Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó (tr. George Szirtes). NYRB Classics. $16.95, 336pp.
It has taken a while for Szabó’s work to see the light of day. Her first novel in English translation, The Door, published by Columbia University Press in 1995 did not cause much of a stir. It wasn’t until the success of Len Rix’s retranslation of The Door ten years later with publisher NYRB Classics that she started to see some success. Whether this was due to the merits of the new translation, the marketing skills of the publishers, or just down to the whims of fortune, Szabó is finally having her moment in the English-Speaking world.
Previously Szabó has been popular in German translation, and in her native Hungary she is considered one of the major writers (although even the Hungarians had to wait until after the Stalinist era, when the ban on publishing her books was finally lifted). Now with the U.S. arrival of Iza’s Ballad, in George Szirtes’s crisp, polished translation, American readers are starting to see that The Door was only the tip of a much larger iceberg.
The novel opens with the death of Vince, a provincial magistrate who had lost his job and been ostracized in the 1920s only to be rehabilitated after the war. His daughter, Iza takes it upon herself to put things in order after his death. She arranges the funeral, puts the house on the market and decides that her mother, Ettie, having no more reason to stay in town, should come and live with her in Budapest. The clash between mother and daughter, both of whom believe that they are the one making the greater sacrifice for the sake of the family, forms the dramatic core of the novel.
It is not just the personalities and temperaments of the two women that are at odds but their entire worldview and experience. They regard each other from opposite ends of a generational divide which at times makes them seem like they come from entirely different planets.
Three years earlier Iza had sent them a clever little machine that plugged into the wall and made the bread come out a pale pink; [Ettie]’d turned the contraption this way and that, examined it for a while, then stowed it on the bottom shelf of the kitchen cupboard, never to use it again.
Szabó never plays up these misunderstandings for comic effect; whenever we see things from one character’s viewpoint, she also shows us the other side . . .
She couldn’t even get used to the idea of an electric toaster: she would have missed crouching by the fire, the fire itself and the strange noise of the embers so much like the panting of a living being. The constantly changing colour of the cinder lent the room a peculiar life; when the fire was lit she didn’t feel alone, not even when the house was empty.
In his introduction Szirtes tells us the original Hungarian title, Pilátus, refers to Pontius Pilate, “a virtuous and upstanding man [who] washes his hands of the events of which he has charge.” Szirtes sees Iza as the eponymous Pilate, providing her mother with all the comforts and material wealth the modern world has to offer, only to wash her hands of her and abandon her to emotional isolation. But each of the novel’s main characters, all of them good people at heart, experiences similar moments, each person abandoning the other to their fate, in their own way, without blame of rancor.
There is a political aspect to this novel which plays out in a subtle, understated way in the background. There are clear parallels between Vince’s experience as a previously shunned, later rehabilitated magistrate and Szabó’s position as a previously banned, later celebrated author. In contrast we have Antal, Iza’s ex-husband, who manages to slip, unharmed, from one regime to the next. At one stage he is advised by a mentor, Professor Dekker, to stay away from politics in University. Antal assumes (as does the reader) that he is being advised to keep away from left-wing groups, his professor seemingly being a member of the right-wing elite. We understand later when Antal encounters Dekker on campus, on his way to attend a party meeting:
“You’re in everyday clothes,” Dekker remarked, looking at his hat. “Are you not coming?”
He gazed in polite indifference at the professor’s glittering outfit. “I’m not a member of the movement,” he answered.
Dekker removed his cap and ran his fingers through his dense unruly hair. “I’m pleased you listened to me,” he said and set off down the stairs.
Antal and people like him must surely have been familiar to Szabó’s readership at the time, while English readers today cannot help but see parallels with the contemporary situation, as Hungary once again lurches towards the right. And then we have Iza. When Iza meets Antal for the first time he tries to pass on the same advice. But she reacts differently.
She didn’t say a word until they reached the edge of the wood, then stopped and looked at him again and spoke very clearly as if she wanted to emphasise every word to him. “Politics will be my life as long as I live,” she said.
Szabó never goes into details about the ideologies of her characters, which adds to the timelessness of the novel. What’s important is now what is happening in society at large but how it affects the lives of the characters. Vince suffers under the old regime while his Iza thrives under the new.
Despite its heavy themes—death, loss, aging, and the impossibility of ever really understanding another human being—the novel is well-paced and enjoyable. Szabó grounds the narrative in physical spaces; the rooms and buildings that her characters inhabit are there not just for decoration but serve as extensions of their inner lives, each character experiencing a particular place in a distinct way. The whole novel is shrouded in a vaguely bittersweet, autumnal atmosphere; it’s all a little cold and gloomy, and yet you feel like lingering there a while longer. The characters are universally well-rounded and convincing, even the minor ones feel like three-dimensional people with their own fully formed inner lives. Structurally, the novel plays with the order of events and shifts between points of view in a way that feels very contemporary. It’s easy to forget that Szabó was writing in 1963; she uses the techniques of the post modernist era with such a lightness of touch that they pass almost unnoticed, and the plot unfolds in a way that feels organic and satisfying.
Iza’s Ballad is an exemplary novel that will surely reinforce Szabó’s position as a world-class writer and, with a large back-catalog of books as yet untranslated, readers can hopefully look forward to more like it in the years to come.
Daniel Kennedy is a translator based in Rennes, France. He is also co-founder of Farlag (www.farlag.com) a non-profit collective specializing in translations from minority and stateless languages.
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