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By Dezso Kosztolanyi
Translated by
from the Hungarian by Richard Aczel
Introduction by Peter Esterhazy
New York: New York Review Of Books, 1993
ISBN # 978-1-59017-339-8
222 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2013

Peter Esterhazy wrote an introduction to the work and it was quite helpful to me. I had never heard of Dezso Kosztolanyi before. He notes that Kosztolanyi was born in 1885, went to the University of Budapest, did some bit of study in Vienna and was a journalist in that city. He began to write prose after 1920.

SKYLARK was written in 1923, but set in a small provincial town in Hungry in 1899.

There is a definite irony with her name. “Skylark” sounds like a near goddess. Yet it turns out that she is quite homely, actually much more so. Even her father describes her as very ugly and of an unpleasant personality.

Nonetheless, it the early part of the novel the reader would have no idea of this. We meet a family about to have their 35 year old daughter go out of their small village to visit her father’s brother’s family. She hasn’t been there in quite a few years, but her parents will not go on this trip. They seem to be so utterly devastated by her going that they will hardly be able to survive.

They finally get her on the train and head back home. Already there are two problems:

  1. They are so devastated by her going away (for one single week!) that they can barely function.
  2. More immediately pressing: she has always done all the cooking. However, they knew this problem would arrive and have plans to eat all their meals out in this week while she is gone.

Akos, the father, is a retired archivist and an avid genealogist. He’s 59, having retired at age 55 and not at all in good health. Skylark’s mother, Antonia, is just a bit younger than he, and has always been a housewife.

The parents finally come to tame their grief a bit and head to the King of Hungary restaurant, the major and best restaurant in town, and where everyone tends to hang out. The two sit alone, having rarely eaten out in the past many years. They have a simple meal and are uncomfortable and surprised when Balint Kornyey comes over to visit their table. He is a simple man, the commander of the local fire brigade, but he everyone’s friend and acquaintance, the most popular man in town and a former friend of Akos, before Akos retreated into his home to care for Skylark. The couple’s first night at home is one of misery and longing for the missing Skylark. However Akos retreats into some reading and happens to read of vanilla noodles. He is taken by what he reads and comments:

“Vanilla noodles. What exactly can they be? I’ve never tried them, never even seen them. I’ve no idea how they might taste. Vanilla I’m fond of.”

The next day at the restaurant he is feeling a bit daring and having seen another of his friends eating goulash the day before, something he had loved as a child, but hasn’t eaten in years since Skylark does approve of eating meal, he orders goulash. He also orders a second course which includes vanilla noodles. It turns out he is utterly delighted by both and is encouraged by his former friends to even break down his long habit of not drinking and to have a beer with his meal. He is happy with his friends, the restaurant, the food, and allows in the evening at home that he is having a very good time. So is his wife.

It was at this point that I began to recognize that author Kosztolanyi is starting to suggest that all in their home life has not been what it sounded in the early chapters.

Both continue their enjoyment of this life in the café, and his friends and all, and then are given box seats to an operetta that is playing in town. They go and have a simply marvelous time.

In a wee bit of a private delight for this reader, they meet a fledgling provincial poet who is quite a pessimist and wishes to radically change his life. He tells the couple:

“I wanted to run away to American, where all cheats and embezzlers go.”

While I think the author is having his little private joke, I just roared with laughter at the image. However, this poet is the only person in the novel outside the parents who speak positively of Skylark.

Skylark writes a letter home telling of the marvelous time she is having and how warmly they have taken her in and that she’s looking forward to future visits. However, her mother never sees this letter. Akos, on a drunken night out with his friends, has lost the letter. However, he didn’t lose his old abilities at cards and has won a great deal of money, piles of it.

When gets home the novel blatantly takes the turn that by now virtually any reader would be expecting. They have not been what they appeared at the house, and the life of the family, dictated by Skylark’s ways to be, has not been working for either mother or father, though Akos is much more angry than she and he explodes. Denouncing how Skylark has dominated their lives, admitting they were their own worst enemies, and that they must end this domination. He denounces Skylark and describes her ugliness, both external and internal.

They have been living the life of a lie. Even Antonia has discovered one of her great former joys: her piano. She had loved her music and had a lovely piano. But when the young child, Skylark, couldn’t master it and hated it, they locked up the piano in a back room and Antonia hadn’t played in years. When Akos was out on his drunken binge, she opened the room and had a marvelous night playing Beethoven sonatas.

The jig is up, and Esterhazy says it very well in his introduction:

“Skylark’s hideousness, her soft puffiness, dullness, aggressive goodness is: us.”

Akos and Antonia realize they can no longer avoid facing the fact that they simply don’t like Skylark and what she has done to their lives. They have to recapture who they are.

The next day Skylark comes home, seemingly a bit changed, but she does retreat to her room. The parents have no idea what she’s doing since her retreat to her own room is typical of her behavior. What we learn is that she is crying. Her letter was a total lie. The uncle and family didn’t treat her well, they didn’t like her and they clearly don’t want her back. But, she can’t speak truth either. The family is in a terrible pickle.

The novel ends in chapter XIII which the author introduces with: “in which, on the eighth of September 1899, the novel is concluded without coming to an end.”

Things are left where they stand. However, the family hangs on a thread. Akos, Antonia and Skylark all realize their lives have been lives of lies – false joy, unacknowledged thoughts not expressed and a certain misery hidden deep inside but lived out every day.

However, Skylark does not know the truth of her parents’ feelings, and they have no idea of hers. She seems to be about to reassert the “old” life, but we simply aren’t sure.

This is a delightful read. It is funny, deeply sad and tragic, believable at nearly every turn. Kosztolanyi never says anything about all this in any open and discursive manner. We simply see the lives of these tragic people, and I do think Esterhazy is correct; this is taken to be an insight into a major tragedy within human existence. “. . . aggressive goodness is: us.” In the end the sadness outweighs the humor, but without the humor the truth might have been too painful to fully face.

Bob Corbett


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