I’ve written about Tom before. He is, you might say, one of my recurring, minor characters. I use him, not without a seasoning of guilt, when required, which is to say when the focus of the review is on those who feel small, ill-at-ease, and unappealing. In any case, I don’t have to worry about him reading this, because these days he only exists within me, caught in the sticky web of my memories. Tom always considered himself ugly, and it is true that he was no peach. A mess of curly hair, as though someone was building a bonfire on his head, and bad skin…these were probably his best features. Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all under the impression that I am a very handsome man, but I cannot, nevertheless, relate to those who, like my friend, are so self-conscious about their appearance that they hide themselves away, and run from life until all that is left of it is a small black dot in the distance; and yet I can empathise, of course.
How awful to be Tom, to be Skylark.
There are a number of novels featuring undervalued ‘plain Jane’ types – Austen’s Persuasion, for example – but Dezső Kosztolányi leaves us in no doubt that his creation is, in fact, a strikingly unattractive woman. Her face is described as ‘at once both plump and drawn’; she has, we’re told, a ‘pudgy nose’ with ‘flared, horsey nostrils’, ‘severe, masculine eyebrows’ and ‘tiny, watery eyes.’ Indeed, she is such a frightful sight that people cannot help but stare at her with ‘grey, benevolent sympathy.’ However, as is often the way with these kinds of characters, although Skylark is lacking in looks she does have an even-tempered, good-natured personality. She is thoughtful, most of all towards her parents, and industrious. This is, of course, how pathos is created; one is meant to feel for this ugly, but nice, duckling who will never turn into a swan.
[After a spate of suicides in Budapest in the 1930’s a Smile Club was inaugurated in order to counteract this craze for self-harm]
Yet the book is not really about Skylark, or is about her only in so much as her presence, her existence affects those around her. The book’s true focus, its real central character, is Akos, her father. As previously noted, to be unlovely is an unfortunate thing, but what must it be like to be the parent of such a child? We don’t tend to like asking ourselves these kinds of questions, but Kosztolányi forces us to. What if your child was hideous? You would love it, that goes without saying, but wouldn’t some part of you be disappointed, perhaps even slightly embarrassed? No? Well, Akos loves his daughter very much, such that a few days without her seems ‘endless, hopeless and bleak,’ but, at the same time, he pities her, and pity is uglier than Skylark herself. Indeed, he is so ashamed of her that he walks ahead of her when they are outside, so as not to be seen with her.
Based on the above one may now have quite a negative opinion of Akos, and perhaps the author too, but I admire Kosztolányi’s fearlessness. He was, quite evidently, a man who did not care if, or rather wanted, you to shift uncomfortably in your seat. In any case, Skylark doesn’t just cause her father embarrassment; having her for a daughter changes his life in a profound way, so that he actually very rarely goes out and now ‘spends his time growing weary of doing nothing.’ It is as though the old man has given up on life, because it has handed him an onion instead of an orange. The world has cheated him, and played a cruel joke on the person he loves most. Indeed, he has an obsession with lineage, and one comes to realise that this is significant in that he will probably never have grandchildren, because no one will ever want to marry Skylark. In this way, one does feel for her, of course, but, for me, some sympathy ought to go to the father also.
“As soon as they began to laugh, he lowered his gaze. Their glances offended him. They belonged to a world of happy households, eligible daughters and handsome dowries; a world so very different from his own.”
Before continuing I must, once again, credit the author. As may already be apparent, he had an ability to gently pull the rug from under the reader’s feet, and take his work in unexpected directions. The best example of this is the change that takes place in Akos, and his unnamed wife, when Skylark goes away for a week. Initially, one suspects that the couple will mope and mourn throughout the entirety of her holiday, and there is certainly some of that, but ultimately her absence is liberating for them. For Akos in particular it is a burden lifted, or sent away, and consequently he experiences some kind of reawakening as a man. For example, he starts to eat, and enjoy, rich food; he spends money; he goes to the theatre and meets actresses; he hangs around with the Panthers – a hedonistic bunch of old acquaintances that he had previously been avoiding; he drinks alcohol and smokes cigars. In short, he has a wonderful time, and, as a result, starts to look younger. And, perhaps I was alone in this, I could not help but smile and urge him on. Have at it, Akos!
“Only the sober believe that the inebriate stagger to and fro. In reality they float on invisible wings and arrive everywhere much earlier than expected.”
I may not have given this impression, but Skylark is a moving, engaging, and complex little novel. Certainly, I am concerned that I have made it sound harsher than it is, when in fact there is not even the merest hint of an authorial sneer. As with Josef Škvorecký, the Hungarian was able to conjure up a cast of humanly flawed, but lovingly drawn characters. However, unlike with the Engineer of Human Souls, these characters are not caught up in world-altering events, they are not being oppressed by a political regime. Their tragedy is local, almost banal; it is the tragedy of shameful feelings and social awkwardness.