Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó (tr. George Szirtes)

The Hungarian writer Magda Szabó is perhaps best known for her 1987 novel The Door, a poignant story of the relationship between two women – a writer and her housekeeper. (It’s been on my radar for a while, although I’ve yet to read it.)  Iza’s Ballad (an earlier novel) also features a complex relationship between two women at its heart – in this instance, the frustrations and heartbreak of a distant mother-daughter relationship. More specifically, the book digs deep into the damage we inflict on those closest to us – often unintentionally but inhumanely nonetheless. It is a story of many contrasts; the differences between the generations; the traditional vs the new; the rural vs the urban; and the generous vs the self-centred.

Seventy-five-year-old Ettie and her husband Vince have lived a traditional life in the Hungarian countryside since their marriage some fifty years before. They have one daughter, the progressive, idealistic Iza, a brilliant doctor who now works in Pest (eastern Budapest), where she is well respected and successful. While Iza is a dutiful daughter, paying monthly visits to her elderly parents, she rarely shows any emotion, devoting herself instead to a demanding job in rheumatology.

Everything changes for both women when Vince dies of cancer. At first, Ettie fears being left alone in the old house, the long empty days stretching out ahead of her with no husband to talk to or care for. But Iza – a direct, controlling person at heart – decides that Ettie must come and live with her in the apartment in Pest as it’s clearly the right thing to do. There is no consultation with Ettie at this point, simply a unilateral decision that Iza makes with no attempt to establish Ettie’s wishes. Nevertheless, in her relief at not being abandoned, Ettie defers to Iza’s better judgement – clearly her capable daughter knows best – and she goes along with the plan.

Straight after Vince’s funeral, Iza bundles Ettie off for a week at a sanatorium, effectively as a way of getting ‘the old woman’ out of the way while she arranges the move. The former family home is sold to Iza’s ex-husband, Antal, a kind, considerate man who retains a fondness for Ettie despite his broken relationship with her daughter. Meanwhile, Ettie must contend with a maelstrom of emotions on her own – grief at the loss of her beloved husband, relief at the prospect of a new life with Iza, and concern over the packing up of the house. Her major consolation is the prospect of being surrounded by Vince’s possessions once she arrives in Pest.

It was an enormous relief to her [Ettie] that she wouldn’t have to live by herself in a house bereft of Vince, but it was terrifying not be present while Iza packed up ready for the removal men. ‘You’d only torture yourself,’ retorted Iza, ‘you have spent enough time crying. I know my flat, know where I am taking you, I know where things will fit and what will look best. I want you to be happy from now on.’ (p. 56)

What follows when Iza brings her mother to the city is truly heartbreaking to observe. Very few of the couple’s treasured possessions have survived the move, and those that have are barely recognisable from their former selves. Vince’s favourite chair has been reupholstered, transforming it from a comfortable, careworn reminder to an alien object, erasing its emotional value for Ettie as a result. Naturally, Ettie is devastated by this casting aside of her former life. Virtually everything familiar has been discarded or left behind, accentuating Ettie’s crushing sense of loss.

She felt as if some elemental blow had destroyed everything around her and that only now did she really know what it was to be a widow, someone absolutely abandoned.

She didn’t cry while Iza was in the room, just looked pale and was more quiet than usual, but she tried to say something nice, however awkward, about the practicality of the arrangement and Iza’s helpfulness and kindness. (p. 89)

Everything required for comfort was present and correct but she still felt as though she had been robbed. (p. 92)

As the days and weeks slip by, Ettie continues to struggle with her new life in the city. Every time she tries to do something to please Iza, such as cooking a favourite meal from the girl’s childhood or brewing traditional Turkish coffee, the gesture backfires, aggravating Iza on her return from work. While Ettie has been used to a life of housework and cleaning, Iza’s housekeeper Teréz takes care of everything in Pest – an arrangement that Iza is determined to maintain. Unsurprisingly, this leads to tension between Ettie and Teréz, prompting Iza to intervene…

The old woman listened. She felt silly and unable to mount an argument; she was so cowed by the accusation that she got on Teréz’s nerves that she dared not say a word. Should she say that she’d like to be the one who looked after her [Iza], and that she’d enjoy taking care of things and finding out what she liked? Or that she [Ettie] had worked all her life, that she liked working and would like to find a way of showing how grateful she was for not being left alone? She kept quiet. (p. 98)

One of the great tragedies here – and there are many – is Iza’s lack of appreciation of her mother’s needs and emotions. On her return from work, Iza simply wants some peace and quiet, so she soon becomes irritated by Ettie’s questions and constant presence in the flat.

Her [Ettie’s] constant presence, the way she kept opening doors, always wanting something to happen at precisely the times Iza was exhausted and wanted rest and quiet, a space where nothing happened, saddened her and forced her to spend ever less time at home, only as much as was absolutely necessary. (pp. 131–132)

With Iza out at work all day, there are precious few opportunities for Ettie to spend time with her daughter or to share how she is feeling. Ettie knows she should be grateful to Iza for bringing her to Budapest, but the loneliness she is experiencing is destroying her, and with no one to talk to, these emotions remain locked in. As the novel unfolds, we can almost see Ettie wasting away before our eyes. In effect, she is retreating into herself as much as possible for fear of doing anything that will aggravate either Iza or Teréz. For Ettie, large chunks of the day are spent riding the tram routes across the city to steer clear of Teréz or whittled away alone at the flat.   

While the reader’s sympathies will almost certainly be weighted towards Ettie, Szabó is mindful of portraying each of her characters as complex, rounded individuals, complete with their shortcomings and failings. Like all of us, Ettie has her faults, from her jealousy of Lidia, the gracious nurse who holds Vince’s hand as he is dying, to her resentment of Teréz for robbing her of the chance to cook Iza’s meals. Similarly, while Iza has many faults ranging from selfishness and a lack of emotional intelligence to brusqueness and insensitivity, the situation is not entirely black and white. Her dedicated approach to work is undeniable, an asset widely recognised by colleagues and patients alike. Nevertheless, Iza’s lack of understanding towards her mother is horrifying to observe – while every physical comfort is provided for Ettie, the requisite emotional support is sorely missing from Iza’s approach. (Interestingly, this lack of emotional involvement is mirrored in Iza’s relationships with men – both her ex-husband Antal, who left Iza for fear of being destroyed by her, and Iza’s current lover, Domokos, who suddenly realises he might be destined for a similar fate.)

As this heartbreakingly poignant novel approaches its inexorable conclusion, Ettie returns to her old country home for the instalment of Vince’s headstone – a visit that prompts a reunion with Antal and a touching reminder of her former life. Despite the undeniable sadness in this story, this was a knockout read for me – a richly textured portrait of two very different women, unable to reach out to one another despite their familial bond.

Iza’s Ballad is published by NYRB Classics (US) and Vintage (UK); personal copy.

24 thoughts on “Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó (tr. George Szirtes)

  1. jenniferbeworr

    Even reading the review is somehow devastating. The Point journal published an essay on this novel and Szabo. It too, was very moving. Thank you for sharing from this reading experience. Xx

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, thanks for the tip, Jennifer. I’ll look that up. In a way, I’m glad the sense of devastation comes across in my review. Hopefully I’ve captured something of the tenor of this heartrending book…

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I seem to do well with these European writers, especially the women. Funnily enough, it’s fairly similar with films as I’m often drawn to stories from France / Italy / Spain – Romania and Hungary too!

  2. Julé Cunningham

    It’s wonderful to hear you were so taken with this book, Jacqui! When I reviewed it back in September I was ‘utterly captured’ by it and still am. The heartbreak of the misunderstandings between Iza and Ettie is unforgettable. I loved how Szabó wove the quartet of voices of Ettie, Vince, Iza, and Antal together to tell all of their stories, and how through them, we see how the country is changing. And the ending!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’d forgotten that you had reviewed this one. I must go back and have another look now that I’ve read the book! Yes, it’s interesting how we learn more about Iza through her interactions with Antal and Domokos, almost as though we’re seeing her refracted through their eyes. And although Vince has passed away by the time we join the story, we still get to know him from Ettie’s memories and reflections. I really like this type of novel where the author goes deep into the central character’s soul…

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui, and I have to say that this sounds like quite a devastating read. The mother-daughter relationship is one which is always full of potential for problems and can be so fraught; and it’s interesting to hear that the author doesn’t apportion blame to one party but allows both to have rounded characters. I want to read Szabo, but will definitely need to make sure I’m in the right frame of mind!!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, an eternally fascinating subject, this disconnect between a mother and her daughter. I think the reader will almost certainly feel much more sympathetic towards the mother in this relationship as Iza’s lack of regard for Ettie’s feelings is so pronounced…and yet, there are some subtleties at play here that prevent the characters from seeming too unrealistic or extreme. For instance, we hear how Iza goes to considerable lengths to understand her patients’ challenges, treating the whole person rather than the disease. So it’s even more of a tragedy that she doesn’t seem to appreciate how lost Ettie feels without Vince…

  4. heavenali

    I thought this was a wonderful novel, really heartbreaking and deeply poignant. I felt for Ettie so much, uprooted from everything she knew and put into an alien environment. Szabo is such a fabulous writer, I have read four of her novels and loved them all.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s such a devastating, emotionally involving story. You just want to tear Ettie away from that awful flat in Budapest and reunite her with Captain, who I completely forgot to mention in my piece. Anything to separate her from Iza…

      I definitely want to read more of Szabo in the future, so I’ll be checking out the others available in translation asap. Interestingly, there’s another one coming from NYRB next year: The Fawn.


      I think MacLehose Press has got it over here, so there’s something for you to look forward to in the spring!

  5. mallikabooks15

    This does sound heartbreaking. Though it seems the daughter lacks emotional connect in general, somewhere in her attitude to her mother one can also see a thread of what we’d now calling ageism too, in not seeing her mother as a person with feelings and capable of perhaps taking decisions for herself, instead foisting what she sees as right for her mother.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. In fact Ettie is referred to throughout as ‘the old woman’ a description that accentuates this ageist perception rather than appreciating Ettie as an individual, a human being with a personality and feelings of her own. Little details like that are very telling…

  6. gertloveday

    This is a book I absolutely love, even more so than The Door. I am more sympathetic than you to Iza, that’s to say I see her as quite a tragic figure, so determined to be a good human being that she has stamped out in herself all the weaknesses and needs that make us human and loveable. Szabo at her absolutele best.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s interesting about Iza. She’s definitely a self-determined person, but in her ruthless devotion to work, I feel she has stripped herself of the ability to connect with those closest to her (certainly on an emotional level). A fascinating choice for book groups, especially as the characters are quite complex!

  7. 1streading

    I really enjoyed The Door and Abigail and I have a copy of Katalin Street but this will be added to the list! Also a new translation of The Fawn to look forward to next year.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s good to hear that you’d recommend both Abigail and The Door as I’m definitely up for reading more Szabo in the future. The Fawn looks really intriguing, doesn’t it? Coming from NYRB/MacLehose in the spring by all accounts, so that’s not too long to wait…

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