Sunday, 7 January 2018

Skylark

The novel I mentioned in my last post was Skylark by Dezso Kosztolanyi (I shan't attempt the accents), which I picked up in that unfailing source of happy finds, The Bookshop in Wirksworth. I had never heard of either book or author, but Richard, the bookseller, assured me it was a good one – and so it proved. Good and more than good.
 Kosztolanyi was and is a famous Hungarian novelist, poet, critic and translator, but he is little known to the wider world. He was born into the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1886 and died, in a wholly changed world, a few years before the Second World War. The town of his birth, Szabadka, is now called Subotica and is in Serbia. Skylark (almost his only work available in English translation) is set in a fictionalised version of Szabadka which he calls Sarszeg, at the very end of the 19th century. The novel – short enough to be classed as a novella – is, at one level, a sharply drawn satire of small-town life in a provincial outpost of the Austro-Hungarian empire. With its jocular Victorian-style chapter hearings ('in which we walk the length of Szechenyi Street to the railway station and the train pulls out at last'), it has the initial appearance of an affectionate, slightly whimsical comedy, but it develops into something far more interesting and, in the end, deeply moving. It is, in a nutshell, a study in sorrow, in the sadness and cost of living the lives we have to lead.
 The plot is rudimentary, an inversion of the familiar story of parents going away on holiday and the youngsters left behind going crazy and wreaking havoc. In Skylark, it is the daughter (whose wildly inappropriate nickname is Syklark) who, reluctantly, goes on holiday, and the parents left behind who, to their own increasing surprise, go wild.
 The parents, Father and Mother, are presented as a fussy elderly couple (in their late fifties!) who have effectively closed down their lives and eschewed all pleasures and luxuries in order to devote themselves to Skylark, who, we quickly realise, is no youngster but verging on middle age. And ugly. Hideously, irredeemably ugly, and with a personality to match – dull-witted, joyless, dismissive and domineering, rigidly controlling every detail of the household regime and her parents' lives. Bound by parental love and duty to this monstrous cuckoo, the elderly couple have got used to living within the narrow bounds dictated by their daughter rather than exposing themselves – and Skylark – to the outside world.
 All that changes once Skylark, after much fussing and fretting, is finally put on the train and sent off to stay with family in the country. She will only be away a week, but the prospect fills her parents with horror and foreboding – what will they do with themselves in her absence? Tentatively at first, they re-enter the dangerous outside world of Sarszeg, then begin to enjoy it and come to realise that the week without Skylark will be more than bearable – it will be a liberation...
 What matters about Skylark is not the plot but the action, the deeper movement of the unfolding story that leads us further and further into the terrible predicament of Skylark's parents (and, along the way, the sad predicaments of various of the well-drawn minor characters). The wilder Father's behaviour gets, the closer we draw to the inevitable, shattering climax when, returning home to Mother furiously drunk, he finally voices, loud and clear, the unspeakable truth about their daughter and their parental plight.
 Can there be any way back from there? Well, yes – that truth about Skylark is not the whole or only truth. There is enough love left, just, for Father and Mother to pull themselves back from the brink. They must, after all, carry on. As we all must. As Skylark herself, in her own strange lonely sorrow, must.
 It's easy to apply the word 'tragicomic' to works that are neither properly tragic nor properly comic. This extraordinary novel is, triumphantly, both, and both at once.




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