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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Kosztolányi Dezső

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To purchase Skylark

Title: Skylark
Author: Kosztolányi Dezső
Genre: Novel
Written: 1924 (Eng. 1993)
Length: 229 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Skylark - US
Skylark - UK
Skylark - Canada
Alouette - France
Lerche - Deutschland
Allodola - Italia
  • Hungarian title: Pacsirta
  • Translated by Richard Aczel
  • With an Introduction by Péter Esterházy

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nice, sharp family portrait

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung . 9/11/2007 spre
The Independent A 2/10/1993 Nick Caistor
Independent on Sunday . 15/8/1993 Leslie Wilson
NZZ . 20/2/2008 Andreas Breitenstein
The NY Rev. of Books A+ 8/4/2010 Deborah Eisenberg

  Review Consensus:

  Think it is very good indeed

  From the Reviews:
  • "There are no killings, no great historical events, no whirlwind passions. But Kosztolanyi's precise description of his chosen microcosm has produced a gem of a book that is completely convincing in its depiction of characters and the society they move in." - Nick Caistor, The Independent

  • "It's this quality of precise, playful observation, as well as the restrained tragedy of the narrative, that make Skylark a classic worth discovering." - Leslie Wilson, Independent on Sunday

  • "Es ist die Aporetik des Dichtertums zwischen dem Schönen und dem Schrecklichen, die Kosztolányi hier zur Darstellung bringt. Und wenn auch die Provinzler zu klein sind, um zur grossen Tragödie zu taugen, Kosztolányis elegante Sprachkunst und sein befreiender Witz sorgen dafür, dass es eine Rettung gibt von der Traurigkeit." - Andreas Breitenstein, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "This short, perfect novel seems to encapsulate all the world’s pain in a soap bubble. Its surface is as smooth as a fable, its setting and characters are unremarkable, its tone is blithe, and its effect is shattering. (...) By writerly magic, Kosztolányi sees to it that even as we roll our eyes, we are entranced by the grimy theater and the appalling show with its lazy, fourth-rate performers." - Deborah Eisenberg, The New York Review of Books

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Skylark is a week-in-the-life story of the Vajkays, Ákos and Antónia and their thirty-five year old daughter, Skylark, in September 1899. It is not a typical week in their lives, however; instead, it's one where, with Skylark spending the week off visiting relatives, the family routine that has remained unchanged for years is suddenly and surprisingly radically disrupted.
       Skylark isn't very attractive -- she's ugly, even, and it's pretty clear she's going to remain an old maid. As her parents come to realize in her absence, over the past decade or more she's pulled them down with her, their lives filled with little ambition or hope as they've tried to convince themselves they're happy with their own very simple lives that exclude practically all others.
       The novel begins with Skylark's departure and concludes with her return, but the narrative centers around the parents and what they do in her absence; what (little) happens to Skylark while she's away is reported in a letter she sends, and then when she gets back.
       Ákos and Antónia practically blossom in Skylark's absence. Even literally, a light goes on in their lives: they "had taken out three of the four light bulbs to save electricity" from their dining-room chandelier and now replace them; where they usually "groped around in perpetual semi-darkness" they can suddenly see ..... Forced to eat out, they quickly are pulled into old circles of friends and acquaintances; Ákos hasn't had alcohol in any form in a while but now indulges a bit again -- and Antónia opens the long-locked piano (she had tried to teach her daughter to play but, of course, "poor thing, she never got very far, simply didn't have the feel for it") and begins to play again. They go to the theater, even miss Mass on Sunday (which "did not pass unnoticed" in that town), and Ákos is drawn into the local club, the 'Panthers'.
       The various riches of life -- from good food to music to convivial pleasures -- suddenly reveal themselves to the Vajkays again, and they come to realize they've been deluding themselves:

We waited one year, two years, hoping, as time passed by. We believed it was all a matter of chance. We told ourselves things would get better. But they only got worse. Always worse and worse.
       It's an ugly truth they face, but they finally see it clearly. Skylark, too, in the end is aware of her fate. It's not a pleasant message, but Skylark is one of those naturally off-putting people -- her looks apparently don't help -- and there's simply nothing to be done about it. Clinging to each other -- the parents do love the daughter dearly -- they've isolated themselves and withdrawn from practically all of life's pleasures beyond the very limited domestic ones.
       Kosztolányi's family- and town-portrait is gentle and charming, even with that ugly message behind it. The "tiny dot on the map" that is Sárszeg -- where everyone runs into someone "like it or not, several times a day" -- and its inhabitants are affectionately portrayed. Despite the fundamental sadness of his tale, Kosztolányi's narrative is good-natured throughout, especially in its embrace of the provincial pleasures of small-town life.
       Small but fine, Skylark is a well-executed slice-of-lives tale that is both joyful and poignant.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 January 2011

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Skylark: Reviews: Kosztolányi Dezső: Other books by Kosztolányi Dezső under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Kosztolányi Dezső (1885-1936) was a leading Hungarian author.

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© 2011 the complete review

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