Iza's ballad

Magda Szabó, 1917-2007

Book - 2016

"When Ettie's husband dies, her daughter, Iza, insists that she give up the family house in the countryside and move to Budapest. Displaced from her community and her home, Ettie tries to find her place in this new life. Iza's Ballad is the story of a woman who loses her life's companion and a mother trying to get close to a daughter whom she has never truly known. It is about the meeting of the old-fashioned and the modern worlds and the beliefs we construct over a lifetime. Beautifully translated by the poet George Szirtes, this is a profoundly moving novel with the unforgettable power of Magda Szabo's award-winning The Door"--

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New York : New York Review Books [2016]
Main Author
Magda Szabó, 1917-2007 (author)
Other Authors
George Szirtes, 1948- (translator)
Physical Description
xii, 327 pages ; 21 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

THE ERA WE INHABIT is a loud one, reader, and there are so many things calling to you - hurricanes darkening the sky, small children at your elbow, social media on your phone, apocalyptic nightmares sparked by yam-colored men - that the hours you give to a book are a tremendous gift of your attention. You may be forgiven if you start a book, find that something in the alchemy is off, and set it aside for something new. Books are products of the human imagination, as flawed as the people who make them, and it is not uncommon to feel an immediate and wordless animosity when you meet a new person. There's no shame in being human. So, a confession: Had I not agreed to write this review of Magda Szabo's newly released novel "Iza's Ballad," I would have read 50 pages of the book and decided that it wasn't for me. This would have been a sad mistake. I should have had more faith in New York Review Books, a small publisher that is a national treasure, responsible as they are for republishing or translating so many of the most astonishing books over the last two decades. Tove Jansson's "The Summer Book," Richard Hughes's "A High Wind in Jamaica," Renata Adler's "Speedboat," John Williams's "Stoner": These books and others make up a large percentage of my personal canon and that of many writers I know. I also should have had more faith in the Hungarian writer Magda Szabo, whose previous book published by New York Review Books, "The Door," made me feel, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, as if the top of my head had been taken off. It is a claustrophobic, stunning novel about a housekeeper, Emerence, who is so powerful she's like a giantess out of a fairy tale, and the intimacy and love that rages between her and the writer who employs her. The New York Times Book Review rightfully listed it as one of the 10 Best Books of 2015. Szabo died in 2007 and was no longer around to see the book's success in America, but "The Door" won the Prix Femina Étranger, and its author was one of the most decorated and beloved of modern Hungarian writers. It is desperately unfair to compare two different books from the same novelist, as each book necessarily has a unique project. That said, a reader will always carry expectations gleaned from previous reading of a writer into her new work, and while "The Door" hooks you from the first line with its troubled first-person voice, "Iza's Ballad" is convoluted from the start. We open into the consciousness of an old woman, the mother of Iza, when she is told that her husband has died after an illness. As the widow moves through her fresh grief, we splash in and out of other people's points of view, as well as in and out of flashbacks of her life with her husband. She is bewildered, and her agitation infects the reader. The relationships between characters are defined only through slow accretion; the shifts between present time and past time aren't delineated; and antecedents are often so buried that, in certain scenes for example, the reader has to sit for a long time with the text to puzzle out to which female character each pronoun "her" belongs. One example of a wobbly sentence comes perplexingly early, in the book's third paragraph: "Her instinctive reaction was, however, governed by her more properly functioning good manners, which were a mixture of instinct and sound training." Doubling down on instinct here buries the sentence's meaning. I know no Hungarian and can't speak to the quality of the translation by George Szirtes, who is widely renowned for excellence, having won the 2013 Best Translated Book Award for Laszlo Krasznahorkai's "Satantango." It's not impossible that the fault lies with me, as I have taken three running leaps at "Satantango" and have yet to be able to scale that particular wall. But difficulties with syntax or clarity never once dragged my attention away from Len Rix's translation of "The Door." In any event, only after the first section of the four-part novel is over - at about Page 70 - does the book grow teeth. And, my, what sharp teeth they are. Iza is an excellent doctor, a dutiful and generous daughter who loves her aged parents, but who has left her tiny village and family far behind her when she moved to Budapest after a divorce. In the week after her father is buried, Iza, hoping to spare her mother pain, sends the widow off to a nearby spa, abruptly sells her parents' house and most of their things, and, without bringing her mother back to the village to say her goodbyes, brings her to the Budapest apartment to live. In the big city, the widow is frightened and up-rooted from everyone and everything she knows, including her best friend and her little dog. Her beloved housekeeping duties are taken from her, as Iza doesn't like her mother's heavy cooking and has hired an excellent housekeeper named Terez to take care of them both. Her mother's timidity and wordless need begins to irritate Iza, though she loves her mother and is doing all she can imagine to help her. THE PROBLEM THAT arises is not in Iza's good intentions or kindness, but in Iza's very lack of imagination, a fatal absence of poetry in her soul. She can't imagine that her own mother, a country woman, is nuanced, with a rich personal history she takes great pleasure in, and a fineness and gentleness that makes her burn with shame when she realizes what an imposition she is on her daughter. The book kept me in tears from a moment halfway through, when, on Terez's birthday, the mother leaves an ugly coral brooch as a birthday present for the housekeeper, then flees. Terez has to go out on the streets to hunt for her. "Terez wanted to tell her off for making her worry like that but she couldn't bear to, guessing that the old woman had been hiding from her to avoid the embarrassment of being thanked," Szabo writes. "She gave her lunch and while serving it out, still with her back to her, feeling suddenly confused and shy, she thanked her for the gift. The old woman whispered something, her face and neck glowing with happiness." Szabo excels at summoning the delicate and wordless spaces between people who love each other; as the book goes on, the emotional layers build quietly and almost unbearably. You feel tragedy amassing, somehow, out of ineffable wisps of feeling. All along, Iza's faultlessness - the very goodness and resolute forward thinking that make her as cold and admirable as a saint - is what leads to her sad and lonely end. Some books, like some people, require great patience and attention to fully understand their complexity and beauty. Szabo teaches us lucky readers this very lesson through "Iza's Ballad," one that perfect but songless Iza could never learn. After the first section the book grows teeth. And, my, what sharp teeth they are. LAUREN GROFF is the author, most recently, of the novel "Fates and Furies."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [November 13, 2016]
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this contemplative family narrative, Szabó (The Door) introduces us to Ettie, and her daughter, Iza, shortly after Ettie's husband, Vince, dies. Set in Hungary in 1960, the novel follows housewife Ettie in the days and weeks after Vince's death. Iza, a successful doctor, tries to comfort her mother by arranging everything, but her efforts to tidy up her father's estate only further isolate Ettie. Iza sells the rural family home and brings her mother to live with her in the big city of Pest. There, with live-in help, Ettie has no chores to complete and no one to talk to. "Everything required for comfort was present and correct but she still felt as though she had been robbed." The story jumps around in time as Ettie nostalgically recalls her many years with Vince. Ettie is also fond of Antal, Iza's ex-husband, who purchases their old home in the village, and she worries that Iza will never find a suitable replacement. Antal, however, falls in love with Lidia, the young nurse who cared for Vince in his final days. A subdued and melancholy meditation on grief and mourning, Szabó's novel is the work of a sophisticated storyteller who confronts how memories are constructed. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A mans death changes reality for his widow and daughter. Originally published in Hungary in 1963, this newly translated novel by Prix Femina Etranger winner Szab (1917-2007) (The Door, 2003, etc.) explores the clash of cultures between the countrys rural villages, mired in tradition, and its capital city, Budapest, uneasily sloughing off personal and collective memory. Szabs gentle, deliberate narrative begins in 1960 with the death of Vince Szcs, a judge whose career was truncated when he made a decision opposed by the rightist military regime; he was 66, already weakened by illness, when he was finally rehabilitated. He and his wife, Ettie, lived a simple, circumscribed, rustic life. Ettie didnt trust machines or even things as basic as electricity. She preferred candles and toasting bread over a fire; when the fire was lit she didnt feel she was alone, not even when the house was empty. The couple's daughter, Iza, takes charge the moment Vince dies, insisting that her mother come to Budapest, where Iza is a respected, well-paid physician. "What a delight it must be to move to Budapest, neighbors thought, to leave sad memories behind and to enjoy a happy old age in new circumstances. But Ettie becomes disoriented and lonely in her daughters modern apartment, where a housekeeper cleans and cooks, where she has no friends and nothing to do, and where she cannot feel Vinces spirit. As the story unfolds, Szab reveals the complexities of the past, not only for Ettie, but also for Iza, whose coldness and self-discipline seem inexplicable to many who know her; Izas estranged husband; and his fiancee, a nurse who once deeply revered Iza but comes to pity her: "The poor woman believes that old peoples pasts are the enemy, Lidia realizes. She has failed to notice how those pasts are explanations and values, the key to the present. Ghosts, angels, and demons hover in this quiet meditation on grief, love, and history. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.