Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó

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Translated by George Szirtes

Reviewed by Victoria Best

I often shy away from books in translation, afraid they will sound clunky and odd. But this 1963 novel by renowned Hungarian author, Magda Szabó, is exquisitely translated by the poet George Szirtes and as fresh and relevant as the day it first appeared in print. It is a heartrendingly beautiful novel, full of truth and tenderness. If you feel like branching out into the literature of a different country, please do try this. It went straight onto my best books of the year list.

The novel begins as elderly judge, Vince, slips gently out of this life, his loving wife, Ettie by his side. Ettie and Vince are old school. After a long period of political disgrace in the middle of an otherwise successful career (and the implication is that Vince made a humane judgement while the state would have preferred to see brutality) they have learned to take the deepest pleasure in each other’s company and in living their simple, ordinary life in a village. When the call comes to summon Ettie to the clinic she is crouching by the fire, toasting bread the old-fashioned way, fearful of the electric toaster their daughter had sent. Ettie is deeply attached to her routines and habits, and defined by them in subtle ways.

‘If there was a prolonged power cut or if lightning had disabled the circuit, she would take down the branched copper candelabrum from the top of the sideboard where the candles were always ready in case the lights went out, and would carry the delicate flame-tipped ornament through the kitchen and into the hall, raising it high above her head the way a tame old stag carries its tines.’

Daughter Iza is a modern woman, a career-oriented doctor whose failed marriage to another doctor, Antal, is the only mistake she has ever allowed herself. Iza is an organiser and a fixer, assiduous in her work and efficient in her life. She steps straight into the breach left by her father and is determined to take care of her mother. Naturally forceful, and convinced she knows what is best, she packs her mother off to a spa while she sells the old house (to Antal of all people, something she would hesitate over if she were a hesitating type) and moves her mother into the spare room in her modern flat in the city. Ettie, grieving and now disconcerted by central heating and unfamiliar surroundings, does her best to be grateful and keep disorientation at bay. Most of all she misses her belongings, the things she has loved and cared for over the long decades of her marriage:

‘she was already sorry for such items as fell into other hands; it was as if they were endowed with life, with voices and feelings, that they were beings who, having enjoyed long-term security, were now obliged to go into exile and spend the night in strange people’s house, sighing for home.’

Inevitably, problems arise. Longing to be useful in some way and to have gainful occupation, Ettie tries to edge out Iza’s cook and housekeeper, Teréz, watching her with a peasant’s suspicion that ends in mutiny. Deprived of work inside the house and told to take healthy walks, she tries to befriend the people she meets in the public gardens. Until one day Iza is horrified to return home and find her pouring out tea to a prostitute. Iza genuinely loves her mother, but the changes are awkward and intrusive for her as well. After her divorce she has learned self-sufficiency as a form of reliable self-defence, but now her peace and autonomy have been shattered.

‘In the first few days it truly astonished her to sense the extraordinary energy in her mother’s old body, the never-flagging insistence that she play a part in her daughter’s life. Her constant presence, the way she kept opening doors, always wanting something to happen at precisely the times Iza was exhausted and wanted rest and quiet, a space where nothing happened, saddened her and forced her to spend ever less time at home […] “How frenetic her love is!” she thought in horror. “How unrelenting! Does everyone love like she does, demanding every moment of the day?”’

The narrative shifts perspective through the four main players in this drama, from Ettie to Iza to Vince to Antal, and each new perspective adds another layer to our understanding of the relationships between them. Gradually we get more information on the characters’ early lives, the events that formed them, and the mystery of Iza and Antal’s break-up. This isn’t a story that tells us everything; we share in some of that obfuscation that makes the generations so incomprehensible to one another. But we do become very close to the protagonists and deeply moved by their plight. This is a treatise on the tragedy of trying too hard to do good, and, to some extent, a meditation on how modern life can move us away from some of the simplest but most poignant and lasting pleasures. It is also surprisingly compelling for what seems to be a unsophisticated story – but it has tremendous hidden depths. I was gripped from start to finish and didn’t want to reach the end. It seems that old-school storytelling has remarkable powers of potency.

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 Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.

Magda Szabó, Iza’s Ballad (Harvill Secker, August 2014) 978-1846552656, 336 pages, hardback.

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