, if not its share, then more than enough dictators, corrupt leaders, and exploitation of the many by the few. Marquez explores this rich history and, I think, has something to say about it. Something important. Wars are fought for money, for power, and, importantly, sometimes only for the sake of warring because the combatants know little else. Opposition becomes opposition for the sake of opposition. The people fighting continue to fight because they are good at it and they are somebody while warring. End of war, end of stature. Marquez does address big topics and, more, does capture the tiresomeness of continual fighting, particularly to the commoners who have no say and generally suffer the most.

OneHundredYears2In addition to the big issues, the book also delves into one family’s life in one, small, backwater town, Macondo. I had trouble becoming engaged in the characters’ lives. Some were chained to trees for many years. Others lived in a single room for many years. Sure, they did not have pigs’ tails, but disbelief can only be suspended so far. I simply tired of the whole thing.

My complaint is not about characters who are not likeable, it is about characters to whom it is difficult to relate. They do not act believably. They do the impossible. Not always, but often enough that the story loses pull, my interest in the outcomes of their dilemmas flagged.

The same goes for the town. Most of the events were simply too outrageous to have much interest for me. The town felt more like a manufactured setting than a town. As a manufactured setting, it does have some value as allegorical/metaphorical device, but Marquez tried to have his allegory do too much. Or, perhaps, it was simply too much for me. That’s always possible.

I think this book is important. Perhaps not for what it is, but for what it has become. It has obviously influenced a number of other important writers and, for that reason alone, undoubtedly has a place in literary history. Whether it is great, I am undecided. I know I am very unlikely to ever re-read it. Of course, I am allergic to magical realism.

Having said that, I did enjoy Bulgakov’s THE MASTER AND MARGARITA with its own magic. I may have been more open to it because I had already fallen for Bulgakov and his WHITE GUARD. But too, Bulgakov’s magical masterpiece works in a way that ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE did not. Bulgakov’s magic is not simply a gee-whiz device, but truly serves to irradiate a dark and deep subject. Perhaps there is more to ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, but I am unashamed to say I missed it.

I am glad I read it, but I did not enjoy it. Your result may vary. For those who have not read it yet, do not blame me if you choose to give it a try. I am with The Second Pass on this: Fire it from the canon.