Home > 20th Century, Classics, Hungarian Literature, Kosztolányi Dezső, Novel > Eleanor Rigby is Hungarian and lives in Normandy. Or in Vancouver ?

Eleanor Rigby is Hungarian and lives in Normandy. Or in Vancouver ?

October 20, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Pacsirta by Dezső Kosztolányi, translated in English as “Skylark” and in French as “Alouette”.

No one is exactly the same after reading Skylark. It took me time to land down in my own life after I turned the last page of this novel. It is so sad and moving.

This novel by the Hungarian author Deszö Kosztlányi has already been beautifully reviewed by Max from Pechorin’s Journal and Guy from His Futile Preoccupations. Please read their excellent reviews to find details on the plot and Kosztlányi’s style. Their English is obviously much better than mine and I share their views.

Skylark is Akós and Antonia Vajkay’s daughter. They live in the provincial town of Sászeg. She’s 35. She’s unmarried. She’s ugly. In September 1899, she leaves her parents to spend a week at her uncle’s, in the country. Skylark opens with her departure and closes on her return. This week of holiday is a catalyst. Something had been boiling for years and after that week, a precipitate named “spinster” is born. The parents eventually admit that Skylark is too ugly to get married. Skylark stops hoping to meet a husband. They all love each other so much that they suffer in silence to protect the each other. Skylark will never unveil what really happened in the country. The parents will never tell her how fun their week without her was. All carry a huge amount of pain.

Skylark is about women and about parenthood.

In 1899, the only reason a woman would definitively leave her parent’s house is marriage, the only way a woman can reach adulthood and independence. Names reveal how insignificant women are at that time. Akós’ wife is named Antonia. Her husband is talked as Akós. She is designated as “his wife”, “the woman”, “the mother” but never Antonia. As a woman, she has no proper identity. She only exists as a mother or as a wife. In addition, Kosztlányi never tells Skylark’s real first name. She will keep her nickname forever. Only a husband would have called her differently.

Like all animals, human parents raise their children with one aim: their future autonomy. Skylark will never leave the family nest, her ugliness cut her wings. It is a handicap; she will never be able to live on her own or find a place in society. She is like a mentally handicapped child you love but will depend on you forever. Her parents will have to take care of her until they die and worry about what will become of her after their death. She’s a burden for her parents and they know it. They never said it aloud to each other before this very week off, because it would have intensified their pain and because they are ashamed of this feeling.

Some events in life create a new version of yourself, depending on how other people look at you. At the beginning of your adult life, you were just yourself. Then you added a “spouse self”, ie who you are as a spouse. When you become a parent, a love storm comes in your existence, creating a “parent self”. In the eyes of your child, you are a parent. When you are with your child, you act like a parent, whatever the age of the “child”. Skylark never leaves her parents. They spend all their time together. As a consequence, the Vajkay never go out of their parent role or identity.

When the children are away, roles shift, and the other selves show up. That’s what happens to Skylark’s parents. They forget hours. They have lunch at the restaurant. They go to the theatre. The mother wants a new handbag. They stop thinking their identity as being “Skylark’s parents”. They are adults and spouses again. I have to say I feel that way too when my children stay a few days at their grand-parents’. My husband and I forget meal hours, eat junk food, go to the cinema and work late without thinking of the nanny. We miss them but also enjoy the temporary freedom.

Skylark’s return announces the winter of her parents’ life. The roles are reversed, Skylark acts like a parent. They erase the traces of their joyful week like teenagers would hurry to tidy the house before their parents come back. Skylark finds her father too skinny: she decides to cook for him to fill out again. In French “to fill out again” is said “se remplumer”, literally “to feather again”. Isn’t it ironical to be “feathered again” by a Skylark?

The town of Sászeg is also a character of this novel. According to the foreword included in my copy, Kosztlányi’s home town inspired the fictional Sászeg. For a modern reader, it is interesting to discover the way of life of provincial Hungary at the turning of the 20th century.

 The translator compared Kosztlányi to Flaubert. I would rather compare him to Maupassant, who has a more compassionate look on people. I noted several references to France throughout the novel: one character reads Le Figaro, the men drink Sylvaner, a white wine from Alsace. The newspaper talk about the Dreyfus Affair – was it such a scandal as to interest the foreign press? Maybe Kosztlányi was francophile.

 Before ending this post, I would like to say how wonderfully Kosztlányi writes. The scenes when Skylark weeps in the train or silently cries in her bed are poignant. The description of life in Sászeg is vivid. The French translation was agreeable to read, except for one detail. I just didn’t like all the “attendu que” (“given that”) abundantly used in some chapters. This locution is typical for court ruling, I had sometimes the impression to read a judgment.

 This novel is a masterpiece and I highly recommend it.

 By the way, Skylark has sisters: Jeanne, from A Life by Guy de Maupassant, Liz Dun, from Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland and Eleanor Rigby, the one of the song. Hence my title.

  1. October 21, 2010 at 1:29 am

    So glad you liked it. The book was quite a find for me, and as I mentioned I ended up preferring it to Ana Edes. I’m curious which one you will prefer.


    • October 21, 2010 at 5:39 am

      A “find”, that’s the word. A gold nugget in the river of books.
      I’ll read Ana Edes too.
      I’m interested in his poems too.


  2. October 22, 2010 at 7:10 pm

    Second thoughts.

    Thinking again about Skylark – that book sure stays in mind – I started looking at it through a different light. While reading, I was so overwhelmed by the crushing pain each member of the family endured that it blurred my vision and my brain. In Skylark, the reader sees the events either through Skylark’s eyes or according to Akós’ point of view. Their opinion, as painful as it may be, is that Skylark’s ugliness is the only obstacle to her marriage. But what if that were not the only reason?
    In the novel, Kosztlányi leaves hints about her temper which may lead to think that more than being ugly, Skylark is dull and uninteresting, and maybe a little slow.
    She doesn’t read. Her mother tried to teach her how to play the piano but gave up because Skylark had no talent for it. To avoid distressing her daughter, the mother stops playing herself, which is a great sacrifice for she loves to play the piano.
    The Vajkay never go to the restaurant because Skylark has a weak stomach. As a consequence, she cooks simple and low fat meals. Skylark’s food looks like tasteless hospital meals compared to the dishes served at the restaurant. For Akós, during that short week of lunches at the restaurant, eating is a pleasure again.
    The Vajkay don’t go to the theatre because the smoke of the numerous candles lightening the theatre gives headaches to Skylark. Another pleasure she doesn’t like.
    She likes needle work. But what Kosztlányi describes are mundane crocheted doilies and not beautifully embroidered cushions.
    She excels in nothing. In addition to her ugliness, I wonder if she has anything of an accomplished or agreeable woman.
    Seeing her that way, her life as an old maid seems less the result of a terrible fate than that of the combination of her ugliness and her dullness.
    Blinded by fatherly love, Akós is infuriated by the attention paid to the frivolous Olga. He thinks she has little virtue compared to his Skylark. He immediately concludes Olga’s success comes from her beauty. But, apart from being pretty, isn’t she also very sociable?

    Of course, Skylark’s ugliness has an impact on her capacity to behave in society. It doesn’t help self confidence. If she were pretty, perhaps she would be more open to the outside world. Life is certainly easier when your mind lives in a beautiful envelope.
    Of course, she’s not responsible for her weak stomach and her headaches. But the Narrator, in Proust has a poor health too. He’d rather rest all morning in the dark to be able to go out and meet young girls or dine with his friend Saint-Loup, than stay up and do nothing at all.

    Two men came close to Skylark and went away. The first one was Geza Cifra — a man whose “summer pimples bloomed brightly like ripe cherries”– obviously not an Adonis. The second was a widower with three young children. He could have married her for practical reasons. Her ugliness was visible when they came by. So what made they flee away? Would they have left if she had had a lively conversation? We can’t know because the only camera we have to see Skylark is her introspection and her parent’s biased point of view.

    Kosztlányi never judges her. He is factual but all the details put together reveal a particularly unattractive Skylark. This doesn’t change the compassion I feel for her but it changes a bit the unfair bad luck (I’m not responsible for what happens to me) into something she could have worked on. You’re not responsible for the face you have, but you’re responsible for the face you show.


  3. October 30, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    I’m finally starting to catch up on blog posts I had noted but hadn’t had time to comment on.

    This is tremendous. I love your thoughts on the treatment of identity in the novel and how women’s identities are the products of their relationships with others.

    I think you’re right too about Skylark. She’s not just ugly, she’s also dull, but her fate is still tragic. Part of the power is that the tragedy here is so mundane, it’s not even necessarily unfair, but it’s still heartbreaking.

    Like Guy I’m glad you liked it. I need to check out Anna Edes myself, but Skylark will be hard to top.


    • October 30, 2010 at 7:10 pm

      I also think that men’s identities are the products of their relationships with others.

      I so understand and sympathize with Skylark’s parents. The first morning after she left, they oversleep and are afraid not to hear a sound from her room. That’s how I felt when my children were babies or toddlers and happened to spend a few days at their grand-parents’. You wake up, dazed because no child woke you up by crying or climbing in your bed. Now it’s different, they get up, watch TV and let us sleep on Sundays. When they’re away, it is strange not to hear them move in their rooms. And their bedrooms smell like them, even after a few days of absence.

      I also really felt Skylark’s pain. The simple and factual description of her pain is more moving that it would have been with a big scene “à la Musset”.

      This book touched me deeply.


  4. October 30, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    Absolutely bookaround, one of the key insights of feminism for me is how gender roles define and restrict men in many ways as much as they do women.

    What I was referring to was your para about how names show the insignificance of women in the period and the limits on their ability to achieve independence, which I thought a very good analysis.

    I think I used the word masterpiece at mine, which I don’t use lightly but which is amply deserved here.


    • October 30, 2010 at 7:56 pm

      Sorry, I hadn’t understood what you meant.
      Akos is interesting too. There aren’t so many loving fathers characters in literature. The only one that comes to my mind is Father Goriot.
      And maybe the fathers in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Emma. They’re weak and loving.


  5. leroyhunter
    November 23, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    Lovely billet. You’re right about how Skylark almost tyrannises her parents’ lives: when she’s gone, they become the children, indulging themselves and running riot. Funny how all traces of the mild debauches have to be scrupulously concealed from the returning offspring.

    The other thing that strikes me is how corrosive to a person a routine is, but how comforting it can be. Really loved the portrait of the life of the town.


    • November 23, 2012 at 9:46 pm

      I love comments on older posts, so thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed the book too. Have you just read it?

      No one speaks about routine better than Proust, although he talks more about “habitude”. I’m not sure there is only one word in English to cover the meaning of “habitude” which is a combination of routine, habits and way of living. I like that English is more precise (you have LOTS of words) but sometimes it adds something that the meaning of a word is wider.
      I’m not sure I find routine comforting, although I understand why it can be.


  6. February 11, 2015 at 3:03 am

    I read this for the first time this past weekend and it knocked me out.


    • February 11, 2015 at 10:15 pm

      It’s amazing, isn’t it? I still remember it now. Skylark’s personality, the way her parents feel free to be themselves and not just her parents as soon as she’s gone.
      I’ve read other books but him and they were excellent but this one touched me the most.


  7. N@ncy
    April 28, 2015 at 10:52 am

    I have ‘ skimmed’ the review because I want to read the book first.
    Opening lines give a senese of place: ” The dining-rooom sofa was strewen with strands of red, white, green cord….( party? birthday? Christmas?) …already I’m curious!


    • April 28, 2015 at 6:38 pm

      It made several bloggers’ year end list, I think.


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