Monthly Archives: March 2023

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó

I have previously enjoyed two novels by the acclaimed Hungarian writer, Magda Szabó: The Door and Abigail. In Iza’s Ballad I found another profound novel which educated me about Hungary in the 1960s, and about human relationships everywhere, specifically mother-daughter relationships.

The mother, Ettie in Iza’s Ballad, is in her 70s, so she qualifies for inclusion in the series on Older Women in Fiction. This is the 64th post in the series (see below for link). In this novel Ettie carries a good deal of the story, being widowed and acquiescent in her daughter’s decisions about her future. Magda Szabó shows us a woman from a small town, where she has spent the last 50 years, now grieving her husband, and then uprooted as she is sent first to a spa for a week’s holiday, and then to Budapest to live in her daughter’s flat. 

It is a theme in novels about older women that their views are not sought or taken into account. For example, in All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West. This denies a woman’s experience of six or more decades, her previous responsibility for a home and for a family, perhaps also for a job, and her ability to act independently. I would like to believe that today such disrespectful behaviour is not inflicted on older women today. I would like to believe that. 

Iza’s Ballad

Ettie has been happily married for nearly 50 years, living in a rural town, and raising one daughter. But her husband Vince dies of cancer, and it brings change to Ettie’s circumstances. Her daughter Iza whips her off to Budapest, with none of her old belongings. She will care for her mother in her modern flat, where her mother will have to do nothing. In her determination to care for her mother she forgets how much Ettie likes to be useful.

Iza was a determined child. She worked for the Resistance during the war, married Antal (also a doctor), set up a clinic, survived Antal’s decision to leave the marriage and works hard in Pest. She has a new lover, and now that she does not have to return to her hometown or financially support her parents, her biggest decision is whether to marry Domokos or not.

The older woman is deeply unhappy living in Iza’s flat, for she is discouraged from doing anything to help with the housekeeping or the cleaning. All her married life she enjoyed the search for the cheapest goods and food, she had valued hard work and lively social interaction with people she had known all her life, but these are all denied her. Iza makes the assumption that her mother should rest, do nothing in the house, and that this would be enough for her. Her happiness at living close to her daughter is whittled away, and she becomes a sad and lonely creature. The return to her hometown to oversee the installation of the headstone on Vince’s grave is the catalyst for her attempt to recapture happier times.

As the novel progresses, we learn about the history of each character. We learn why Vince was disgraced as a judge and then reinstated. We find out about Antal’s boyhood and how he was supported by a donor to make his way through school and university. It takes time to find out why Antal left his marriage to Iza, but we find out how the lives of so many have been interwoven as the more fortunate help those less capable.

The novel is full of contrasts: the metropolitan life – the rural backwater; war-time and peace; generations; old fashioned values – modern life; change – statis; and so forth.

Szabó does not promote any one set of values over the other. Rather she presents difficult relationships, resulting from the lack of communication, unquestioned assumptions and characters who do not see things the same way. 

Iza’s ballad is the key to her abrasive character and behaviour.

As for Iza, she hated sad stories as a child. There was one particular ballad from [her father’s] student days, that he could never sing to her because she would burst into tears and plead for the dead character to be brought to life again. She never heard the end of the song. (311)

Iza could not bear her mother’s unhappiness, so she tries to make everything right, but forgot to listen to how the old woman would like to end her song. The nurse who cared for Vince on his deathbed, sums up Iza’s approach to life.

‘Good Lord,’ thought Lidia, ‘how exhausted she must be with that constant self-discipline, that need to save not only her family but the whole world. How hard to live with the hardness of heart that dares not indulge itself by grieving over dead virgins [in the ballad]! The poor woman believes that the old people’s pasts are the enemy. She has failed to notice how those pasts are explanations and values, the key to the present.’ (315)

How many today regard old people’s pasts as the enemy? How many, in dealing with older people fail to notice how those pasts are explanations and values, the key to the present? Magda Szabó knows it well, and in this novel slowly reveals the pasts of her characters to show just that.

Magda Szabó

The author is perhaps the best-known Hungarian writer, and perhaps the most frequently translated. Born in 1917 she lived in Hungary until her death in 2007. From 1949 – 56 she was not allowed to publish work that did not reflect the dominant Communist Party views of idealistic realism. She was dismissed from her post in the Ministry of Religion and Education and taught for a while in a Calvinist school while out of favour (see Abigail). She also wrote poetry and plays,

Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó, first published in Hungarian in 1963. The English translation by George Szirtes was published in 2015 by Vintage. 328pp

Related posts

The Door by Magda Szabó (Bookword blog July 2016)

Abigail by Magda Szabó (Bookword blog April 2020)

Reviews of Iza’s Ballad can also be found on Heaven Ali’s Blog from August 2017, and on JacquiWine’s Journal from December 2022.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West (Bookword blog August 2014)

Older Women in Fiction Series – the list on Bookword


Filed under Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation

With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton

I recently had cataract operations, which gave me a new view on the world. One major change is that having used contact lenses for nearly 50 years, I no longer need them. Another change is that some colours that I thought were black have resolved into dark blue and purple. And as well as an all-round improvement in my sight I sometimes see out of the corner of my eye what I call ghosts, just the fluttering of something sheet-like disappearing out of sight. Having read With or Without Angels I think these may be angels. 

I loved this short book because it is about seeing, about looking, and doing those things differently, more closely and with a more imaginative eye. And I have always enjoyed how the arts influence each other. With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton is inspired by a series of collages by the Scottish artist, Alan Smith, which in turn are a response to Il Mondo Nuovo by Giandomenico Tiepolo.

It is a short novel about creativity, about seeing, about looking, and about some important questions to do with art, illness, life, change and death.

With or Without Angels

The starting point is a fresco from 1791 by the Venetian artist, Giandomenico Tiepolo. It is called Il Mondo Nuovo, The New World. It’s a large piece, landscape form, showing a variety of Venetians with their backs to the viewer, looking out to sea, not excited but not at ease either. Tieoplo has placed himself in the picture, in profile, raising something to his eye, standing just behind his father. The picture is strange, and the viewer must ask, what is this new world that these people are awaiting? A reproduction of the fresco is provided at the start of the book and sections are used on its cover. 

The central character in this novel is an unnamed artist who, through sickness, has become less able to use his hands to hold pen, pencil or brush. The old artist has taken to using a small camera. Working with a digitally skilled assistant, they created a series of 11 montages. They begin in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, and by the penultimate image have assembled a response to Il Mondo Nuovo, in which the figures now face the viewer. A final montage includes some figures from Antony Gormley’s Another Place, an installation of 100 figures on the beach at Crosby. I visited last year and was very moved. 

Other elements of his photographs are found recurring in the series, such as a floating shape, a little like a sheet – angels? As the old artist and Livvy work on the series, the significance or the references to other paintings emerge, some are included. The old artist reflects on the wisdom of various artists, including Leonardo da Vinci.

Dimmi, dimmi, se mai fatta cosa alcuna – tell me, tell me if anything was ever done. (24)

And contemplating his own mortality he reflects on Philip Larkin’s comment that what will remain of us when we are gone is love, love will survive. The old artist thinks ‘it is the work that will speak for him long after he is gone’. (25) Later he recalls being on Crosby beach.

He walked out to stand by one of the bronze men, shoulder to shoulder and looking out to sea. Do they look with longing? As though they already miss the push and pull of the water, like being held in a crowd and now let go. He took one rusted hand in his, felt the roughness of metal that will not last.
Love will last; love is the thing that will survive us – he had not been convinced of that before. He thought maybe his work would be the thing that survived – misunderstood perhaps. Now, remembering that day on Crosby beach, holding the hand of a rusted man, he is not so sure. He is not so sure they can be separated, the love and the work. (103)

So this book makes one think on several levels. It’s an exploration of Il Mondo Nuovo and Alan Smith’s collages in which he is responding to that fresco, and finally the author Douglas Bruton’s fictional account of the creation of the collages. He has considered life, death, illness, interactions, love and meaning and so much more. In his Acknowledgements he tells the story of how an artist’s widow visited his garden and spoke about the work of her husband. She has approved the publication of this novel.

In the process we are given a demonstration of looking, seeing the details in a picture, and the relationships, the dynamics, between different genres, different works, different inspirations, and concerns.

It is beautifully written, and very tender.

With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton, published in 2023 by Fairlight Books. 112pp. Includes 12 colour illustrations.

Related links

The review on A Life in Books is what put me onto this book. I love discovering books through other blogs, and this post described a work I knew I wanted to get hold of. It was part of a Read Indies initiative.

The author, Douglas Bruton, recommends the website of the artist Alan Smith where the images can be seen screen-size, and there is also a video about the creation of his collages. You can find it through this link:


Filed under Books, illustrations

Actress by Anne Enright 

I picked up a copy of this novel in my local Oxfam bookshop. I was very impressed by The Green Road which I had read some years ago. I remember being especially moved by the section about the experiences of one of the characters in New York at the height of the HIV/AIDs epidemic in 1991. I found it unbearable sad. And also in that novel an excessive Christmas food shopping trip made a deep impression on me. She does families and Ireland so well.

I was not disappointed by Actress, although I missed its publication. We are again in the territory of families, this time a mother-daughter relationship. As the title suggests, stardom, fame and the commercial value of female sexuality are themes of this novel.


The novel is narrated by Norah, the daughter of the fictitious great Irish actress, Katherine O’Dell. She is looking back from her middle age, at her mother’s life and death. Norah is a novelist, with several successful books to her name, but she is aware that she has never explored her relationship with her mother in her fiction. From time to time she addresses her husband, but the focus of the story is the relationship between the star, the mother, her social circle and the young Norah. 

This is the opening paragraph of the novel.

People ask me, ‘What was she like?’ and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like in her slippers, eating toast and marmalade, or what was she like as a mother, or what was she like as an actress – we did not use the word star. Mostly though they, they mean what was she like before she went crazy, as though their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge. Or they might themselves be secretly askew. (1)

The book is framed by the visit of a PhD student who does indeed want to know what she was like and wishes to explore what she calls the sexual style of Katherine O’Dell. She comes to interview Norah many years after Katherine O’Dell’s death. In later correspondence she suggests that Katherine was the first Irish feminist. The reader is being shown multiple interpretations of a life.

Katherine O’Dell is an actress, and one of her key roles is to act being Irish despite being born and growing up in London in a family of travelling actors. They come to Ireland during the war when she is a young woman, and her career takes off from there. She adopts Ireland fully, performing her Irishness in her Hollywood parts, in the Irish roles that she is given to play such as the young Irish lass selling Irish butter in an iconic advertisement, and she adopts the Irish theatre world and the cause of Irish republicanism. 

Norah is unable to discover the identity of her father. But as she tells the story she keeps circulating back to her happy childhood in Dublin when she is much loved by her mother and enjoys her theatrical circle. When Norah becomes and active teen, Kath is less able to forgive the men she sleeps with, perhaps feeling that they are stealing her away from her mother.

There have many, many men in Katherine O’Dell’s life, both in the official Hollywood version and in the life that Norah experiences. The priest, Father Des, is her psychiatrist, but also her long-term lover. There are producers and actors, and the men who dominate the Dublin literary scene. Some of the events occur during the Troubles, and some into the ‘80s. It is in the nature of stardom, especially sexualised stardom that eventually the fame will recede, the parts become fewer and the audience less familiar with the actor and the periods of resting are extended. 

She was much sought after, until she isn’t. She begins to show some rather manic behaviours, culminating in shooting Boyd O’Neill in the foot. He was one of her mother’s contacts in the film industry, but he does not take her scripts seriously. This was his evidence in court:

All he was doing, he said. All he was doing, with my mother’s idea, or synopsis, or whatever it was she had sent to him, was bouncing the ball. It was a way to keep his connections interested until the right idea came along. […]
He really thought he was doing my mother’s idea a favour by having it himself. When you see this happen, as I did that day, you see it quite a lot, and it remains a very strange thing – the ability of a man like Boyd to assume it is their interest which makes something interesting. As though, if he shut his eyes, the world would be really dull.
Anyway, she shot him for it. There was always that to consider. (239-40)

She is incarcerated in an insane asylum. And dies soon after her release. Norah investigates her mother’s life over the next years, resulting in this novel. It is beautifully written, precise, and with telling details and images that resonate. Picture a mother going off like milk, as in the first paragraph, for example. 

Anne Enright

Anne Enright

Born in 1962 and raised in Ireland, Anne Enright has won some prestigious prizes, including being the first Laureate for Irish fiction 2015-2018. In 2007 she won the Man Booker Prize for The Gathering. She has written short stories, non-fiction and seven novels. She lives in Dublin.

Actress by Anne Enright, published in 2020 by Vintage. 264pp. Actress was longlisted for Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.

Related posts

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Bookword, February 2016)

Actress by Anne Enright review – boundless emotional intelligence, by Kate Kellaway (The Guardian, February 2020)

Actress by Anne Enright review – the spotlight of fame, by Alexandra Hass (The Guardian, February 2020)

Reviewed on Jacquiwine’s Journal blog (July 2020)

Reviewed on Kate Vane’s blog (February 2020)

In January 2020 Anne Enright was a guest on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs.


Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan

How refreshing after some lacklustre reading to find this novel, first published in 1937 and neglected until it was reprinted in the Recovered Books series by Boiler House Press. The novels of Gertrude Trevelyan have all but disappeared, and we have Brad Bigelow to thank for the recovery of this one. I came across Two Thousand Million Man-Power on Twitter, struck first by the cover and then by the many reviews praising this book. I am joining in the praise.

Two Thousand Million Man-Power

In this novel the narrative follows two ordinary, rather boring people from 1919 to 1936. Robert is a laboratory chemist in a cosmetics company on the edge of London. Katherine is a schoolteacher in a council school in south London. They come together at a political meeting. They claim to be communists and so avoid getting married, but eventually, after treading the streets of London together for several years, and avoiding landladies, they get married. This costs Katherine her job as there is a bar on married women teachers in council schools to help address male unemployment. 

Gertrude Trevelyan explores the effects of events in the world on ordinary people. These events are political, social and economic. Although they begin their married life in relative prosperity, Robert loses his job as the effects of the Great Crash affect his company. He has difficulty, for 18 months, in find another job. Katherine takes on teaching in a private school. They become less happy with each other and the world they live in.

This world is shown by the interpolation of lists of events spread throughout the novel. Such sections frequently refer to the new communist state of Russia, and the gradual disenchantment of the idealistic couple with communist ideology. The events are reported within a paragraph or fill a page. 

Now the World Economic Conference meets at Geneva, the Soviets take part by invitation, the Conference fails; the French Minister of the `interior speaks on the Communist Menace, Soviet headquarters are raided at Peking, British Government breaks off trade relations with Russia; ten Socialist MPs entertain members of the Russian Trade Delegation to luncheon at the House. “It’s all very well,” Robert says. ”You can’t get away from it, they’re enemies of law and order.” (88)

Such a technique, it has been claimed, originated with John Dos Passos’s trilogy U.S.A. which was published two years before Two Thousand Million Man-Power. As I understand it the earlier novel had separate sections while Gertrude Trevelyan integrates her references with the events in the wider world. I found this aspect of the novel, the integration of the lives of Robert and Katherine with the ‘real’ world of the 1920s and 1930s, both innovative and effective. 

This technique also served the big picture of this novel: it is hinted at in the rather esoteric title. Capitalism, the size of everything, the juggernaut of preparations for war, for progress, for economic growth (and decline) is represented by the idea of the machine. Towards the end of the novel, when we have reached 1936, Robert reflects on what lies before them, and how their lives had been taken over by the actual as well as the metaphorical machine. Their enthusiasm for progress has developed into an enthusiasm for consumerism.

In time Livingsby would retire and Robert might get his job, he’d be a little bit older and a bit more tired and he’d have a little less hair and he’d care a little bit less that he’d never done any of the things he’d wanted to, and they’d be able to have a bigger flat, and a newer and newer flat, and Kath would want a plane instead of a car. There’d be regular air services to New York and stratosphere races for aviators, and he’d be a bit older and pretty bald and Kath would have a transformation, and then there’d be regular stratosphere services and the record breakers would be higher up still, in rockets, and Kath would want a stratosphere cruise in the summer instead of a trip by air. (278-9)

There is a bit of a risk in taking two rather boring and unsympathetic characters to carry the novel over nearly twenty years. The narrative becomes less about what happens to Robert and Kath, more how international events profoundly affect ideals, ambitions and love. The hardest section of the novel concerns Robert’s daily search for work, with no prospects, until he is faced with the attraction of suicide in the London Docks, in sight of the City of London.

And although some of her (or Robert’s) prophesies do not manifest in the way she imagined, Gertrude Trevelyan also had some prescience about the way the machine uses the world’s resources.

Because the resources of the earth were being used up: coal, oil and finally water: water being used for power. Power being gradually drained from the earth, used up for speed and armaments and an increasing number of trivial, unnecessary purposes. Every housewife putting on an electric iron in her kitchen using up a bit of power from the earth’s centre. Like a lunatic on a tree, sawing off the branch he sits on. The world living on its capital. (266)

I loved discovering this innovative, creative and thoughtful writer. I look forward to reading more of her novels. Thanks to Brad Bigelow and Recovered Books for discovering this one.

Gertrude Trevelyan

Portrait of Gertrude Eileen Trevelyan July 1937 by Bassano Ltd. from the National Portrait Gallery Licensed under Creative Commons agreement

Born in Bath in 1903, Gertrude Trevelyan aspired to ‘a position of total obscurity’. She attended Oxford University (Lady Margaret Hall) after the First World War and claimed to enter the Newdigate Prize for undergraduate poetry as a joke in 1923. Julia, Daughter of Claudius won. She was fortunate enough to have a small private income that allowed her to live independently in a flat in London where she wrote seven novels between 1932 and her death (from injuries received in the Blitz) in 1941. Two Thousand Million Man-Power was her 5th novel. She was celebrated for her different experimental approaches in her novels, both the subject matter and her style. But she avoided the literary scene in London, took on no reviewing or teaching. This partly explains why she and her novels were so quickly forgotten.

Two Thousand Million Man-Power by Gertrude Trevelyan. First published in 1937 and reissued by Recovered Books in 2022. 297pp.

Related posts and articles

Neglected Books Page by Brad Bigelow (December 2018)

HeavenAli (November 2022)

JacquiWine’sJournal (February 2023)

StuckInABook (November 2022)

Guardian article: If She was a Bloke, She’d still be in Print: the lost novels of Gertrude Trevelyan by Alison Flood (December 2022)


Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Writing