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.”
The old village life has endured for her parents after Iza’s marriage fails, and she sets off to a new job in Budapest. From there she dispatches modern appliances that terrify her mother as well as continuing to dominate their lives. Her former husband, Antal, also a doctor and a man of even more modest origins, remains behind.
The last months of Vince’s life seemed to have prepared Ettie for the loneliness that is about to befall her. But, as it turns out, nothing could. His death, when it comes, is no less a shock than if he had been felled by a thunder bolt. Szabó’s description of Ettie’s grief is profound, understated and compelling.
“She sobbed stubbornly like a child, and was not in the least comforted by the promise that the grave represented calm after a life of tribulation and that it would be followed by eternal life. She clung to Vince’s body as she had done in the first terrifying, passionate months of their marriage. Heaven was a long way off and offered no recompense.”
At the funeral Ettie notices no one put up an umbrella, and she realises, “Vince had never ridden in such a vehicle before, such a dignified, black, glazed car, and no one had ever paid as much respect to him as these people from the undertaker’s. Everything she was going to say remained unsaid. There was nothing of Vince on show, just the lid of the coffin that covered him.” The grave “was small, somehow much smaller than she had imagined it would be.”
George Szirtes, who is a poet, conveys both the sophistication and simplicity of Szabó’s narrative in a superb translation that equals his work on the fiction of Sándor Márai. Humble, wistful Ettie is a wonderful creation; she recalls her dead baby son and the stone angels she imagines playing with him at night in the cemetery, and loves her living daughter – or, rather, she adores the child she once was – while also being in awe of the adult woman, the successful professional who has left both her past and her heritage behind her.
Iza considers herself a devoted daughter, but she regards her parents merely as responsibilities. She deals with people as if they were maths problems to be solved. Little is offered directly as to the failure of her marriage, although it is clear that Antal left her, despite his having happily lived with Iza and her parents in their family home.
Relentless in her planning, Iza informs her mother that she will be moving to Budapest to live with her. Initially this sounds quite good, but Ettie is not allowed to return to her home and pack, or even to take farewell of it. She is also told that her husband’s dog is not welcome and will be staying behind. Even more distressing is the discovery that the family home is to be sold, to Antal.
Ettie’s first sight of her new home, a grim six-storey “cube faced in smooth masonry”, is forbidding. Even more unsettling is her daughter’s “welcome, dear guest”.
Iza’s good intentions do little to ease Ettie, who stares bleakly at her new quarters, a clinical room containing a limited selection of her old things surrounded by unfamiliar items. She is soon told that she will not be cooking; nor is she to involve herself in any chores. Ettie, kept at a remove from her daughter’s daily routine and her evenings, begins to retreat from existence.
Eventually it is time for her to return to her village to see Vince’s memorial stone. Throughout the narrative Szabó balances the old with the new; Ettie lives in the past, Iza flees it. She has also formed an unlikely new relationship with a writer who tends to view everyone he meets as material for his work. When Antal realises that Ettie is back, he invites her to stay with him in her old home, now his. It is disconcertingly real to her after her experience in Budapest.
It is a novel of contrasts; reserve is countered by deep emotion and bewilderment – Ettie’s and, eventually, Iza’s, too. Each of the characters emerges as real, even Iza, who, for all her failings and insensitivity, is painfully convincing.
Just as The Door won an immediate English-language following, Iza's Ballad is bound to become one of the most loved books of the year, an unusual feat at a time when readers tend to either admire or merely like novels. It is a human story, cautionary and all too familiar.
If the majestic Hungarian of a previous era, Dezso Kosztolányi (1885-1936), the author of Skylark (1924), could be said to have had a literary heir, it must be Magda Szabó. This publication of Iza's Ballad, subtle and profound, is a cause for celebration.