Just finished a book that I’ll never be able to recommend to anyone, because I don’t have the first idea how the author’s name is pronounced. However, Dezso Kosztolányi’s Skylark was a really tight, highly thought-out sort of book.
I was a bit wary of it at first, because it had one of those description that feel almost a bit too interesting. Like, the ones that make you think maybe the book is too high-concept to really sustain itself. It’s about this husband and wife who live in retirement in a small Hungarian town with their only daughter, who’s nicknamed Skylark. The thing is, Skylark is really ugly. Just super ugly. So ugly that she’s never gonna get married or anything (not sure that someone that ugly really exists, since lots of ugly people seem to find someone, but let’s go with it for the sake of this novel). And because of that, she’s settled down to this very measured existence with her parent. She cooks and cleans. They do everything together. She always walks between them. They don’t go out much, since she doesn’t really like to be seen in public.
But then they send her away for a week’s vacation with an uncle. And while she’s gone, the parents open up a little. They eat at a restaurant. The dad starts rekindling some old friendships (they’ve lived in this town their whole live, after all). They get involved in the little dramas of the town (the heir who’s in love with an actress, the poet who feels stifled, etc). The mother starts playing the piano again.
And then the daughter comes back.
The novel has a very interesting structure. It’s a bit like a horror novel. There’s not a lot of conflict on the page. Mostly it’s very light and very pleasant; it’s about two people who’re learning to live again. But you have this constant sense of foreboding: “What is going to happen when Skylark returns?”
The characters don’t think about it too much. They do their best not to think of it. But the reader can’t help but wonder, constantly. What is going to happen? Will they return to that dreary life? Or will they get rid of her somehow? Or will she learn to live too? What will happen?
The tension is unbearable.
And the ending is so perfectly executed. It’s so exactly right. And it’s not at all what I saw coming. In order to create this ending, the author had to walk the finest line. Just a little swaying to one side and it’d have felt anticlimactic. And a little swaying to the other and it would’ve felt overwrought. As it was, it was perfect.
And the upshot of the book itself is brutal. I mean, the tone is light, but in the end you’re just like, “Well, some people have terrible lives, but we mustn’t spend too much time worrying about them, or our own lives will be ruined!”
On a sidenote, I read this book in The New York Review of Books Classics edition. I’ve really started to notice this line of books. They have beautiful covers, and they’re super fun. I don’t know about you, but I am obsessed with Penguin Classics. But the Penguins I like best are the funky ones that I’ve never head of, books like The Letters of Heloise and Abelard or Sanshiro or As I Crossed The Bridge Of Dreams. However, most of their books are pretty standard fair: Pride and Prejudice and David Copperfield and the like.
Well, the NYRBC line eschews the standard stuff and just serves of up weird, funky books that’ve become culty classics. For instance, my most favorite book of last year was Stoner, which was re-released by the NYRB after being out of print for years upon years.
Furthermore, there’s a definite aesthetic to the NYRB line. It’s hard to explain, but Stoner and Skylark both exemplify it: tight, small-scale, high-concept novels. Exactly the sort of thing that I love.
William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a “proper” family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.
Does that not sound like the most boring book ever? It sounds like every professor novel I’ve ever read: right off the top of my head, I’m thinking of The Human Stain, The Dying Animal, and Disgrace. (And believe me, after reading it, I can tell you that this book hits every single cliche of the professor novel.) A dull, sexless wife; political infighting in the department; an affair with a student; despair at academic work that is never quite as good as it should be. I mean, come on. How could this possibly be good?
Anyway, although I never intended to read the book, it stuck in the back of my mind and when I came across a copy of it, three years ago, I grabbed it. I carried that book around for three years without ever thinking about reading it until that fateful day (last Wednesday), when I was scrounging around for something to read and I read the first page of Stoner and was hooked.
I read the first quarter of the book and if I was still nineteen, I’m sure I’d have stayed up until 3 AM and finished it that night.
The next day, I was almost afraid to read it. I was sure that the magic would’ve deserted it. I cannot reiterate how incredibly cliché this novel is. And age is no excuse. This book was written in 1975. These things were cliché even at the time of writing!
But this book ennobles the clichés. I really don’t know how the author did it. I’d like to say that the writing was spectacular, but, honestly, I’m not sure it’s better than that of Philip Roth or J.M. Coetzee. But, despite that, John Williams has produced a better book than the ones they wrote on a similar topic.
I think that perhaps the magic lies somewhere in the narrative standpoint. In many ways, this book’s closest relative is Tolstoy’s The Death Of Ivan Ilyich (which starts after the death of a middle-aged civil servant and then flashes back to show, and try to justify, his life). This novel does the same. Its first page is a perfect and perfectly terrifying evocation of the insignificance that befalls its protagonist after death. His only marker is a book donated in his honor to the university’s rare books archive. No one remembers him. No one mourns him.
But where Ivan Ilyich is cruel (Tolstoy shows us that the protagonist’s life had no meaning or worth), this book avoids judgment. It views the events of the life of the protagonist, William Stoner, from this tremendous narrative distance. We see him born, grow up, become educated, get inspired by literature, take his PhD, marry, teach, become a parent, have a father, have an affair, and die…but we don’t feel it. There’s this sense of distance from it all. The novel doesn’t tell us what to think.
There is a sense in which Stoner’s life is a waste. He produces no academic work that’s of any worth. His family life is miserable. And although he’s a good teacher, there’s not much sense that he’s fondly remembered by tons of students.
And yet, the reader resists that interpretation. There is something to Stoner. There are many people in the world who die with even less to show for it than he does. Nor does it seem like his life is unhappy. There’s a quietness to it. Nothing can hurt him that much, because he’s always capable of retreating into himself and finding new reserves of strength.
Reading this novel was not only a surprising experience, it was an inspiring one. It reinvigorated my belief in the power of literature. I’m not sure that I believed, before reading this book, that there could still be a novel like this: one that had grand ambitions but was written unpretentiously. To be sure, I knew that it was still possible to write clever and interesting novels, but I wasn’t sure it was possible to write simple ones. Sometimes it feels to me like irony and parody are the only ways to reinvigorate this forest of dying tropes. But at least while I read this novel, I felt, for a moment, like it was possible to say and do something new.
That having been said, I’m not sure I can recommend this novel to you. Because if you go and read it and come back to me and say, “I read Stoner, but I couldn’t look past its numerous horribly cliche elements,” then you will make me very sad. So I am reproducing the first page of the book below. If you find the first page somewhat intriguing, then you’ll probably enjoy the novel:
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”
An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.
He was born in 1891 on a small farm in central Missouri near the village of Booneville, some forty miles from Columbia, the home of the University. Though his parents were young at the time of his birth–his father twenty-five, his mother barely twenty–Stoner thought of them, even when he was a boy, as old. At thirty his father looked fifty; stooped by labor, he gazed without hope at the arid patch of land that sustained the family from one year to the next. His mother regarded her life patiently, as if it were a long moment that she had to endure. Her eyes were pale and blurred, and the tiny wrinkles around them were enhanced by thin graying hair worn straight over her head and caught in a bun at the back.