Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Goulash soup, veal and beef stew - I never dared ask for things like that - Dezső Kosztolányi's Skylark

Oh, I could go on about Walter Scott and The Antiquary all week.  But it seems almost unfriendly to spend so much time with a book I don’t actually recommend, however interesting as literary history.  For example, Robert Louis Stevenson, in his essay “A Gossip on Romance” – no, no, no more Scott.*

How about a novel that I can recommend to everyone, literally everyone who stops by Wuthering Expectations?  It’s Skylark (1924) by Hungarian novelist Dezső Kosztolányi.  Skylark, the adult daughter of a “retired county archivist” and his wife, visits relatives for a week.  What will the parents do?

They stared dumbly into space like the speechless victims of some sudden loss, their eyes still hankering after the spot where they had last seen her.  They couldn’t bring themselves to walk away. (17)

That’s worrying.  But it turns out the daughter may have been an oppressive presence, a bit of a tyrant.  The restaurant, it turns out, is not “awful,” but delicious.  Shopping for handbags is fun.  Playing cards and drinking schnapps is even more fun.  All the things they couldn’t do with their daughter turn out to be fun.  The novel is as marvelous a defense of hedonism as I’ve ever seen, excesses and all.

Goulash, that’s what it was.  Delicious, to be sure: rich, blood-red goulash soup with hot paprika from Szeged, the liquid dripping from his steaming potatoes.  How I adored that in my younger days, when poor Mama was still alive.  Goulash soup, veal and beef stew – God only knows when I had them last.  I never dared ask for things like that.  Out of consideration for her, I suppose. (63)

That whole section, Chapter V, should be better known as a foodie classic.

Topics for future posts, purely theoretical:  How does Kosztolányi pack so many characters into this short (220 page) novel?  How does he make them so distinct?

In the reading room – as of old – sat the solitary figure of Sárcsevits, a rich, laconic bachelor of independent means, who now, as ever, was reading Le Figaro. He always read Le Figaro, and thus was generally held to be a cultivated European. (128)

That’s almost all we get of Sárcsevits, and what more do we need?  More than a touch of Nikolai Gogol in this novel.

How about the metaphorical language?

A Czech tuba player with an apoplectic red face and a miniscule nose, who was known to perform at funeral processions, was just raising his serpentine instrument to his neck as if struggling in a fit of suffocation with a golden octopus. (81)

The metaphors are A-OK.

Would it be helpful for me to invoke Cold Comfort FarmSkylark has a hint of that novel, although I do not believe that it is a parody of anything but life.  I found it hilarious, but the humor is gentle, and the underlying sadness is real.  The blogger at Sasha & the Silverfish overemphasizes the sadness in her recent review, I think, but I probably am overplaying the humor.

Quietly funny and quietly sad.  Welcome to Hungarian literature.

This is my last post for the week.  I’ll be away until Monday.

Translation by Richard Aczel; page numbers from the NYRB edition.

* Thanks to Rohan for reading along!  I urge readers curious about Scott to try the novels Old Mortality or The Heart of Midlothian or the story “The Two Drovers."


  1. I did read the posts on THE ANTIQUARY, but had nothing to say. This, though, sounds like one I could read and enjoy!

  2. I have no doubt that you would enjoy ths books, Rebecca. It's a treat.

  3. I think it's my natural inclination to see it as sad. I love how Kosztolányi offers so many chances to the reader laugh or weep a little. As I've said in response to Max's review, "Beneath all the comedy-of-manners sketches, there was so much aching in Skylark, her parents, even how the town couldn’t believe they were out and about. The funny parts: How, after seeing Skylark off, her parents cried in the street. The author made it sound so humorous, even when we shouldn’t laugh. And then there are times when we know we ought to laugh, but we don’t have the heart to."

    Oh, by the way, hello, I'm Sasha, it's nice to meet you. :)

  4. Sasha, your post is a useful corrective to my tendency to find too many things funny. I laugh plenty when I shouldn't, and maybe too much when I should.

    The balance of the funny and sad in this novel is unbelievable, isn't it? Just perfect.

    Yes, nice to meet you. I've been reading you for a while.