Picked up because of the publisher and the author’s name. Was actually written around 1923.
A surprising little tale: gently comic but with the eerie atmosphere of a faded photograph. First chapter introduces the bustling parents, the thick and blinded reliance on habitual duty which dominates their daily activities. They prepare to see their daughter off on a rare holiday with family, leaving them alone for a week – an almost intolerably irregular prospect. Skylark (apparently the girl, although in fact in her 30s) has the purity of heart but absent passivity of Esther Summerson – derived, however, from her extreme lack of external beauty. At the chapter’s close her father cannot meet her gaze after all the devotion evident in his attentions.
The subject of the novel practically in name only, S casts a shadow over the lives of her parents as they struggle blinking back into the world of the town they had long-since abandoned for the society of their child. She has rendered her father, especially, a ghost: “alive” only “here in the past”, in his private studies of heraldry and national historic continuity (24), looking forward only to “his approaching death” (27). S takes on a Gorey-esque domestic-gothic mythos: she returns to him in his dreams as the subject of disquieting nightmares (35) and later haunts him as an apparition after a drunken spree (165), an accusatory manifestation of conscience like Banquo.
S plays with the tension between the parents’ perception of their child and S’s own self-understanding, which is upsettingly snatched at in an account of her hysterics on the departing train; in the end her ghostly, reluctant appearance in a family photograph – in which “she appeared to be reaching out for protection from something that frightened her” (213) – manifests her outward mysteriousness as a product of this inner turmoil. She exudes human frailty and insecurity, but she’s also small as a character; I think we’re encouraged to read her this way by the faintly ridiculous image of the foppish and failed poet Ijas who “dramatised [his] minor literary disappointment into a more general and deeply rooted fin-de-siècle melancholy” before formulating the image of S and her tottering parents as the subject of a new work.
The beginning section prior to the departure is understated and slips by without much fanfare, but the reintroduction of the couple into the world of the town is intoxicating and quite poignant. Food is a central theme, internalised attitudes to luxury challenged by sights and smells. The mundane world is that of the “warm, sour milk” and grumbled complaints of the local market (37) which nevertheless blooms with colour like a Netherlandish communal scene. The town itself bustles with a teutonic regularity – as in the itinerary of appearances in the square (101) – while each character sings their own tarot identities like the types of Russian fiction (this Hungarian/Serbian world does seem an interesting confluence of western and eastern influences, which is reflected in the tastes and prejudices of the townsfolk). At the centre of the community is the King of Hungary restaurant, whose menu entices the couple into health:
Ákos straightened his back and breathed the air deep into his lungs. A sudden warmth spread through his limbs as his digestive system set to work. The food he had eaten was already filtering its fortifying goodness into his circulation. (51)
It’s as if they’ve been wound into clockwork life, ready to rejoin the rhythmic parade of the town (there are rebirth metaphors too, as in “the old man sucked at his cigar with all the voraciousness of a baby at the breast” 72). Á still interprets his desires as sin, though, as in a brilliantly amusing section of food fantasies (61) like blind Pi on the boat. The most indulgent, sensational residents of the town are like the actress Olga Orosz, drunk on the decay inherent within decadence:
Her flesh was powdery and voluptuously weary, as if tenderised by all the different beds and arms in which it had lain. Her face was as soft as the pulpy flesh of an overripe banana, her breasts like two tiny bunches of grapes. She exuded a certain seedy charm, a poetry of premature corruption and decay. (94)
There’s a generous, falstaffian humour throughout, as in the wry observation of the grace of the drunkard: “A drunkard never walks where he can fly … Nor shall the inebriate come to any harm, for the blessed Virgin carries them in an apron. But opening the gate was another matter.” (154)
The drunkard is also outside of time, time which appears to represent the world of labour: the temporal fixing of the opening description of manual preparations returns as an “inexplicable melancholy” after Á is reminded of his frivolity, late in his wild evening, by a glance at a clock (140). This runs in contrast to a kind of cultural deep time, invoked in the card game Taroc (“its roots reach way back into the past” 136) and traditional music (the landowner crying despite his wealth; “who could tell what ancient memories of wedding feasts and long-abandoned reveries the music stirred within him?” 143) This temporal shifting and sliding increases the sense of S as an expansion of Bloom’s night out in Ulysses: this is 1899 and forever, a modern moment in which life and death are at risk on personal, national and human scales. DK’s overriding preoccupation is, though, with death, and the return of S signals an “insidious” autumn (208) and a reminder of that decay lurking inside every pleasure.