Tuesday, May 11, 2010

NYRB Challenge #30: In Which a Lot (Or Nothing) Can Change In One Week. . .

Skylark by Hungarian writer Dezső Kosztolányi, translated by Richard Aczel, was originally published in 1924. The plot is simple and takes place over just one week as the 35 year old Skylark, the only child of the Vajkays, goes away to visit relatives. And at the end of the week she returns. The lives of this family will probably continue in much the same way, but a little heartache will definitely linger longer with the reader.

The parents have led simple, rather restrained lives of boring routine. They rarely go out except to church and this week without their daughter initially seems long and empty until they go to a local restaurant for lunch and suddenly get absorbed into the social life of their town and its inhabitants. Their entire world starts to open up and this is accompanied by a corresponding change in the descriptive language of the novel that exuberantly celebrates the senses. Sunshine makes everything glitter; gypsy bands are suddenly heard in the distance and most of all, the smell and taste of food is incredibly enticing (reading this novel has definitely prompted a recipe search for Hungarian vanilla noodles). The Vajkays go to the theatre, the father reunites with his old friends, gets drunk, gambles, stumbles home early in the morning and comes to some rather disturbing but very honest truths about his feelings toward his daughter. And then Skylark comes home; for her the week has also resulted in some harsh revelations about herself.

The joy of this book is definitely in the writing, which delicately balances the comic, the sentimental, the stifling and the despair. It asks tough questions about kin and kindness, self and self-deception. A good companion read would be Stefan Zweig's The Post-Office Girl for a similar story of being trapped in an unhappy and frustrating life. I was also strongly reminded of Leo McCarey's very moving film Make Way For Tomorrow. It's a completely different story about grown children finding their elderly parents a burden, but the emotions are similar, as are the themes of obligation and communication (or lack thereof) between the generations.

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