Iza’s Ballad (translation)
Review: A heartbreakingly beautiful English translation of a 1963 novel by a gifted Hungarian writer is bound to be one of the year’s most loved books
Intuitive observer: Magda Szabó. Photograph: Magyar Nemzet/AFP/Getty
Magda Szabó, Translated by George Szirtes
Ettie realises she is old only when her gentle, doomed husband, Vince, drifts into death. Up until then she had worked hard, cooked and kept the little house clean, mended the clothes and lovingly tended the world she had shared with a man who had suffered disgrace yet never lost his love of life.
For him, “simply being on earth, the fact that he could wake up in the morning and go to bed at night, that he could be in a place where the wind blew, where the sun shone and where the rain pattered quietly or poured down, was wonderful”.
She is toasting bread, in the old way, crouching with a fork before the embers, wary of the fancy toaster sent by her daughter, when Antal, her kindly former son-in-law, breaks the sad news.
Antal warms his hands and waits. There is no need for words: “ ‘I need to gather my strength’ said the old woman’s thoughts. ‘I loved him very much.’ ”
This heartbreakingly beautiful novel by the gifted Hungarian writer Magda Szabó (1917-2007) opens in a subtle scene-setting sequence that reveals a great deal about the character of Ettie and about a narrative by which most contemporary fiction appears feeble indeed.
Iza’s Ballad, published in 1963, is another masterwork from Szabó, author of The Door, which was originally published in Hungary in 1987; Len Rix’s English translation, in 2005, introduced Szabó to an international audience.
A poet and novelist who was silent under the communist regime (an experience that inspired The Door), Szabó was an intuitive observer of human behaviour. Her work looks at the public and private; her characters often suffer, and even survive, the wider implications of political repression while invariably succumbing to the weightier betrayals of personal relationships. The Door is assured its place as a European classic. Iza’s Ballad achieves similar emotional power, leaving much contemporary English-language fiction looking pale and bloodless.
Iza, the daughter of long-married and loving parents, is a doctor. She is successful, efficient, possibly beautiful, and remote, apparently too cool and self-contained to be capable of normal human responses.
As early as the opening page Szabó stresses the contrasts; Ettie does not trust electricity. “If there was a prolonged power cut or if lightning had disabled the circuit, she would take down the branched copper candelabrum from the top of the sideboard where the candles were always ready in case the lights went out, and would carry the delicate flame-tipped ornament through the kitchen and into the hall, raising it high above her head the way a tame old stag carries its tines.”