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

October 20, 2010 16 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.

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