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.
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.
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
The Door by Magda Szabó (Bookword blog July 2016)
Abigail by Magda Szabó (Bookword blog April 2020)
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West (Bookword blog August 2014)
Older Women in Fiction Series – the list on Bookword