BOOK REVIEW / Pity the living, it's their funeral: 'Skylark' - Deszo Kosztolanyi trs Richard Aczel: Chatto, 10.99 pounds

THE UNDERTAKER, with his striped trousers, top hat and black coat, is arguably the smartest man at the funeral. Careful and attentive, he seems detached from pain, though pain is his livelihood. This Baudelairean dandy of a novel treats its protagonists with the same well-cut cool - and they know it's their funeral. When Skylark, the ugly, virtuous daughter, leaves devoted Father and loving Mother for a week's holiday with relatives on the plains, they weep bitterly and at great length: Father even dreams of his daughter's mutilated corpse. Though the telegram announces her safe arrival, the mourning is appropriate: an illusion has received sentence of death.

Kosztolanyi was born in 1885 and was the great stylist of the Hungarian language. He wrote in his diary: 'For me the only thing I have to say, however small an object I am able to grasp, is that I am dying.' In Skylark, the counterpart to the elegant externals of the funeral process - the genealogies with which Father busies himself in retirement, the rows of bronze coffins in the town's shopping street - is the painful degenerative process we call life. The townsmen love food and wine, but they usually die of cirrhosis of the liver; the melons in the market already smell rotten; the mild amusements the couple enjoy while their daughter is away - theatre, good food, dinner with the Lord Lieutenant - go sour when Father gets drunk and insists that Skylark would be better dead than so shamefully ugly. 'As ugly as I am,' he says.

This is the nub of the book: not that Skylark can't, in 1899, get a job, join a consciousness-raising group, and raise two fingers at the unappreciative male sex. Skylark is that ugly, hurt, defenceless part that saps the vitality of individuals and nations. Her Hungary is a client state of the Austrian Empire, represented by uninspiring politicians and the spiritually impoverished. Her home town is as smothered by mediocrity as it is covered in dust (the main amusement of its intelligentsia is to watch the Budapest train come through). But mediocrity is dignified by pain: when Father looks at the holiday photograph and sees Skylark flinching from the camera's eye he has to recognise that 'this gesture of desperate escape . . . was, in its own way, quite beautiful'.

As are the images: of Skylark in black oilskins and waddling like a duck, dissolving into the wet darkness of the railway platform; of Father being shaved before the theatre, 'like a little boy treated to cakes at a patisserie, his face smeared thick with whipped cream'; of a ragged boy 'gnawing at a slice of dry bread, down which the thick sunlight trickled like honey'. It's this quality of precise, playful observation, as well as the restrained tragedy of the narrative, that make Skylark a classic worth discovering.

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