Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo (2015/1963)

downloadThree years ago, I read Szabo’s novel The Door, published in Hungary in 1987, but not until 2005 in the US. Iza’s Ballad is actually an earlier book, published in Hungary in 1963, but not until 2015 in the US, likely due to the positive reviews of The Door. Somewhat similar to her other novel, not much happens in this story; primarily it’s a story of relationships, both beautiful and strained, by misunderstanding, jealousy, power, and love. Iza is a doctor living in Budapest when her father dies of cancer. Her mother, Ettie would be all alone in the countryside, so Iza arranges to move her mother to Budapest. After sending Ettie off to a nearby spa town for a few days, Iza cleans out her parents’ house, packs everything Ettie will need for the apartment in Budapest, and the two of them head to Iza’s highrise apartment in Pest with amenities Ettie has never seen in a bustling city where Ettie knows no one.

Ettie tries to cook, but the food is no longer what Iza eats. She tries to clean, but Iza’s housekeeper is quicker and better. She tries to shop, but she buys the cheapest cuts of meat and second rate produce that Iza would never touch.

Ettie’s furniture isn’t modern enough; her pots and pans, too damaged; her dishes, not needed; pastry board, not plastic enough; mincer, too heavy; and clothes, too patched up. Little of Ettie’s life fits in Iza’s flat. And yet, Ettie needn’t worry about money or cooking or healthcare or frugal shopping or hanging clothes in the attic to dry or burning parrafin to brew coffee.  Iza makes her life easy, and Ettie’s easy life is reduced to following the housekeeper around uttering corrections and complaints. Frustration and resentment seeps under every door and floats into every cabinet and settles onto every rug. Studious, diligent, dutiful Iza cannot find peace in her own house. Lonely, frightened, uprooted Ettie cannot find acceptance.

The beauty of this story is the way our hearts go out to one and then other, flip flopping like shifting winds, and because I cannot explain it better, I shall rely on Lauren Groff’s review in the New York Times as my conclusion: “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.” –Fiction

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