Book Review: Skylark, by Dezső Kosztolányi

Dezső Kosztolányi’s Skylark is pure delight. It depicts a week in the life of a provincial Hungarian town at the fin de siècle, when the unassuming protagonists, a Father and Mother in their late fifties, are deprived of the company of their homely daughter, Skylark, who goes to visit relatives. The town’s aristocratic bourgeoisie supplies the supporting cast and completes the book’s charm.

In a smart introduction, contemporary novelist Péter Esterházy quotes Kosztolányi’s diary:

I have always really been interested in just one thing: death….For me, the only thing I have to say, however small an object I am able to grasp, is that I am dying. (pp. xiii-xiv)

The result, quite logical if you think about it, is a “love of life” (Esterházy’s phrase) that permeates Skylark’s every page. No one dies in the course of the story. However, it brims with what the Japanese call aware, a sense of the impermanence of all things, felt most acutely when it emerges from a feeling of pleasure, sweetening it by cutting it short. In Skylark, the aware is on one occasion, an evening of cards at the club, made explicit:

One game spilled into another, with Ákos [the Father] shrewdly holding his own, uncovering every plot and scheme, averting every ambush. It was a long, long game.

But not for Ákos or the other players. What did they know of time, since falling captive to the magic of the cards? For all card players enjoy the intoxication of complete forgetting, and enter a separate universe whose every contours are defined by the cards….

Ákos gave them all a thorough thrashing. Only then did he glance at the clock ticking away on the wall before him. It was already after half past nine. He was suddenly seized by an inexplicable melancholy.

For a moment he hung his head, crestfallen after his unaccustomed frivolity. (p. 140)

A few pages later, Kosztolányi drives the point home:

Ákos suddenly picked up a tumbler full of schnapps they had set before him and downed it in one. The alcohol warmed its way through his body and lifted him to his feet. There was an enormous knocking in his old brain and he felt such delight that he really wouldn’t have minded in the least if there and then, in this moment of giddy ecstasy, when he felt his whole being, his whole life, was in his grasp, he were to fall down and die on the spot. (p. 147)

Et voilà: Life and death are yin and yang, ever-present in equal measure, at the taroc table, in a glass of schnapps, in everything.

Rounding out his study of cosmic paradox, Kosztolányi inserts exquisite portraiture of the oddity of human behavior, as in:

They met secretly in their lodgings, scoffing at everything, disparaging everyone, especially one another. An amber-tipped cigarette holder or a silver cigarette case could fill them with such unspeakable envy, and the good fortune of one of their number with such loathing, that they would immediately conspire against him and (remaining within the bounds of friendship, of course) contemplate causing him fatal injury, denouncing him in an anonymous letter or simply wringing his neck. (p. 19)

and:

In the end, he did what he always did in such situations: the opposite of what he’d originally intended. (p. 22)

Again, pure delight.

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and author of Southern Rain, a novel of seventeenth-century China.

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