This novel is said to be the story of Akos Vajkay and his wife Antonia during a week spent without their daughter Skylark, who is visiting family in the country. But it is the story of the whole town, Sarszeg, a dot on the map in the Austro-Hungarian empire on the brink of the twentieth century. Sarszeg is a musty and provincial town with only one tarmacked street, no electric light in the theatre, two stone-masons, two iron-mongers and, tellingly, three coffin makers. Cirrhosis of the liver is a big killer in Sarszeg.
After an all-night session of the Panthers’ Table, a man’s drinking club, their leader, ” had so much to report: who had collapsed and when; who had arrived home at what hour and in what manner – on foot, in a carriage, alone or aided by the Samarian committee whose charge it was to transport the more paralytic Panthers to their beds like corpses; then who had been drinking wine, champagne or schnapps, and how much of each had been consumed by whom and finally who had been sick and how many times. For in Sarszeg this served as the surest measure of a good time. Those who were sick twice had had a better time than those who were sick only once. Yesterday some had even been sick three times These had enjoyed an exceptionally good night”.
Perhaps the problem is exacerbated a little by the town’s people’s certainty that “beer is the perfect antidote to alcohol poisoning”. But if the alcohol doesn’t get you, the Sarszeg dust will, apparently
Skylark is 35, will never marry and lives with her parents. She was nicknamed “in the days when she still sang“. We never learn her real name. She is dull, untalented and above all, ugly. The reactions to her looks seem a little extreme. On the walk to the train station to see his daughter off on this momentous trip, Akos reflects: “He had never really understood women, but knew only too well that his daughter was ugly. And not just ugly any more, but withered and old. A veritable old maid.
It was only in the flood of almost theatrically rosy sunlight cast by the parasol that this became irrevocably clear to him. A. caterpillar under a rosebush, he thought to himself.
He ambled along in his mouse-grey suit until they reached Szechenyi Square, the only square, the only agora, in Sarszeg, where instinctively he strode a couple of paces ahead, so as not to have to walk beside her.” (Gee, thanks Dad).
Skylark’s parents are afraid for her and simultaneously fear her. Skylark cooks (blandly) and cleans (ferociously) for the three of them and takes care to ensure that their routine is never disturbed. She surrounds and limits them. The family doesn’t eat out because Skylark has a bad stomach, they don’t go to the theatre because it makes her head swim, they cannot keep a maid because of Skylark’s high standards, they keep only one bulb in the dining room chandelier because she economises. Skylark is indefatigable and, as Peter Esterhazy says in his introduction, “aggressively good”. She seems pleasant enough but her relatives tire of her before the week is out. She is always out of place and knows it. Did we mention that the Vajkay family stick to routine? While Skylark is away Mother and Father meet Geza Cifra, a one-time potential suitor for Skylark. To Cifra’s complete mystification, Mother and Father loathe him. But not because he had “laid a finger on their daughter”, “led her on or deceived her”. He had not. Nor had he “made improper suggestions as others had”. Cifra’s crime was, one night some nine years ago, after bumping into Skylark in the town, to escort her part-way home, “causing Skylark, to her parents’ complete surprise, to arrive five minutes late for supper”. Skylark’s parents” still reflect on their daughter’s mysterious evening promenade”. Cifra is “the one person in all the world they would never forgive and would never cease to resent”. They had dared to hope. But there is no hope now.
When Skylark leaves on the train, the three Vajkays weep at the trauma. Skylark is properly advised not to ingest cold water, melon or – worst of all – cucumber salad. But once the train has gone, without ado or delay Mother and Father set about eating at restaurants, putting all the lights on, playing cards, going to the theatre. Father gets his hair cut and drinks too much; mother buys a new bag and plays the piano again. Mother goes to afternoon tea and Father attends an all-night drink-fest. Skylark’s parents had withdrawn from the life of the town but they now rediscover it. Kosztolanyi is a fine observer of humanity. Sarszeg bristles with character and characters defined in short, rich sentences. The doctor, the paharmacist, the teachers, the cobbler, the editor, the prosecutor, the pharmacist, the organiser of duels, the commander of the fire brigade, the bank manager, the comedian, the leading man, the actress, the cheating wife, the judge and the tragic writer are all rendered in swift, bright strokes. Most intriguing are “Weisz and Partner” (one man) whose actual business partner appears to live in a glass case in their leather goods shop.
Akos and Antonia have no choice but to eat at the King of Hungary restaurant which, they have always agreed with Skylark, is awful “on the way to the restaurant they comforted each other, braving themselves for the dubious event. When they stepped inside the King of Hungary they immediate wrinkled their noses and screwed up their eques. An enormous, clean and friendly dining hall stretched out before them, with a ceiling of frosted glass, lit, even by day, by four weighty chandeliers.
Akos led his wife to a table and sat down.
In the middle of the impeccably laundered tablecloth stood a bunch of flowers Beside it were two small silver dishes freshly heaped with salt and paprika, a pepper pot and jars of mustard, vinegar and oil To one side, on a splendid glass platter with a silver rim, lay apples, peaches and, in little wicker baskets, fresh and crusty rolls, salted croissants and small white loaves sprinkled with poppy seeds….
Looking up from the cloud of tepid steam that rose from the silver bowl before him and misted up his pince-nez, Weisz and Partner greeted Akos with an absent-minded nod of the head. He was utterly engrossed in the serious business of eating. He stared wide-eyed at the neatly diced red meat of his goulash soup as he ladled it into a porcelain bowl printed with the curlicued monogram KH. Using the back of his soup spoon, he mashed his perfect egg-shaped potatoes into a smooth puree He ate quickly and with great relish. The remaining, wonderfully oily liquid he mopped up with morsels of bread roll pinned to his fork”
Weisz and Partner’s bowl of goulash causes Akos no end of uncomfortable reflection and mental torment.
Kosztolyani is poetic –
.After drinking and playing the card-game “taroc” into the small hours, Akos walks through the city and into a tarot card scene. “Everywhere dogs were barking, Behind every fence, shaken from sleep by the restless moonlight. A moonlight chorus of yapping animals, howling with primal rage, throwing their weight back on their crooked, narrow hind legs, blinking up at the moon with short-sighted eyes, squinting at that mottled, porous, golden cheese they had been longing for millennia to wolf down from the sky”.
And universal –
“In a state of excitement, things that normally pass unnoticed can seem pregnant with significance. At such times even inanimate objects – a lamppost, a gravel path, a bus -can take on a life of their own, primordial, reticent and hostile, stinging our hearts with their indifference and making us recoil with a start. And the very sight of people at such times, blindly pursuing their lonely, selfish ends, can suddenly remind us of our own irrevocable solitude, a single word or gesture petrifying in our souls into an eternal symbol of the utter arbitrariness of life.”
And funny – but a late funny scene when Akos returns home very drunk winds down in to pathos. That week all three Vajkays learn something they didn’t want to know. And the undeniable truth is sad. This is a sad and wonderful novel. Read it in one go. Don’t muck about, just as you don’t muck around with a good goulash..