Tag Archives: Hungarian

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

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

The Door by Magda Szabo

The novel begins with the door, the narrator facing it in a dream. She is struggling to turn the lock. The door will not give way to her efforts and no one will come to help for although she is shouting she has lost the power of speech. This is a recurring nightmare from which the narrator, who is a writer, is wakened by her own screaming.

It’s a powerful opening scene, and it sets up the privacy and secrecy of the woman who lives behind the door, closed to the efforts of the narrator to create closer ties. The relationship of the two women lasted twenty years, was difficult and is the subject of The Door, a Hungarian novel.

272 The Door

This is the 22nd post in the Older Women in Fiction Series on this blog. Thank you Robin Dawson for the suggestion. It was chosen because August is Women in Translation month. The Door was translated by Len Rix.

The Story

Emerence came to clean for the writer who had moved with her husband into a bigger Budapest apartment. Having been disapproved of for some time, during the Stalinist era, the writer is now more successful and needs time and space for her work. She needs a cleaner and Emerence has been recommended. Emerence makes it clear that she interviews the couple not vice versa. Later she takes over their dog as well. For twenty years Emerence cleans for the couple and becomes a major presence in their lives. It is in an uneasy relationship, especially at first as Emerence dictated the terms of her employment.

The story is told in a series of scenes, each one illustrating how Emerence keeps the narrator at a distance, or indeed turns her back on her if she feels affronted. They fall out over Emerence’s present of a plaster dog. She will never accept a present from the narrator. The narrator asks her to return, even if the dog must stay. And Emerence does return to work for them, and she hurls the dog to the floor, lesson learned. In this uneasy way, gradually the writer and the older woman develop affection, although it does not prevent the writer from getting things wrong. The climax comes when Emerence falls ill and needs assistance but will not unlock her door. What are the ‘lady writer’ and the community to do?

272 NY The Door

The old woman

Emerence had a hard childhood, born into a rural area and rejected by her family and her lover, who also stole her savings. She came to Budapest with no ties, in the war, and it emerges that she helped other people survive, especially a Jewish family. She has done numerous favours for many people so that her nephew, the Lieutenant Colonel of the police and many others all look out for her interests and protect her from the worst of life in its intrusions, especially officialdom. Emerence allows no one into her house, except the narrator just once. She has immense pride, and immense strength.

She was tall, big-boned, powerfully built for a person of her age, muscular rather than fat, and she radiated strength like a Valkyrie. Even the scarf on her head seemed to jut forward like a warrior’s helmet. (6)

At the end of The Door Emerence falls ill and is confined to her house. Her absence reveals that the community has come to rely upon her. The narrator has to ask the local priest to provide a church funeral, for the benefit of the local community. He opposes the request because of her well-known and rigid opposition to the church.

‘She’s not asking for it,’ I replied. ‘I am. And so is every well-disposed person. It is appropriate, as a form of homage. She may have heaped expletives on the Church as institution, but I’ve known few devout believers who were as good Christians as this old woman. … This woman wasn’t one to practice Christianity in church between nine and ten on Sunday mornings, but she had lived by it all her life, in her own neighbourhood, with a pure love of humanity such as you find in the Bible, and if he didn’t believe that he must be blind, because he’d seen enough of it himself.’ (250-1)

And after death her influence lives on, she’s still solving problems for other people.

The Themes

The Door isn’t so much about the old woman as about the relationship between the narrator and Emerence. They reflect many of the themes, which are set up in tension or as opposites. Emerence stands firm for the value of manual labour, while the narrator is a writer, an intellectual. Emerence does favours for the whole community, keeps the streets clear of snow, cleans their houses, services the block of flats for which she is curator. Her selflessness means that she accepts no favours, no presents. The lady writer, on the other hand, thinks of herself and her own needs constantly, as if her sensibility were especially fragile. The writer’s Catholicism is important to her, but Emerence wants nothing to do with the Church and its rituals. And so on.

It is clear that the best of life is in the combination of these qualities, labour with intellectualism; selflessness and selfishness; faith and scepticism; privacy and public approval.

Magda Szabo

272 Szabo, Magda

The author lived between 1917 and 2007 in Hungary. According to sources on the internet, the novel draws upon her own life. Her work was not published during the Stalinist years. Ali Smith observed, I am not sure where, that Emerence was Hungary, a notion that came to me during my reading of the novel.

 

 

The Door by Magda Szabo, first published in 1987. Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix and reissued by Vintage in 2005. 262 pp.

Winner of the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize 2006.

Memorial Room of Magda Szabo

Memorial Room of Magda Szabo

Related Posts

Two reviews:

Claire Messud in the New York Times in February 2015, described the novel as a masterpiece and mesmerising and suggested it changed her way of understanding the world.

Cynthia Zarin in The New Yorker in April 2016, said ‘to read it is to feel turned inside out’, a ‘bone-shaking book’.

Two most recent posts in Older Women in Fiction series:

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine in April 2016

Olive Ketteridge by Elizabeth Strout in June 2016

 

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading