marginalia || Skylark, by Dezsö Kosztolányi; translated by Richard Aczel

NYRB Classics are incredibly rare here in this country. In one of the biggest bookstores, only three titles were available, and there were only two copies for each. Which is sad, but actually kind of surprising–I’ve been resigned to simply chancing upon them in a BookSale. But I got lucky. Hence, this post. Yay, Universe.

I found a copy of Skylark by Dezsö Kosztolányi–one of the books among my lengthy NYRB Classics wishlist. Not that I knew what the book was about, exactly. [I make informed decisions this way.] It’s my first time reading Dezsö Kosztolányi–I had not even heard about him prior this read. He was endorsed, though. Also, in Peter Esterhäzy’s introduction to the text, he writes, “He shares that same helpless fascination [as Chekhov] for the banal and the trivial, for a drama-of-being which can be unravelled from a remote gesture, a twitch of the mouth, a dismissive wave of the hand, from lamplight and ugliness.” Sounds good. So, with one aspect, NYRB Classics succeeded–introducing “lost” authors to an audience, or simply letting general readership read an author they wouldn’t usually come across. Again, Yay.

Skylark is the story of the Vajkays–there’s mother, father, and fat and ugly spinster daughter Skylark. There’s a fable-like quality to this premise, to how simplistic it seems. Skylark is to leave home for a week, to visit her relatives. The elder Vajkays try to cope–Skylark has not been away from home this long before–and it’s all a staggering loss. That staggering loss, yes–the Vajkays weep at the street hours after their daughter’s departure–

“Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” the woman mumbled, as if telling her beads, “then Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday–” here she paused to sigh– “then Friday. A week. A whole week, Father. Whatever will we do without her?”

Ákos made no reply. He never spoke much, but felt and thought all the more.

–but then they’re wary at this new-found freedom, then a reluctant ease, then a reflective bewilderment over the feelings they’ve long held inside. Still, so many hints at an unfortunate attachment to a burden they don’t even try to name as such. And, well, maybe, just maybe, they’re really liking how things are going, sans-Skylark. Oh, they love Skylark, of course they do. But in the week that Skylark’s away, they discover many things about themselves, especially in their roles as parents of a socially unwanted child.

In Esterhäzy’s introduction, he insists, “Skylark’s ugliness is not a symbol. This ugliness is the unnameable anxiety which we would dearly love to forget, to dispel, but it is not possible, it always comes back, is always with us, relentless, just like a daughter with her father.” And this is what her father thinks of Skylark:

[Ákos] 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 loves her as she was, loved her boundlessly.

It all looks like a quaint little story–fable, fairy tale. But there’s so much depth even in the playfulness of the scenes, the doggedness of the language’s focus. And then there are those moments that just silence you with their sadness.

The simplicity is deceptive. There are so many subtleties in the what at first seems like standard comedy-of-errors scenes. And the silences, those silences. Speaking of things long kept hidden. The narrative breaks, gives way seamlessly into a passion–take an outburst from Father:

“How alone she is,” Ákos whispered, gazing into space. “How absolutely alone!”

“She’ll be home tomorrow,” said Mother, affecting indifference. “She’ll be here tomorrow evening. And then she won’t be alone, will she? Now come to bed.”

“Don’t you understand?” the old man retorted heatedly. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”

“Then what are you talking about?”

“About what hurts right here,” and he beat his fist against his heart. “About what’s in here. Inside. About everything.”

“Come and get some sleep.”

I was torn. Torn between weeping–what else is the first instinct upon seeing a good, stoic man break down, and in love for another person. And then, that other side, the intellectual side: The awareness that Kosztolányi so perfectly wrote the best response Mother could have said. She couldn’t have said, “Oh, Father.” She couldn’t have fallen silent and said, “No, no!” That was the wrong thing to say between them, but it was the perfect thing for the author to write. I’m emotionally skewered and geeky all at the same time. Only the best writers do that. Writers I’ll grow to love.

And then, what I most love about this book: The story not told, the story that is Skylark’s. Though the first we see of her is through her parent’s eyes–a homely child, a hopeless child–but Kosztolányi gives us the most telling glimpses into Skylark’s character. Very few glimpses, glimpses where we just long for more. For example, the first shred of emotion we see in Skylark–the first interesting thing Skylark did–it had to do with tears. So many tears. In all the world she had never thought there could be so many tears. Oh, goodness. That’s the story not told, and Kosztolányi knows what to withhold for now, and what to never ever reveal.

But this was her, something, someone whose life she really lived. She was this I, in body and in soul, one with its very flesh, its memories, its past, present and future, all of which we seal into a single destiny each time we face ourselves and utter that tiny, unalterable word: “I”.

Oh, Skylark. I just love this book. Really really love this book. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, didn’t expect it would resonate. Note that a day or two after reading this, I went to the pages I’d marked. I reread them. I loved them all over again, I loved it more. Fine me for overuse of the word “love.” I don’t much care.

He stood for some minutes before the gate with all the patience of a lover waiting for the appearance of his beloved. But he was waiting for no one. He was no lover in a worldly sense; the only love he knew was that of divine understanding, of taking a whole life into his arms, stripping it of flesh and bone, and feeling into its depths as if they were his own. From this, the greatest pain, the greatest happiness is born: the hope that we too will one day be understood, strangers will accept our words, our lives, as if they were their own.

Happy reading, all.

11 thoughts on “marginalia || Skylark, by Dezsö Kosztolányi; translated by Richard Aczel

  1. omg, i can’t believe THIS is the NYRB book you read! i JUST read it for book club! the opinions were pretty split, between either really boring or pleasantly surprised. i didn’t love it, but it was better than i was expecting after i’d talked to a couple book club people while reading. thought it had an interesting premise, perspective-wise. creative situation, showing the parents lives while daughter is gone.

    and you also reminded me i should review it. hmm, i had totally forgotten about that.

    1. I think I was prepared for it to go slow. An idyll, a stroll through the park. With bite. I don’t know, but the mundane-ness of the premise was what really attracted me to this one, haha.

      PS — I’m trying to reply to your email. I just keep looking at it and grinning like an idiot. Thank you! A reply soon, I promise.

  2. It’s wonderful isn’t it? It’s nice to see it getting so much recognition. Like you, I’d never heard of it before I saw Trevor cover it over at the Mookse and the Gripes.

    Nice to see you drew out different quotes than I did, and slightly different aspects. A simply marvellous book. I loved it too.

    1. I loved what you said in your review, about how you’d simply want to quote the entire book. I feel the same way.

      It’s funny, but I had underestimated the effect this book would have on me. It is a simple tale, but given time, it really does transcend. It’s more compelling and profound, I suppose, because of that simplicity.


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