09 November 2010

Skylark by Deszo Kosztolanyi

In an earlier post, I spoke about my love for poetry and mentioned my favorite poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I said I was initially dissuaded by the title. For does it not promise a love song--a thing of beauty--only to find out that the love song is from someone named J. Alfred Prufrock? The name seems to connote someone stiff, staid, unromantic. Hence, for years, I ignored it because I judged it by its title, not knowing that Eliot intended that effect exactly--the conflict between the hint of romance and the boring name. And, my lord, what a heartrending conflict in a lovely poem it is!

I say this now because I bought Skylark for the same reason that I initially avoided Prufrock--the judgment on a name. The name, of course, evoked the bird. But with the name and image were thoughts of freedom, of flight, of beauty. Of dawn, song, and heaven, like Shakespeare's sonnet 29.

But Skylark, the title character of Deszo Kosztolanyi's novel, evokes none of these things. Instead, the back blurb tells us directly that Skylark is "unintelligent, unimaginative, unattractive, and unmarried."

And the story is not a romance nor a tale of adventure. The story, set in a small Hungarian town in the 1900s, is simply about an old married couple, Akos Vajkay and his wife, who are so devoted to their daughter, Skylark, 30 years old, that her week long trip to her cousin's house renders them lost and confused. Yet, during Skylark's absence, they find themselves returning to their old haunts and reconnecting with people--things they had long been unable to do. The week of mild revelry, however, leads Akos to confront how he feels about his daughter. And then Skylark returns. To what? To much the same as before.

This is why plot summaries are insufficient to communicate the beauty in a novel. The summary cannot pin down Kosztolanyi's quick-witted observations of human nature and pitch-perfect nuance in writing. The story was not so much a story but what seemed to me an exploration of how people, no matter how close they are, how devoted they appear, may in truth be so detached from each other that essentially, everyone is alone.

But what I found so interesting in the book's microcosm of society is the apparent social contract everyone had with each other to remain alone. That the proprieties of form that we go through with others are ways to isolate ourselves from each other. Take this little scene from the beginning of the novel, when Skylark sits in her train compartment with two male passengers, and she is crying her heart out because of her temporary separation from her parents. This is how one of them reacts to her weeping:
"The young man...stared at the quietly sobbing girl. An offer of assistance kept finding itself on the tip of his tongue, but never passed his lips. He simply couldn't imagine what had happened. Perhaps she had fallen ill or had suffered the kind of "blow" they wrote about in the cheap paperback novels he read."
And does Skylark reach out or try to reach out? This is her response and the man's reaction in turn.
"Skylark paid him no attention whatsoever. She stared resolutely, almost malevolently above his head...This was her only form of self-defence.
"The boy understood this instinctively. He withdrew his gaze and buried it in his book."
It felt like a dance, of ignoring each other's emotions, of keeping everyone at arm's length. But it was a dance they all knew. Even the second male passenger in the compartment with her, a priest no less, acted thus:
"But out of tact he said nothing, and out of sympathy showed not the slightest sign of interest. He knew that the world was a vale of tears."
Then again, you might say that they were strangers to each other, hence had no obligation to reach out to, sympathize with, or comfort Skylark. But the same kind of dance, the same kind of attempts to show emotion to evoke some kind of empathy or connection in others happens among the people who've known each other for a long time, too.

The father, Akos, might have reconnected with his Panther club buddies, but continually feels like an outsider and merely performing a role, albeit one he missed.  Even the Panther club members, strong in their bond, are merely "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." But most of all, even within the family unit, where bonds are expected to be strongest, where there is a show of unremitting devotion, there is an absence of real connection. So much so that it leads to Akos' outburst towards the end of the novel.

The book, though, doesn't burden with heavy and depressing imagery. Instead, the prose is clean, sharp, and periodically funny. Much is revealed in the nuances of action, thought, and description that the author gives. And Kosztolanyi further strengthens his message via his third-person narrator who, in spite of the sharpness of observation, is essentially detached.

Towards the end of the novel, after a confrontation between Akos and his wife, the narrator tells us that "nothing had been settled or resolved. But at least they had grown tired. And that was something."

And I suppose that is something. Skylark is not a revelation of what could be, but of what is. There was no lasting transformation, no pat resolution. I might have wanted one, might have wanted to see someone break through someone else's barrier or say a truth that remains out there. But though that might have been more comfortable for me, I don't think it would've worked for the novel. It wouldn't have given me a lot to think about and it wouldn't have made me feel for the characters in the same way. Which, I guess, is the novel's success for me, at least. What the characters lacked is magnified in the reader.

The book might not count as one of my best reads this year, but it does count for one of my better ones. And it seems like a book that gets better with the re-reading. Don't ask me how I know that, I just feel it is. I also greatly appreciate that NYRB published this forgotten work. I had never read a Hungarian author before and who knows when I would've if not for this book.


Thomas at My Porch said...

How funny that we both read this book for this week. Your observations about remaining alone is not one that I picked up on, but I definitely see your point.

Jinky said...

Excellent review. I wish I was wired to appreciate poetry. Can practice do it? Do you know of any simple ones I can start with? ~Thanks.

Have a great week! =]

nicole said...

My thoughts on this novel were very similar to yours, but I feel like my expectations were higher somehow. One of my favorite NYRBs of all time was another Hungarian novel, written at a similar period, which just had a beauty and dreaminess that were sort of the opposite of Skylark (I'm referring to Sunflower). Still, that shouldn't take away from this, and this one was very good. Great review!

Peter S. said...

Hi, fantaghiro23! Nice review! I do see this book at NBS. Maybe this will be my on my wish list when we do our secret Santa!

Myra Garces-Bacsal from GatheringBooks said...

Hello Honey, this is what struck me most in your review: "The story was not so much a story but what seemed to me an exploration of how people, no matter how close they are, how devoted they appear, may in truth be so detached from each other that essentially, everyone is alone." <-- how perfectly captured.

fantaghiro23 said...

@Thomas - It seems Skylark was a popular choice for the reading week.:)

@Jinky - Well, you might like Edgar Allan Poe's poem, Annabel Lee. You can also check out the suggestions at the comment portion of my poetry post.:)

@Nicole - I finally have a copy of that other Hungarian novel you mentioned, and I'm excited to read it!

fantaghiro23 said...

@Peter - Yes, this is a book I've seen often in NBS. Unfortunately, I didn't join the Secret Santa this year. Wasn't sure if I could go to the party.

@Myra - Thank you. It's really a moving book, and I hope you can read it.