Skylark [Pacsirta]


Kosztolányi, born in 1855, is one of Hungary’s greatest stylists, both as a lyric poet and as a prose writer. His precise language and ironic humour are particularly well suited to the short story, or novella, of which Skylark, written in 1923, is one of his best known.

It takes place in September 1899, in an imaginary provincial town called Sárszeg, clearly based on Kosztolányi’s birthplace Szabadka, then in southern Hungary. Less than twenty years later it was to become part of the new state of Yugoslavia and be renamed Subotica, so Kosztolányi was writing from the standpoint of a man whose one-time fellow citizens were having to learn Serbian.

In crisp, mostly short sentences, the novel paints an entertaining but also affectionate portrait of life in a small town, with its gossip and its cast of splendid characters: Olivér the atheist, who has been suffering from degenerative syphilis for years; the pimply railway ofcial Géza Cifra; the gloomy theatre director Arácsy; Miklós Ijas, would-be poet and assistant editor of the local paper, with a family tragedy in his past; a trio of actors — the dashing leading man Imre Zányi, the comedian Szolyvay, and the much-gossiped-about Olga Orosz; the alcoholic Latin teacher Szunyogh; and the leading light of local merrymaking Bálint Környey. Kosztolányi’s ability to bring these somewhat grotesque characters to life with great economy of means makes it seem entirely appropriate that he should have been the translator into Hungarian of Alice in Wonderland — and of Shakespeare.

The action takes place over just one week. An elderly couple, Ákos Vajkay, a retired county archivist and passionate genealogist, and his wife Antónia, nd themselves at a loose end when their only child, a very plain thirty-something daughter nicknamed Skylark, unexpectedly takes off for the country to visit relatives. After a great deal of comic fussing over preparations for the journey, her parents see her off at the station and contemplate a bleak interlude without her. But the expected penance of lunch in the local hostelry — Skylark is the cook in the family — turns out to be a thoroughly enjoyable occasion. And gradually the parents come to realise that their reclusive, uneventful existence has been forced on them by poor Skylark’s ugliness and the blight her old-maid status has cast on their lives.

The prematurely aged Ákos takes on a new lease of life as he joins in the fun at the Panthers’ Table, frequented by the local drinking club of which he was once a member. He relishes the taste of vanilla noodles, blood-red goulash soup and breast of veal — so different from Skylark’s rigorously bland chicken risotto, her pale sponge ngers and her semolina puddings — and for the rst time for years indulges in beer, wine, even champagne, and smokes a dark Tisza cigar. Meanwhile his wife enjoys coffee and whipped cream with the ladies of the town. And to celebrate the new brightness that has entered their lives, they even decide to replace the three (out of four) lightbulbs removed for reasons of economy from the dining-room chandelier — and revel in the cosy ambience that results.

The excitement reaches a climax with an invitation to attend a performance of The Geisha, which necessitates a long-overdue visit to the barber for Father and the purchase of a splendid crocodile handbag for Mother. The opera is one of the comic highlights of the novel, with the audience idolising the local diva even as they reprove her morals. And the Panthers’ Thursday evening ‘shindig’ sets the seal on Ákos’ transformation, as instead of his usual nine o’clock bedtime he nds himself carousing into the early hours, and turns out to be a dab hand at card-playing. On their last day of freedom the couple sleep right through the day, emerging only hours before Skylark’s expected return, their exhaustion heightened by a tearful scene in which, Ákos, dead drunk, claims that they don’t really love her because she’s ugly, a claim that is vehemently denied by his wife. The poignant ending contrasts with the jollities that have gone before, but does perhaps leave the possibility of lasting change open. VMI


The barber gave Ákos the full treatment. He wrapped him in a towel and lathered his face with tepid foam. With the bib around his chest, Ákos looked like a little boy treated to cakes at a patisserie, his face smeared thick with whipped cream.

 When his assistant had nished the shaving, the barber set about the old man’s hair, shaping it on top with electric clippers, scraping away any leftover stubble behind the ears with an open blade, then trimming, raking, combing and smoothing the sides. He carefully snipped the grey tufts of hair from Ákos’ ears and spread his moustache with ne twirling wax. This had just arrived from Tiszaújlak and, at seven kreuzers a tub, possessed the singular property of bonding even the most stubborn of Magyar moustaches. Finally, when he had swept away any remaining strands of fallen hair, he dusted Ákos’ temples with a soft brush and pressed his hair into shape with a net.

 When net and towel were nally removed, Ákos replaced the copy of Saucy Simon in which he had read many mischievous stories from the pen of some amateur scribbler, and looked into the mirror. His face darkened a little.

He hardly recognised himself.

A new man sat on the velvet cushions of the barber’s swivel

chair. His hair, although it had just been cut, seemed more bounteous than before. His moustache curled into a sharp and utterly unfamiliar fork, blackened by the Tiszaújlak wax, and as bright and stiff as if hammered from cast iron. His chin, on the other hand, was smooth, fresh and velvety. Every pore seemed younger. But different, too, and this unsettled him. 77-8