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Archive for the ‘Dezső Kosztolányi’ Category

Oh, the excruciating pain of making this list!  I am very pleased with the end result but how cruel to have spent the last few days playing off my favourite books against one another to get down to the ten you see here (and ten it must be for when I attempted to make a list of fifteen things got wildly out of hand).  What I did realise quickly was what an excellent reading year I’ve had, full of wonderful, memorable books.  May 2012 bring more of the same!

10. The Unlikely Disciple (2009) – Kevin Roose
The best books are the ones that get you so excited that you cannot stop talking about them, so that soon all your friends and family know exactly what you’re reading.  That is what happened while I was reading The Unlikely Disciple.  Roose, then an undergraduate at Brown, went ‘undercover’ for a semester at an evangelical Christian university.  His insightful, respectful, and very detailed chronicle of his time there left me highly entertained and incredibly engaged, pondering some of the issues he touched on (the influence of religious groups in politics, evangelical Christianity’s attitudes towards women, and journalistic ethics, to name a few) for weeks after I had finished reading.

9. Skylark (1924) – Dezső Kosztolányi
Set in 1899 in a small town in Austria-Hungary, this is the story of Skylark’s mother and father and the joyous week they spend enjoying themselves while their spinster daughter is away visiting family.  Mother and Father’s excitement at their outings to the restaurant and the theatre (and, in Father’s case, a meeting of the local drinking club) is humourously and heartwarmingly told but it is the return of the pathetic, pitiable Skylark (and Father’s outburst in anticipation of her return) that truly makes this a brilliant novel.  A wonderful and sympathetic view of the burden faced by parents with beloved but unmarriageable daughters. 

8. An Appetite for Life (1977) – Charles Ritchie
Ritchie, though he was a prominent diplomat, is now best remembered for his skill as a diarist and rightly so.  This, the earliest published volume of his diaries, covers the years 1924-1927, as Ritchie was finishing off his studies in Halifax and then experiencing the delightful distractions on offer at Oxford during his first year there.  Ritchie is marvellously candid and his daily ponderings – here, unsurprisingly given his youth, focused on women, sex, and school – manage to be both amusing and touching.

7. Christopher and Columbus (1919) – Elizabeth von Arnim
I took the longest time to decide which von Arnim novel was going to make the list but this beat out The Pastor’s Wife by the sheer force of its charm.  A light, fanciful escape from reality, Christopher and Columbus tells the story of two orphaned teenage German-English twins and their exploits once shipped off to neutral America by their uncle during WWI.  While sailing, Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas befriend the delightful, doting Mr Twist, an American millionaire who made his fortune by designing a no-drip tea pot.  The adventures of this trio make for enchanting reading, with von Arnim’s witty narrator saving it from descending into anything too saccharine.

6. Earth and High Heaven (1944) – Gwethalyn Graham
Without question, this was the biggest reading surprise of the year.  My first reaction upon finishing was that it was the most Persephone-like non-Persephone book I’ve ever read.  Set in Montreal in 1942, the novel revolves around the challenges faced by Erica Drake, an editor at a newspaper, and Marc Reiser, a lawyer, when they meet and fall in love.  Anti-Semitism and family relationships are at the heart of this novel but it is also full of comments on the war, whether it be French-speaking Canada’s reluctance to be involved or the deadening effect of the destruction of the London Blitz, experienced first-hand by Erica’s sister.  It is an absolutely amazing novel that deserves a much wider audience.

5. Hostages to Fortune (1933) – Elizabeth Cambridge
My love for this quiet novel has come on slowly.  I enjoyed it when I read it, yes, but with each passing month I find myself loving it more.  I remain particularly impressed with Cambridge’s portrait of Catherine and William’s marriage and how it evolves, through separation during the war, the arrivals of babies, and the numbingly chaotic years spent scrambling to raise ( and afford to raise) their three children.

4. The American Senator (1877) – Anthony Trollope
My first encounter with Trollope was an unqualified success.  Since then, I’ve read The Warden and Barchester Towers and enjoyed both but neither came close to equaling my delight with The American Senator.  Was it Mr Elias Gotobed’s comically offensive but generally true statements that charmed me so?  The love story of the gentle, deserving Mary Masters?  Or was it the magnificent anti-heroine, Arabella Trefoil, whose single-minded pursuit of a husband  is awesome to behold?  The combination of these stories makes for an eventful, always fascinating, deeply satisfying novel that quite rightly convinced me that Trollope was an author after my own heart.

3. Wives and Daughters (1866) – Elizabeth Gaskell
I feel a bit of a cheat to place a reread so high on my list but…This book is absolutely perfect and fully earned its spot.  I don’t think I will ever tire of Molly Gibson, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, Squire Hamley or, that most magnificent creation, Mrs. Hyacinth Kirkpatrick Gibson.

2. Howards End is on the Landing (2009) – Susan Hill
In any other year, this book would have probably garnered top spot.  Hill’s memoir of a lifetime spent in the company of books and other authors delighted me from the first page to the last.  Everything about this book was perfect for me.  There was enough of the familiar in Hill’s reading to comfort me (because one of the delights of reading about books is coming across opinions on books you know well) and enough of the new to excite me and make me eager to track down those unknown titles.  Even before I had finished reading my library edition, I rushed out to buy a copy of my very own.

1. Summer Half (1937) – Angela Thirkell
Anyone who has been following my blog this year could have probably predicted that Thirkell would take the top spot.  Since my first encounter with Thirkell last January, I have fallen completely in love with her Barsetshire novels and, of the twelve I’ve now read, I think Summer Half is the most perfectly formed.  It centers on the masters and students of Southbridge School and their interactions with some of the local families.  As with all good Thirkell novels, romance is in the air and the narrator’s sharp wit is there to comment on both the comically disastrous pairings and the ideal but bumbled ones.  Most importantly, Summer Half introduces my favourite Thirkell character, the astounding Lydia Keith.  Of all the books I read this year, not only is this the one that I am most eager to return to, it is the one I most wish I owned countless copies of so I could pass it on to everyone I meet.

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One of the joys of being a book blogger is being aware of such a huge variety of titles.  I must read or at least skim reviews for a hundred different books every week, an alarming number of which go straight onto my TBR list.  And I find that really exciting but, at the same time, being well-educated about a book before reading it means that I’m rarely surprised by what I read.  I’m used to enjoying and appreciating books but I can usually anticipate how I’m going to feel well before I start the book, just based on what certain other bloggers have thought of it.  There’s a comfort to that and it never impairs my enjoyment as a reader but I sometimes miss the sheer delight of starting a wonderful book and finding it to be not at all what I had expected.  Skylark by Dezső Kosztolányi was just that dash of unexpected brilliance that I’ve been missing lately.  Ironically, for someone who has been going on about loving surprises, this review is full of spoilers.  Be warned.

It is September 1899 in Sárszeg, an unexceptional town in the heart of Austria-Hungary (modeled on Subotica, Kosztolányi’s hometown in what is now Serbia). When the Vakjay’s beloved, spinster daughter Skylark leaves for a week to visit relatives, Mother and Father don’t know quite what to do with themselves.  Their lives revolve around their much loved, ugly, dull daughter and in her absence they find themselves doing the most unexpected things.  They dine out, reconnect with old friends and make new ones, go to the theatre, and Father even attends one of the Panther drinking club’s infamous Thursday nights (which all of Friday is needed to recover from).  It is an inversion of the classic plot of children running wild once adult authority and supervision is removed, but here it is Skylark, the child, whose mild, loving attentions and constant presence at home restricts her parents.

Mother and Father’s adventures are delightfully and very humourously told, particularly the antics of the Panther club and its intoxicated members.  From the moment of Skylark’s departure one Friday to the morning of her return the next, the novel is a charming comedy.  Mother and Father are astonished and intrigued by the love affairs of local actors, amazed by the delicious restaurant food (very different than the light, unspiced, but healthful food Skylark cheerfully prepares at home), and energized by their interactions with the townsfolk.  And through all this, their reactions are wonderful to behold.  No acquaintance goes without comment, no revelation without a full and wondrous appreciativeness.  And the Vakjays are such likeable people that you can’t help but adore them and rejoice with them in their enjoyment.  But they are simple people who for years have had just one simple wish: to see their daughter married.  Every unattached male in town presents a possibility and their hatred of one who once, by walking Skylark home nine years before, briefly gave them cause to hope is complete – and serves as an amusing insight into the Vakjay’s aspirations for Skylark:

He had at one time undoubtedly met with the Vajkay’s highest approval.  They could never have wished their daughter a more appropriate suitor.  They had always dreamed of a decent, homely type who’d wear unironed broadcloth trousers and a painfully knitted brow; who’d sweat a little and blush when he spoke.

But Skylark is now thirty-five, unmarried, and uglier than ever.  For years, the family has gone along, hoping and praying and never speaking of the thing that troubles them most, but finally, in Skylark’s absence, Father stumbles home after a night drinking and unleashes his true feelings, his full anguish to Mother.  Without meaning to, their ugly, unremarkable daughter has drained the joy out of their lives and certainly out of her own.  They have become used to keeping to themselves, eating always at home, and rarely going out to public places, convincing themselves they don’t want to when the truth is that it is painful and embarrassing for Skylark to go.  They all have suffered years and years of disappointments, hoping desperately that someone might come along to marry Skylark, knowing she’s too ugly for anyone to really want to.  And each year her future seems even more grim:

‘Do you know how much she’s suffered?  Only I know that, with this father’s heart of mine.  What with one thing and another.  The continual whispering behind her back, the laughter, the scorn, the humiliation.  And we too, Mother, how much have we suffered?  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.  Worse and worse.’

So, though the Vakjays love their daughter, it is only with her away that they can forget their worries, can live for themselves and indulge in their pleasures without feeling guilty for poor, lonely Skylark.

The situation is so frustrating because no one is truly at fault.  Skylark can hardly be blamed for being ugly or for wanting to stay among family when she knows how strangers and townspeople react to her appearance.  And her parents, who love her above all things, want to make her comfortable and happy, to let her know that she is loved and cherished by them at least.  So they allow themselves to be pulled into this relatively isolated way of life.  Even when Skylark returns, there’s the assumption that their adventures while she was gone will remain secret.  Skylark is helpful and loving, always trying to please everyone and help in any way she can – she is no despot who would ask them to give up the things they love.  Her parents do it willingly, out of love.

The final brilliance of this novel is the switch in the very last scene to Skylark’s perspective.  The rest of the novel is focused on the senior Vakjays, particularly Skylark’s father, and, as I said before, it is generally quite comedic.  But Skylark, even when absent, was always the focus.  The contrast of the week she’s spent against her parents’, of her thoughts once home against her parents’ incandescent joy at having her back is heartbreaking and absolutely the perfect way to end this novel, leaving the reader with as much love for Skylark as for her parents.

Skylark is a novel of rare emotional intelligence, perfectly balancing humour with everyday tragedy.  So many of the novels about spinsters (and there are many, especially if you’re a Virago fan) focus on the woman herself and, honestly, I’ve not ever had a lot of success with those books.  They always seem to have heroines who are subservient to their family’s demands and who meekly try to be of use.  Skylark is useful, yes, but she’s also adored, cherished, and at the very centre of her family.  She seems a world away from those other women and it seems so much more realistic that her problems, her disappointments are as much hers as they are her parents.  Because what is a parent if not the person who loves and cares for you the most, who wants to give you only the happiest of endings and who feels despair and guilt when that does not come?

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