Dezso Kosztolányi, Skylark

I was trying to think up more creative titles for these reviews, but I’m not sure I’m that good at it… so, back to the author and title. And from half-written reviews of books I read ages ago to one I read recently…

Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi is about a week in the life of an aging married couple in Hungary at the end of the 19th century who live in a self-contained world with their awkward, unlovable daughter Skylark. When she leaves for a week in the country, the break in their routine forces her parents to reconnect with the community and shocks them into reevaluating their lives.

This is, obviously, not science fiction or fantasy. Nevertheless I’m going to spend a large chunk of this essay writing about SF. My running theme lately seems to be “Why does the SF genre as a whole seem so disappointing, when I still love so many individual SF novels?” And here’s another clue!

Cover of Skylark

Most of the non-SF novels I read are somewhere between a few decades and a couple of centuries old. This is because the world of mainstream fiction is bigger than any given genre, and harder to keep track of, and if I filter it by what’s good enough to have stayed in print a while it’s easier to find the books I want to read. But it’s occurred to me that I also read older novels for the same reason I read SF: I want to read about how people live in environments unlike mine, and also unlike any place I could theoretically, given unlimited time and money, travel to. For my purposes it doesn’t matter if those places don’t exist because they never existed, or because they exist only in the past.

Skylark is a concentrated dose of this. Because it’s about reconnecting with life, much of Skylark just shows how people live in Sárszeg, a small Hungarian town, at the turn of the 20th century. Mother and Father Vajkay eat at a restaurant, and the food is described so well you can imagine the taste. They meet neighbors they haven’t spoken to in years. They see a lousy play that nonetheless delights them. Father visits his club for a chapter’s worth of innocent debauchery and gets drunk for the first time in ages.

Skylark describes everything in meticulous detail–not lengthy detail, but well-chosen detail, so in less than 150 pages Sárszeg feels like a place you’ve visited. Kosztolányi can tell us in a few words things that other writers would spin out over chapters:

They had given her that name years ago, Skylark, many, many years ago, when she still sang.

There’s an entire biography in that single sentence, and those last four words are devastating.

Skylark is a compelling novel about very small things. Which raises a question. Why do the science fiction and fantasy genres, no different from Skylark in that they’re about other times and places, insist that as soon as fiction steps away from the here-and-now it must turn Epic?

SF writers think the only fit subjects for the genre are wars and high body count disasters. The rest of literature creates drama from family conflicts, ordinary crimes, personal troubles, and small crises. As I’ve complained before, the only way most SF writers know how to generate that all-important Sense of Wonder is to go big. Apocalypses! Invasions! Mass death! As a result most SF novels focus on the least interesting aspects of their invented worlds. Wars and deaths in fantasy are all pretty much alike. I want to know how people in Magic World live.

How would a plot like Skylark’s would work in cultures with different underlying assumptions, including completely invented underlying assumptions? That would be fascinating. I would totally buy a book that showed me what a story like this would look like in Dungeons and Dragons world.

Skylark at once acknowledges the ridiculousness of everyone in Sárszeg–the theater is amateurish, Father’s drinking buddies are aging buffoons–yet sympathizes with everyone. To the extent that Skylark is laughing it feels with more than at.

That’s crucial to why Skylark works. A more condescending, less empathetic novel with the same plot would seem upsettingly cruel. Because the Vajkays’ ultimate realization is that their daughter, who they genuinely love, who has never intended them any harm, has ruined their lives. Under Skylark’s care the family drifted away from the community. They never eat out because Skylark disdains spicy restaurant food. They don’t go to the theater because the atmosphere makes her ill. When Skylark is present, they’re Mother and Father; only when she leaves do they regain their names, becoming for a few days Ákos and Antonia. Drunk and disinhibited, Father finally admits he hates what his life has become, and as much as he loves Skylark he also resents her.

On the other hand, the last scene of a novel is often a point of emphasis, the part the reader comes away thinking about and remembers later. And Skylark’s final pages are the one part of the novel not given to Mother or Father. For the first time the narrative inhabits Skylark’s point of view. She’s aware the people around her are miserable, and she’s grieved by it, but doesn’t know what to do. She’s not a bad person. She is how she is, and everyone else is what they are, and they just don’t fit together. Skylark gives its final words to the character who for most of the narrative was absent but, by the effect of her absence, constantly judged. It’s a measure of this novel’s kindness that its final, most important point is a reminder that Skylark has feelings, and a story of her own.