The other day, an online connection wound down a frosty conversation to a close, with an inane comment regarding the book I’d been reading.
“Enjoy it!” she said.
Such a book, I told her, with a slight bluntness, was to be “savored”—not “enjoyed.” I’d intended to convey was that the book was so superbly written that to tumble through it hurriedly would be to do it injustice.
The book in question is “Skylark,” by Deszo Kosztolanyi, an obscure, late 19th century Hungarian writer, whose work belongs, in my non-expert assessment, to the same literary caliber as that of other central European notables such as Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera.
But had it not been for the glowing review in the distinguished NYRB, it’d likely have remained an unclaimed treasure, gone unseen by many.
“Skylark” is an elegant, simple tale of a prosaic existence, beautifully written—and remarkably well-translated as well—which reminds one of Leo Tolstoy’s famous first line from his masterpiece “Anna Karenina”: “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Set in the small, provincial Hungarian town of Sarszeg, where “everyone ran into someone … like it or not, several times a day,” it’s the story of a close-knit threesome of a doting mother, a loving father, and a dutiful daughter, Skylark.
She’s a 35-year-old woman, an aging spinster by the standards of the day, who’s paralyzed by the weight of her “ugliness” as though it were a crippling disability.
At once the apple of her parents’ eyes and the source of their silent suffering, she’s impelled, as are they, to sequester themselves from the glare of society, lest she should face taunts and barbs, real or perceived.
But outwardly, the Vajkays are a cozy family, the supremely smooth membrane of whose domestic harmony isn’t ever strained by familial discord. Nonetheless, it’s delicate. Its fragility is put to test when Skylark goes on a weeklong trip to her uncle’s and aunt’s, for a short vacation in the country.
As the train chugs out of the station, one late Friday afternoon, in September 1899, and the elderly couple blink back tears at the sight of the departing train, the one thought running through their heads is how they’ll live through their tedium without her, even for a day.
At this point, the reader can quite sympathize with their sense of excruciatingly painful loneliness that awaits them at their home.
But in a surprising turn of events, they cope rather splendidly. The activities they seem to take up begrudgingly in her absence are the very ones, they discover, that grow on them, rejuvenate them, remind them of their carefree, salad days.
They don’t indulge in exotic adventures, just the quotidian, but no less joyful, aspects of everyday life—dining at the local restaurant, catching a theater, attending a ladies tea party, connecting with old chums—those they’d all but halted for the sake of Skylark’s comfort.
They plumb the depths of their freedom the most, through hearty meals at the King of Hungary, into which they plunge with wild abandon.
About the “goulash”—which clearly occupies the place of pride in the mouthwatering array of dishes described (“spicy sausages,” “knuckles of pork,” “chicken risotto,” “vanilla noodles”)—Vajkay observes it’s “rich, blood-red” color, made with “hot paprika from Szerged” (famous as the home of the spice), its “liquid dripping from steaming potatoes.”
The pressure of the vaguely awkward realization that they’re rejoicing in their newfound pleasures, slowly builds up. And it explodes one night, revealing that their peace is somewhat manufactured.
After a ripping time at the gentleman’s club, having played many games of cards and knocking back several shots of schnapps, Vajkay returns home late, mortally drunk.
In a rare eruption of hot rage, and one tinged with sadness, he lets out a bitter truth about their girl: she’s a liability whose burden they’re saddled with for as long they live.
The loud bang of this profane utterance reverberates through his alcohol-soaked mind, stupefying him into sobriety. But this doesn’t banish the sentiment altogether. Only squirrels it away in a place deep down in his psyche.
Anyhow, their ward is back. All dust of revelry and enjoyment is swept away. The meals go back to being spartan, bland. The household reverts to its original state of gloomy peace, spick and span.
Skylark brings home with her a little bird, a pet. In it, she probably sees a reflection of herself. Just as the little creature is caged in the “wire prison,” so she is entrapped by her own unkind destiny.