Monday, March 6, 2017

Skylark by Dezso Kostolanyi

I'm a big fan of NYRB Classics -- they are really attractive and I'm always a fan of re-discovered classics. Skylark by Deszo Kostolanyi is one that had been on my to-read list for several years, and I was determined to read it this year because it dovetailed perfectly with the European Reading Challenge. 

Written in 1924 but set just before the turn of the century, Skylark is the story of a family living in a small Austro-Hungarian town called Sarszeg (inspired by Kostolanyi's own hometown of Szabadka, in which is now present-day Serbia). It's a dead-end place where not much happens. The Akos family consists of a husband and wife, Akos and Antonia, and their 35-year old spinster daughter, nicknamed Skylark. Akos is in his late fifties and is retired, spending much of his time researching ancient lineages and family histories. Skylark does most of the cooking and housework, and basically life revolves around her. Life is dull and routine, but one week in late summer 1899, Skylark takes the train to visit family for a week, and Akos and Antonia are left on their own.

This is another one of those book in which not much happens -- and yet, everything happens. Without Skylark, Akos and Antonia do things they haven't done in years. They eat out in restaurants and attend a performance in the theater, which never happens when Skylark is around, since she her cooking is better than any restaurant meal. Akos visits his gentleman's club, drinks, smokes cigars, and plays cards with his cronies -- before, Skylark wouldn't have approved.  Antonia plays the piano, which has barely been touched in years, since Skylark never really took to playing.

This description makes it sound like Skylark is some kind of tyrant, but I don't think she is. Kostolanyi is up-front about the fact that Skylark is a spinster because she's unattractive, which is why she's never married. While she's away from her parents, all three of them face some painful truths about themselves and their relationship, and I really found it rather sad, especially because that was an era when women had so few choices. Skylark is educated and hardworking, and in another time, she could have had a career -- even 15 years later, she could have been a nurse and served during WWI.

The publisher described this book as magical but I just found it really sad.

I'm counting this as my Hungarian read for the European Reading Challenge.

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