When I first discovered the NYRB Classics series, I thought I’d try to read all of the books they’d published, especially after enjoying the first one I’d read (Don’t Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne du Maurier). Unfortunately, not all of them were hits, and after a few misses, I took a bit of a break from this “goal.”
I followed some of the new books NYRB published last year, and then, while perusing my library’s web catalog, decided to try a few more. The first one this time around, and the first book of the year, ended up being Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi. I won’t say it was a total hit, but it wasn’t a total miss either.
The book takes place in early 20th-century Hungary, focusing on a small family made up of an elderly couple and their adult daughter, who they’ve nicknamed Skylark. They are happy enough, though it’s made clear early on that Skylark, who is 35-years-old, is rather unattractive and hasn’t been able to marry because of her looks. The book starts with her heading off to the country to visit relatives, and her parents are very upset about the idea of her being gone for a whole week.
The summary on the back of the book described a sort of transformation that the couple goes through in Skylark’s absence, and that is somewhat the case. Not only do they eat out at local restaurants and notice things in town that they’ve always just passed by, but they both — especially Ákos, the father — end up socializing with other people, some of whom they’ve known but had not kept in touch with.
The story mostly follows Ákos, who is seemingly reunited with his old buddies from the Panther Club, and he seems to be realizing what he’s missed and how much has changed. And yet, it’s not clear quite what this all means to him, until near the end of the book, and it didn’t quite match what I expected. He comes home drunk after staying out late, and he and his wife end up fighting a bit, after he makes some very bold statements about their life and daughter.
The ending is actually rather depressing, because it seems like the family will all just go back to living their simple and boring life together, despite the difference this week without Skylark has made. It’s not that she’s dragging them down though, just that they wish they could do more for her, but know they can’t. And Skylark returns home with some realizations of her own, though she keeps them to herself.
Overall, I really liked the writing style, though I realize this was translated from Hungarian, so it’s hard to say how direct a translation it was. There were a few awkward bits, including a theatre performance the couple sees, which has content that would not be considered appropriate today. Despite having less of an eventful ending than I expected, I thought it was a good book. I would be interested in reading other works by the author, though I don’t know how many are available in English.