Deszo Kosztolanyi is another in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s seemingly endless supply of astonishing writers. I must admit that I had never heard of him until I picked up a copy of Skylark (second-hand) largely on the recommendation of it having been published by the New York Review of Books, and introduced by Peter Esterhazy. As Esterhazy says: “Everything came together rather nicely at the turn of the century, before the world collapsed.”
In summary, Skylark is a simple book. It begins as the Vajkays prepare to say farewell to their daughter, an unmarried woman in her thirties whom they have affectionately nicknamed Skylark. Although she will only be spending the next week with relatives, the separation is clearly upsetting for both parties, particularly the parents:
“They stared dumbly into space like the speechless victims of some sudden loss, their eyes still hankering after the spot where they had last seen her.”
When, after Skylark boards the train the narrative seems to follow her as she finds a cabin and observes her fellow travellers, we assume this will be her story, but the novel is, in fact, largely the tale of the two parents. Without Skylark, their life is completely disrupted, their routines abandoned. Actions they would not have countenanced before, like eating in the local restaurant, the King of Hungary, they decide they will tolerate temporarily:
“Somehow they had to overcome the disgust they had artificially cultivated beyond all proportion. On the way to the restaurant they comforted each other, braving themselves for the dubious event.”
Yet after only one meal, Akos, Skylark’s father, is spends the night regretting not having sampled the menu more widely:
“Goulash, that’s what it was. Delicious to be sure…How I adored that in my younger days…God only knows when I had them last.”
The visit to the restaurant leads to numerous re-acquaintances and an invitation to the theatre. Before long Akos has re-joined the Panthers, a gentlemen’s club which spends Thursday nights in drunken abandon. Skylark isn’t completely neglected by Kosztolanyi as we learn a little of her holiday, but the novel is about the freedom the parents find without their child rather than the more traditional reverse.
All of this is recounted in a delightfully measure comic style. Here, for example, is Kosztolanyi’s description of an ageing actress:
“Her face was as soft as the pulpy flesh of an overripe banana, her breasts like two tiny bunches of grapes… She breathed the air as if it burned her palate, baking her small, hot, whorish mouth.”
Beneath all this, Kosztolanyi is making a darker, more profound point. The Vajkays’ sudden liberty betrays the stifling nature of their life. This, they believe, is a sacrifice they make for their daughter; but she has own hidden misery, accepting at the end that she will never marry. It is this that lies at the centre of the novel, and while today the state of spinsterhood may not be most parent’s greatest fear, the novel is portrays a very modern anxiety of parenthood.