BOOK REVIEW / Ruled by the child: 'Skylark' - Deszo Kosztolanyi, Tr. Richard Aczel: Chatto & Windus, 10.99
Saturday 02 October 1993
The novel's main character, Akos, is deeply concerned with the empire's past as the county archivist in the provincial town of Sarszeg. His passion has been to trace family lineages back into the dim past when Hungary stood out against Austrian domination. His own problem is not the past, but the future, in the hapless shape of his 35-year-old spinster daughter, nicknamed the Skylark for what she is not; as she is not bright, melodious or invisible. In a delightful twist on the usual story of parents enslaving their only child, here it is Skylark who is a stern mentor of her parents' behaviour, and with her face beneath her pink parasol described as 'a caterpillar under a rosebush', we realise there is little hope of her ever flying the coop.
She does eventually leave for a week's holiday with relatives on the Hungarian plain. Her absence, at first dreaded by her parents, quickly offers them a heady liberation. They indulge in all the small-town delights she has cut them off from: a meal in a restaurant, a trip to the local theatre. Old man Akos even rekindles the flame of his misspent youth with the uproarious Panthers, who on the Thursday night of this blessed week play cards, get wildly drunk, and reminisce over history. Nor is Akos's wife left out: without her nagging daughter, she lets the housework slide, eats chocolates, and rediscovers her passion for the piano.
As the week progresses, the two allow themselves to be children in the place of their daughter, and find that it is is a far rosier, far less lonely world than the one they have come to accept as normal. On the drunken evening before their daughter's return, Akos can even acknowledge to himself something that he has always been too afraid to face: his daughter is irredeemably ugly. Yet he is genuinely glad when Skylark reappears on the Friday evening. He and his wife welcome her back to the nest, and prepare to resume their usual life.
That is all there is to the novel: one week in provincial Hungary precisely situated in September 1899. There are no killings, no great historical events, no whirlwind passions. But 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.
There is nothing saccharine about Kosztolanyi's depiction of this world, as he is well aware of the darker side of things: 'Above them all stretched a veil of silvery grey dust, Sarszeg's murderous dust which robbed so many local children of their lives and brought the adults to an early death'. The language is invigorating and at times hilarious (in a spirited translation which gives a good account of itself: I particularly liked phrases such as 'nabobish profligacy'; heaven knows what the original Hungarian was). He is always in control of his material, to the extent that he can leave some of the characters and their involvement with the family merely sketched in, suggesting further possibilities beyond the pages of the book.
musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 This 'woman calls police to order pizza' story isn't going where you're expecting
- 2 Axe wielding man shot dead after attacking four New York policemen on busy street
- 3 Watch what happened when food critics were unknowingly served McDonald's
- 4 Jimmy Carr's Oscar Pistorius joke goes a bit too far at the Q Awards
- 5 Ottawa shootings: Bruce MacKinnon's cartoon is the perfect tribute to soldier Nathan Cirillo
Interstellar: What we know about Christopher Nolan's new film so far
The Apprentice 2014: Nurun Ahmed and Lindsay Booth sent home in double firing
JK Rowling to publish new Harry Potter story online for Halloween
Miranda Hart confirms eponymous sitcom has come to an end as she bows out on a 'high'
Fury, film review: Brad Pitt stars in visceral and brutally ugly drama that reminds us war is hell
Of course, teenage girls need role models – but not like beauty vlogger Zoella
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Support for EU membership 'at highest level since 1991' with most Brits wanting to stay 'in'
Thousands with degenerative conditions classified as 'fit to work in future' – despite no possibility of improvement
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Attacks on 'Ukip Calypso' show how skewed people’s priorities are