Deborah Eisenberg’s considerable powers of sympathy are swelled by the work of Hungarian novelist and bon vivant, Dezso Kosztolanyi, whose 1922 novel, Skylark, was recently reissued by New York Review Books. She reads a chapter from Skylark in this podcast, lingering on each mundane detail of the small turn-of-the-century burg in which it is set with characteristic affection, delicacy, and worldliness. To occupy a second-class train compartment in the fictional town of Sarszeg with Deborah Eisenberg itself offers a thrill of contrapuntal literary pleasure.
Skylark describes the turmoil of a middle-aged couple who have recently escorted their grown daughter out of town for an unprecedented visit to relatives on “the plains.” The girl, Skylark, is, we are told, ugly and unmarriageable, and the burden of failure that surrounds her and weighs on her family lifts in her absence just enough to refresh and reopen the old wound, bathing it in the unhealing air of the town’s immobile social constructions.
That a writer of Kosztolanyi’s wit and sophistication devoted his formidable skills to this homely parable, ominously set in 1899, draws the attention. (In his introduction to Skylark, Peter Esterhazy writes of Kosztolanyi’s “sparkling youth,” tantalizingly alluding to his untranslated correspondence with two other soon-to-be-famous Hungarian poets: “The correspondence of the three young men is touchingly beautiful, slapdash, pompous, charming, sensitive, far-sighted and ambitious.”) Mid-way through the book Kosztolanyi opens a door on his own experience, through the person of the town’s dandy and failed poet, Mikos Ijas, who has passed a few minutes with the couple walking home one evening:
He could hear rummaging from inside the house, the old couple preparing for rest. And he could see quite clearly before him the wretched rooms, where suffering collected like unswept dust in the corners, the dust of lives in painful heaps, piled up over many long years. He shut his eyes and drank in the garden’s bitter fragrance. At such times Miklos Ijas was ‘working.’
He stood for some minutes before the gate with all the patience of a lover waiting for the appearance of his beloved. But he was waiting for no one. He was no lover in a worldly sense; the only love he knew was that of divine understanding, of taking a whole life into his arms, stripping it of flesh and bone, and feeling into its depths as if they were his own. From this, the greatest pain, the greatest happiness is born: the hope that we too will one day be understood, strangers will accept our words, our lives, as if they were their own.
All he had heard about his father had made him receptive to the suffering of others. Until then he had wanted nothing to do with those who lived and moved around him—with Kornyey, the drunken Szunyogh, Szolyvay the actor, and Doba, who was always silent. Not even with Skylark. For yes, at first sight they had seemed worthless, twisted and distorted, their souls curling hideously inwards. They had no tragedy, for how could tragedy begin to grow in such a wasteland? Yet how profound, how human they all were. How like him. Once this became clear it could never be forgotten. So he did have something in common with them, after all.
He took this lesson with him. His steps were firmer, surer, as he strode back down Petofi Street. The poem he had been carrying inside his head had been a bad poem and he gave it no further thought. He’d write about other things, perhaps about these people and all they had told him. About the veranda, and that long, long table where they had once sat, and sat no more.
It is characteristic of Kosztolanyi’s grandeur as a writer that he casts the artist’s purpose in these gently ironic terms, and that he recognizes within the writer’s calling a simple human hope to be understood and recognized—the hope so cruelly thwarted in the lives of Skylark and her family in this unforgettable jewel of a book.