“How children suffer for their parents, and parents for their children.”
The setting is Sárszeg, a fictional Hungarian town at the turn of the twentieth century, a nondescript dusty community with one black topped road and its own illusions of class and society aspirations – a fine restaurant, a theatre and a gentleman’s club – but for anyone with eyes on true cosmopolitan existence it is but a provincial backwater. To the Vajkays, Ákos, his wife, and his daughter Skylark, it is home. They live quietly, increasingly keeping to themselves over the years. Father has taken an early retirement for health reasons and spends his days pouring over historical volumes, tracing out family trees and studying heraldry. Mother tends house with the assistance, or perhaps under the direction, of her daughter, who, at age 35, can safely be considered a spinster beyond the faintest chance of any marriage prospects.
Unfolding with the feeling, at least on the surface, of a gentle fable, this short novel by Hungarian author Dezső Kosztolányi (1885-1936) covers the span of one week in the lives of the Vajkay family. At the outset Mother and Father (and that is what they are most frequently called) are diligently cramming everything their beloved daughter may reasonably require into an old suitcase in preparation for her visit to her aunt and uncle in the country. The week that she will be away is the longest that they have ever been parted.
As the train carries Skylark away, her parents stand on the platform, rather numb and bereft. How will they make it through the long days ahead? They have always been a unit though, truth be told, fate, not choice has rendered the situation thus. The couple had long since discarded the serious hope that their homely daughter would secure a suitor. Only the vaguest flickers remained and they did not burn bright. And that fact bound them to her ever more closely with each passing year:
“Skylark was a good girl, Ákos 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.”
Skylark’s absence in their home is felt acutely at first. The hollowness weighs in on her parents. Having decided to eat out while their primary cook is away, the couple (referred to as “elderly” though they are only in their late 50s) reluctantly take themselves off to the King of Hungary, the restaurant their daughter has assured them is passable if less than desirable on all counts. It was the best option. Cultivating condescending opinions of almost any aspect of community life was a popular Vajkay family pastime – a practice that achieved little more than to assure their social isolation. Yet, away from Skylark’s influence, Father is soon delighting in the restaurant’s gastronomic offerings, reconnecting with his circle of old friends, and even enjoying a little alcohol and a cigar after a lengthy period of health related abstinence. Their resurfacing in public does not go by unnoticed:
“Strangers turned to look at them as they passed. Not that there was anything unusual about their appearance. People simply weren’t accustomed to seeing them there in the street, like old couches that belong in the living room and look so strange when, once or twice a year, they’re put outside to air.”
Soon the couple is invited to the theatre, Mother buys a crocodile handbag for the occasion and together they are warmly welcomed back into the life of the town. The flurry of excitement they experience, freed from the strict influence of their daughter, surprises them both. But when Ákos returns from his triumphant re-appearance at the local gentlemen’s club’s regular Thursday night dinner obnoxiously intoxicated, Mother and Father are forced to confront an ugly suspicion that both have harboured but neither has dared to speak: Do they still love their daughter? Or has pity has matured into hate? The tension that builds from that point forward takes a sharp twist the following evening when Skylark’s train is greatly delayed.
Filled with a cast of eccentric secondary characters, and fueled by a mildly sarcastic humour, Skylark is tale is told in a highly entertaining, direct manner that moves at a strong, steady pace to a simple yet heartrending conclusion. This is a fundamentally human story. At its core is a poignant truth that each member of this small family carries in his or her own way – a deep sadness that holds them together and defines them in their world.
Published in 1924, Skylark was Kosztolányi’s third novel. He started out as a journalist before turning to poetry and then fiction. He was also an important critic and translator and, in 1931, he served as the first president of the Hungarian PEN Club.
This NYRB edition features an extensive introduction by Hungarian writer Péter Esterházy which not only details the author’s life but examines the significant impact he had on the Hungarian language itself. The translator of the text and introduction is Richard Aczel.