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Skylark [Paperback]

Dezso Kosztolanyi , Peter Esterhazy , Richard Aczel
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 2 2010 New York Review Books Classics
It is 1900, give or take a few years. The Vajkays—call them Mother and Father—live in Sárszeg, a dead-end burg in the provincial heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Father retired some years ago to devote his days to genealogical research and quaint questions of heraldry. Mother keeps house. Both are utterly enthralled with their daughter, Skylark. Unintelligent, unimaginative, unattractive, and unmarried, Skylark cooks and sews for her parents and anchors the unremitting tedium of their lives.

Now Skylark is going away, for one week only, it’s true, but a week that yawns endlessly for her parents. What will they do? Before they know it, they are eating at restaurants, reconnecting with old friends, attending the theater. And this is just a prelude to Father’s night out at the Panther Club, about which the less said the better. Drunk, in the light of dawn Father surprises himself and Mother with his true, buried, unspeakable feelings about Skylark.

Then, Skylark is back. Is there a world beyond the daily grind and life's creeping disappointments? Kosztolányi’s crystalline prose, perfect comic timing, and profound human sympathy conjure up a tantalizing beauty that lies on the far side of the irredeemably ordinary. To that extent, Skylark is nothing less than a magical book.

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Review

"Dezso Kosztolányi belonged to a remarkable generation of Central European writers. This novel is a masterpiece. From the opening sentences, he is drawing on nuance and subtle detail; comedy and pathos. Every gesture speaks volumes…..for all the humour and the easy comedy this lively study of small life is as profound as a prayer, as subtle as a lament." –The Irish Times

"This short, perfect novel seems to encapsulate all the world’s pain in a soap bubble. Its surface is as smooth as a fable, its setting and characters are unremarkable, its tone is blithe, and its effect is shattering." –Deborah Eisenberg, The New York Review of Books 

“The risks of projects like the Central European Classics is that some of the books will proved to be worthy rather than interesting novels which one reads out of duty rather than pleasure. This is not at all the case with Dezso Kosztolanyi’s Skylark; I cancelled a dinner engagement because it was too gripping to put down.” –The Guardian (London)

“Kosztolanyi’s precise description of his chosen microcosm has produced a gem of a book that is completely convincing in its depiction of characters and the society they move in…The language is invigorating and at times hilarious.” –The Independent (London)

“Beneath this gentile satire, Kosztolanyi is steadily subverting the arrogant certainties of his times, from the vainglory of the Austrian hierarchy and its rural quislings to the loud but empty boasting of the oppressed intelligentsia.” –The Observer (London)

“Examining the unaddressed tensions of the Vajkay family, Skylark...depicts the closed, debilitating atmosphere of provincial life in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire…Richard Acze’s line version of Skylark catches its author’s irony and sharp, atmospheric nuance. This hidden masterpiece is now being presented to a wide audience, an event to be celebrated.” –The Irish Times

Skylark, published in Hungarian in 1924, is the most original, economical and painful novel I have read in a long time.” –The Times (London)

“..a superb, deeply poignant short novel, but also of a gifted translator…I believe that anyone can enjoy, say, Skylark as literature in English, even if they have no special knowledge of, or interest in, Hungary and the lost world of the Habsburg monarchy…Kosztolanyi’s writing is good enough to transcend the cultural difference that does exist.” –Timothy Garton-Ash, The Independent (London)

“Kosztolanyi was a ringleader in the 20th-century flowering of Hungarian literature, a poet who reformed the language, and a fiction writer of world class.” –The Guardian (London)

“Deszo Kosztolanyi simultaneously sustains a line of complex political paradoxes alongside a strikingly convincing human narrative.” –The Herald (Glasgow)

"...[an] alternately hilarious and melancholy classic of Hungarian literature...The author slyly depicts a smalltown life that remains curiously relevant today with his exploration of the tension between the politics of the left and the right, atheism and Christianity, and parents and their children. Though written 80 years ago, this remains a deftly executed, thoughtful meditation on mortality and the passage of time." –Publishers Weekly

“This short, perfect novel seems to encapsulate all the world’s pain in a soap bubble. Its surface is as smooth as a fable, its setting and characters are unremarkable, its tone is blithe, and its effect is shattering.” –Deborah Eisenberg, The New York Review of Books

"Dezso Kosztolányi belonged to a remarkable generation of Central European writers. This novel is a masterpiece. From the opening sentences, he is drawing on nuance and subtle detail; comedy and pathos. Every gesture speaks volumes.....for all the humour and the easy comedy this lively study of small life is as profound as a prayer, as subtle as a lament." –The Irish Times

About the Author

Dezso Kosztolányi (1885-1936) was born in Subotica, a provincial Austro-Hungarian city (located in present-day Serbia) that would serve as the model for the fictional town in which he later set several novels, including Skylark. His father was the headmaster of the local gymnasium, which he attended until he was expelled for insubordination. Kosztolányi spent three years studying Hungarian and German at the University of Budapest, but quit in 1906 to go into journalism. In 1908 he was among the first contributors to the legendary literary journal Nyugat; in 1910, the publication of his second collection of poems, The Complaints of a Poor Little Child, caused a literary sensation. Kosztolányi turned from poetry to fiction in the 1920s, when he wrote the novels Nero, the Bloody Poet (to which Thomas Mann contributed a preface); Skylark; and Anna Edes. An influential critic and, in 1931, the first president of the Hungarian PEN Club, Kosztolányi was also celebrated as the translator of such varied writers as Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Goethe, and Rilke, as well as for his anthology of Chinese and Japanese poetry. He was married to the actress Ilona Harmos and had one son.

Richard Aczel teaches English literature at the University of Cologne, Germany. He is a playwright and founding director of the theater company Port in Air. His translations from the Hungarian include Ádám Bodor’s The Euphrates at Babylon and Péter Esterházy’s The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn: Down the Danube.

Péter Esterházy was born in Budapest in 1950. He is one of Hungary’s most prominent writers, and his short stories, novels, and essays have been published in more than twenty languages.

Customer Reviews

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4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Kosztolanyi's best novel April 9 2004
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
This is an unusually fine short novel which conveys the spirit of life in small town Hungary at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. If you are unsure where to start with Kosztolanyi, I would read Skylark first and then move on to Anna Edes or his short fiction.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Simply Stunning June 23 1998
By MJ
Format:Paperback
I generally agree with what the previous reviewer has stated, although I found this short novel (as well as Anna Edes) brilliant and almost totally flawless. A book which I didn't want to finish simply because I truly enjoyed the experience of reading it.
Was this review helpful to you?
4.0 out of 5 stars Simple, bittersweet, and thought-provoking. June 14 1998
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
There is nothing earth-shattering about this novel except the unusual clarity of Kosztolányi's descriptive powers. More so than the novel Anna Édes, however, Skylark puts a burden of thought onto the reader. Kosztolányi only narrates, offering no judgements or opinions, and so his narration is very focused. The translation preserves this and is generally praiseworthy; Kosztolányi's characteristic terse, direct style and colorful phrasing come through unscathed.
This edition has a nice 10 page introduction by Péter Esterházy, which gives interesting information about the author as well as some background information about Hungarian literature. The cover and binding are, in my opinion, quite handsome also.
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kosztolanyi's best novel April 9 2004
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This is an unusually fine short novel which conveys the spirit of life in small town Hungary at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries. If you are unsure where to start with Kosztolanyi, I would read Skylark first and then move on to Anna Edes or his short fiction.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "A Perfect Novel" May 2 2010
By Bartolo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I found out about this little gem through Deborah Eisenberg's review in The New York Review of Books and would send anyone interested to that website for her own eloquent praise. "A perfect novel," she called it, and not only writes extensively and effusively about it but submits to an online interview in its cause.

There is originality in the conception and plot of the novel, wonderful descriptive passages, and, even rarer, an unremitting honesty in the author's treatment of his characters. We are not allowed to look down from a distant perch at these small-town, constrained people with their modest and circumscribed lives, nor, as they become close and vivid to us, are they elevated to heroic or even special status. Kosztolanyi avoids the formulae of tragedy, pathos, and (despite the chapter headings and humor) farce, nor is he content to serve up social science, fraught with self-justifying psychological and sociological descriptions. We are presented with an account that invokes all those genres, but finally is a synthesis, is nuanced and fully, compassionately human.

I would leave it to Ms Eisenberg to provide more detail than that, but having great esteem for her own short stories, I myself didn't require it. Every line of this slender volume counts, and to describe it overmuch seems almost beside the point.
23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply Stunning June 23 1998
By MJ - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I generally agree with what the previous reviewer has stated, although I found this short novel (as well as Anna Edes) brilliant and almost totally flawless. A book which I didn't want to finish simply because I truly enjoyed the experience of reading it.
14 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Simple, bittersweet, and thought-provoking. June 14 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
There is nothing earth-shattering about this novel except the unusual clarity of Kosztolányi's descriptive powers. More so than the novel Anna Édes, however, Skylark puts a burden of thought onto the reader. Kosztolányi only narrates, offering no judgements or opinions, and so his narration is very focused. The translation preserves this and is generally praiseworthy; Kosztolányi's characteristic terse, direct style and colorful phrasing come through unscathed.
This edition has a nice 10 page introduction by Péter Esterházy, which gives interesting information about the author as well as some background information about Hungarian literature. The cover and binding are, in my opinion, quite handsome also.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The bourgeoisie of provincial Kakania Oct. 26 2011
By R. M. Peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This deceptively unsettling novel tells the story of the Vajkay family over one week in September 1899. The Vajkays live, in almost cloistered fashion, in Sárszeg, a backwater town in the grandiose Austro-Hungarian Empire of Franz Joseph and the Habsburgs. Father Ákos is fifty-nine, a retired archivist; mother Antónia is fifty-seven; and daughter Skylark (one of the most incongruously named characters in fiction) is thirty-five. She dotes on her parents, and in truth they are all she has, because she is -- there is no other word for it -- ugly.

The family's inveterate routine is interrupted when Skylark goes to stay with relatives on the plains for a week. Because Skylark had done all the cooking, Father and Mother have to eat out, at the King of Hungary restaurant. There they meet old acquaintances and they are drawn out of their shells into the provincial social life of Sárszeg, including a night at the theater and, for Father, eating and drinking with the Panthers, the local club of bon vivants. Father and Mother are rejuvenated, at least temporarily. But then it is time for Skylark to return. Was she, too, re-invigorated over that week? Does she have any new prospects for marriage? Or do things return to the way they were?

From that outline SKYLARK might sound like pretty mundane fare. But Dezso Kosztolányi, one of the leading Hungarian writers of his time, makes of it a very engaging light novel, alternately funny and poignant. The writing is brisk, deft, and assured.

On one level SKYLARK is a superb portrayal of the bourgeoisie of provincial Kakania, a keen yet gentle satire of their smug but gormless existence. For example, the only two subjects Ákos Vajkay enjoys reading about are the genealogies of Hungarian nobility and the history of coats of arms; every evening before going to bed he checks behind the furniture and in the wardrobes to see if anyone is hiding there; the show-stopping number during their theater night of culture, a performance of "The Geisha", is a vaudeville song ending "Chin Chin Chinaman, Chop, Chop, Chop!"

At the same time, it depicts the proper and correct - but oh so achingly empty - life of the Vajkays. "Skylark", indeed. The ending is ineffably sad. And death hovers over everyone.

Although written in 1924, SKYLARK is not at all dated. And although set in provincial Kakania, it has a universal import.
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