EVERYDAY life in the Austro-Hungarian empire is not exactly the stuff of literary headlines. My own novelistic encounters with this centuries-old structure are limited to a little Joseph Roth and less Stefan Zweig, with various desultory attempts to get beyond volume one of Robert Musil. Yet the political redrawing of the map of Europe over the past few years has suddenly led to the resurfacing of the idea of Central Europe. Skylark by the Hungarian novelist Dezso Kosztolanyi (1885-1936) reads like a perfect introduction to this submerged continent.
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.
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