Tag Archives: Austro-Hungarian Literature

Skylark by Dezso Kosztolanyi

I’m going to admit that I haven’t been the staunchest fan of Hungarian literature. Not that I’ve read that much, but I haven’t been thrilled by what I read. Skylark is the most enjoyable Hungarian novel I’ve read to date. It’s another release from NYRB and I bought my copy because a) it sounded like my sort of thing and b) it’s from NYRB, and I decided to read more of their titles.

The plot is simple enough. Skylark is the improbable nickname given to the only daughter of Akos and Antonia Vajkay. Skylark is middle-aged, dumpy and unattractive, but she is extremely precious to her parents. They all live together in a little home stuffed full of “the ghastly icons of provincial life” in the boring small town of Sarszeg.  Skylark and her mother do the cooking together and generally enjoy each other’s company. Akos is fifty-nine but looks sixty-five, and he’s on early retirement from his job in county administration. Their days are ordered, modest and utterly predictable, and Akos finds that the “last years of his life he spent increasingly preparing for death.” Life has slowly shrunk for Akos:

“He had not moved in society for years. He neither drank nor smoked. Not only his family doctor, Dr Gal, but also the professor he had consulted in Pest had warned against arteriosclerosis and forbidden him from taking alcohol and – more distressingly – from smoking his beloved cigars.

The only passion remaining to him from the past was to sit in his cramped and perpetually damp study, leafing through a volume of Ivan Nagy’s great tome on Hungarian noble families.”

When the book begins, Skylark is going away on holiday for a week to visit an aunt and uncle in the country, and her parents are devastated at the thought of her week-long absence. They simply cannot imagine the days without her, and when she leaves, many tears are shed at the railway station. For the first day the parents imagine Skylark’s journey, anticipating each stage of her adventure. They dread the week ahead asking each other “how will we bear it?” And Akos even hints optimistically “someone might … turn up” for Skylark, now an acknowledged, unattractive old maid.

For the first day, the time drags for Akos and Antonia, and then they reluctantly venture out into town:

“Already some weeks earlier it had been agreed that, for these few days – it was only a week, after all – they wouldn’t cook at home. Skylark, who presided in all culinary matters, recommended the King of Hungary, Sarszeg’s largest restaurant, as the one place where the cuisine was still tolerable.

The three of them detested restaurants  And although they had hardly visited this one, they could talk about it for hours with sneering condescension. The dishwater soups, the tough and gristly meat, the carelessly concocted desserts they served up to the poor unsuspecting bachelors, who had never tasted good home cooking.”

Eating at a restaurant, initially endured as a necessity becomes the event that springboards Akos and his wife back into the vital strains of Sarszeg’s society. Soon all bad habits are resumed. They are courted by some of the town’s most notable flamboyant personalities and find themselves riveted by the town’s intrigue, gossip and scandalous dramas.

Skylark is a bitter-sweet tale–at once it’s joyous and yet also very sad in its examination of the narrowness of our lives and the decisions we make. All families have a unique dynamic, and it often takes being connected to a family unit to understand its pathology.  As Tolstoy notes in Anna Karenina:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  

This quote even fits this seemingly boring little family fraught with its own secret little disappointments. The story begins with the parents known as just mother and father, but as the tale develops they become well-rounded human beings that exist beyond any parental function–indeed with their daughter gone they seem to come to life. But at the same time the story is also sympathetic to Skylark. She’s long past what is considered the marriageable age, and when she’s put in the company of her younger flirtatious cousins she’s in the way. Skylark’s great failed, legendary romance with Geza Cifra  (a man whose “summer pimples bloomed brightly like ripe cherries” ) is examined in all its humourous and yet poignant details.

Not a great deal happens here, and yet at the same time the very smallness of the tale of a crucial week is delivered with a delectably natural precision. The tale dissects the Vajkay family dynamic and peels apart the layers revealing  the refuge and also the crutch the family can provide to its less successful members. In contrast to the Vajkay family is Miklos Ijas, would-be poet and assistant editor of the Sarszeg Gazette. He’s a lonely soul whose family has been decimated by scandal. Tainted by the past, he remains outside of mainstream society, yet he is one of the few people to understand the protective relationship the Vajkays have with their daughter. And he seems to envy the ties between this close-knit family. There’s a sense that we are witnessing a world that will soon disappear. Indeed the novel is set in 1899 and already we can hear the rumblings of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

 The introduction by Peter Esterhazy offers biographical information on the book’s author, Dezso Kosztolanyi. This was welcome as I had never heard of this author before. So thanks once more to NYRB. I enjoy Skylark immensely and found that this good-natured tale grew on me as it continued. Here’s one last quote showing Kosztolanyi’s lively use of language:

“The market seethed in the sweltering heat, humming with noise and ablaze with every imaginable colour. Red peppers shone as brightly as the florid scarlet paint in the paint-shop window across the square. Cabbages displayed their pale-green, silken frills, violet grapes glistened, marrows whitened in the sun, and yellowing melons, already past their best, gave off a sickly choleroid stench.”

 This edition is translated by Richard Aczel


Filed under Fiction, Kosztolányi Dezso

Jarmila by Ernst Weiss

“It’s a bitter-sweet thing being the slave of a woman.”

Jarmila by German author Ernst Weiss was recommended to me by Pechorin’s Journal . Doubtful I would have found the book without Max’s recommendation. Anyway, the book is from Pushkin Press and that means it’s a gorgeous little edition  that’s a pleasure to own and to hold. I don’t know how Pushkin Press is faring in these difficult economic times, but they certainly publish some interesting titles and produce unique, quality books.

So now to the novella: My edition runs to 96 pages, 85 of which are the story itself, and if you are familiar with Pushkin Press editions you will know that these are not full size pages. So let’s call this a novella.

Jarmila is a rather strange story. It’s one of those tales within a tale, and after finishing the novella, at first I spent more time thinking about the narrative structure than thinking about the story itself. Perhaps this is because I recently finished Les Diaboliques, 6 short stories by Barbery d’Aurevilly, and five of the six stories had the same narrative style.

Anyway, back to Jarmila: a love story from Bohemia and more about its narrative style later.

Jarmila is set in the 1930s and the story begins with the narrator embarking on a journey from Paris to Prague in order to  “purchase thirty tons of average grade Bohemian apples” in the hope that this transaction will clear some pressing debts. Discovering that he’s left his watch behind, the narrator purchases a replacement–a seemingly trivial yet significant event as it turns out. The watch proves to be less than accurate–a fact that frustrates the narrator. Is it pure chance or fate that he meets a toymaker who offers to mend the watch?

The two men sit in an inn while the toymaker mends the watch for the narrator, and as they sit and drink, the toymaker tells a strange tale of adultery & murder involving Jarmila, the rapacious, luscious wife of a much older, well-to-do feather merchant. 

Jarmila‘s clever structure–the tale within the tale–allows the author, Ernst Weiss to create a complex tale in a comparatively small space. The toymaker’s torrid, tragic tale is effectively telescoped, and yet its very brevity makes its style and the vivid use of motifs that much more powerful.  The excellent afterword written by Peter Engel states that Jarmila’s central motif is the watch, and since the story begins and ends with the watch, there’s no argument on that score. I was fascinated by the motif of feathers; illicit sex in the feathers (incredible imagery here), the toymaker plucking all the feathers from his wooden birds, and then Jarmila, with a fat goose between her thighs as she plucks it clean. This last image somehow reminds me of the fate of the doomed toymaker. Just like a goose, he’s squeezed between Jarmila’s thighs and consequently plucked of every single thing in life he values. Here’s a quote:

Bohemia, surely, boasts the most beautiful geese of any country. Here they are not fed, as in France, on fish waste. In the summer they are set free on the grassy meadows, later on the fields of stubble, and come autumn they’re fattened indoors in a manner both refined and cruel. Alongside the beautiful, powerful, now-white creatures,  I noticed others apparently ailing, stripped of all but their large wing feathers. Their breasts, their underbellies, were naked, unkempt, reddish-grey, and they didn’t march with the same cockiness and confidence as their healthy comrades; they waddled slowly, timid and fearful, and steered clear of humans, flapping their wings and starting up a furious cackling whenever they glimpsed one. I asked a fellow passenger what lay behind their strange behaviour. He didn’t understand me at first, but then he smiled and replied:  “You try being flayed alive, having every single hair pulled out one by one, being throttled and squeezed all the while between a pair of knees! I’d like to see you then! And the same procedure ever year!”   I then learned  in detail how in most parts of Bohemia geese are plucked alive each year thereby producing the heavenly, light, downy feather which made sleeping amongst the plump, snowy-white pillows of my Prague hotel such a pleasurable experience. Yet the goose not only provides feathers, but also skin, fat, meat, stomach, heart, liver and blood! Virtually every part of it is eaten.

If you think about it, even the toymaker’s semen is put to use.

Jarmila is an amazingly visual story, and again that’s due to credit of skill of the author who manages to create an incredible tale, very visual, full of motifs in about 85 pint-sized pages. I’m a fan of noir, and so as odd as it sounds, this tale with its emphasis on the inescapability of fate hit some disquieting chords for me. The story got under my skin, and now I can’t get it out of my head.

The afterword includes details about the author, Ernst Weiss, and friend of Stefan Zweig. Weiss, who was jewish, left Berlin after the burning of the Reichstag, and committed suicide in Paris in 1940 as the Wehrmacht entered Paris. The death of Weiss reinforces the idea that it seems impossible to definitively quantify the destruction wreaked by Hitler.

Translated by Rebecca Morrison and Petra Howard-Wuerz.


Filed under Weiss Ernst