Kosztolanyi: Pacsirta (Skylark) (1924)

I used to visit regularly the Hungarian Electronic Library, a state-sponsored repository of classical literature. At least I think of it as such as I used to peruse its collection of Hungarian writers and poets, but I am aware that the archive contains other sections as well, such as pertaining to sciences or foreign literature translated to Hungarian. As I had plenty of books to read in more traditional format, i.e. on paper, I haven’t visited the site recently. When my mother reminded me of it a few weeks ago I went back and was happy to notice a hundreds of audio books available for download, including dozens of novels from Hungarian masters. These were all produced and shared by the Hungarian Federation of the Blind and Partially Sighted I quickly grabbed a dozen of them and loaded on my MP3 player.

Yesterday, when I was traveling long distance, I managed to finish the first of these, a novel by Dezso Kosztolanyi. I remembered that I liked his poems as a kid and his short stories in high school, but don’t recall reading any of his novels. The story of Pacsirta (Skylark) is simple: a 35 year old spinster goes for a week of vacation to the relatives on the countryside. She lives in a small town, Sarszeg, which is a stylized version of Szabadka. She looks ugly and had no suitors, thus she lived her whole life with her aging parents. They accommodated their lives to hers, making the family’s days reserved, anti-social and boring, without anything interesting ever happening to any of them. During her week out though, her father gets revitalized, goes to the bar with his old buddies, drinks and play cards till dawn. He even takes his wife to the theater and talks about their daughter’s condition, both a first in a very long time. Upon the daughter’s return they all fall back to their old routine.

I utterly enjoyed listening to this slow pace novel, while flying half way around the world. This contrast of speed was just one of many distinct ones. While I was listening to the exquisite description of many aspects of the family’s surrounding I caught myself comparing this to today’s action oriented novels. Descriptive passages written today have such a different flavor now then they had 80 years ago. (Pacsirta was written in 1923/24.) Here it was the essence of the novel, while the plot seemed to take a backseat in driving the story. Most of the more modern books I read recently were action oriented and the only reason the writers bothered with describing anything or anybody, so the reader could build up some sort of image of the heroes of the stories. But the focus is always what’s happening, who is doing what and why. In Pacsirta though the milieu of the family, the atmosphere of the smalltown, the ambiance of the salon provided the spine of the book. To be able to provide this kind of description one hss to be a keen observer, which Kosztolanyi must have been

Another contrast I kept wondering about is the change in capitalism and consumerism. I live in a small village and rarely visit big cities nowadays. Yesterday as I went through three major airports and two major cities (San Francisco, Frankfurt, Budapest) I must have seen tens of thousands of people. They all looked different, they all had their set of clothing and personal belonging. This reminded me that the consumer experience had been commodified. For the 21st century person buying a new piece of clothing, food, object… anything is a non-event. Back in the era of the book, set in 1899, purchasing an object or service was an experience. The exchange between the seller and the buyer was more meaningful for both; the book describes four or five of these events in detail. The push in capitalism for companies to sell more and keep growing removed the personal nature of the interaction. The extreme form of this is e-commerce, a sphere where more and more of our purchasing is happening without any personal interaction. The exchanges in the book were not always pleasant for both parties, but they provided fodder to think about later.

A third contrast manifested itself in the protagonist family’s connection with modernity. They lived such an isolated life that everything outside its small boundaries confused them. Not just modern aesthetics (e.g. Art Deco) or changing politics (e.g. the paper they read for decades changed its orientation) confused them, but also the encounter that other kind of lifestyles exist beyond their own.

I had to agree with everything what the short literary analysis at the end of the book said about the book. Including:

  • The daughter was ugly not just form the outside, but ugly, dumb in the inside too, as shown by the letter she wrote back home.
  • Everything in the book was ugly, not just the spinster: the city, the salon, the friends, the diva, the paper, the news. Kosztolanyi showed the essence of ugliness.
  • Szechenyi, who founded the first salons in Hungary with the idea to increase the level of social life, education, charity and national identity would have been sad to see that the small town nobles basically used the facility to drink and gamble.
  • Pacsirta and her parents lived in mutual slavery to each other. The daughter supported her parents all her life, while the parents hold back pursuing their own interests to provide the kind of uneventful life they imagined their daughter wished for. This was the saddest part of the story for me.

This thought provoking book really wet my appetite for reading more of Kosztolanyi and his era. My only wish was that the reader would have used better judgment where to have pauses in the text. I offer her a clue: at the punctuation marks ant not at the end of lines or pages. On the other hand her voice was smooth, her giving life to the voices of various characters was superb.

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