Translated by George Szirtes.
Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabó was recommended to me by my friend Agnes, who I was recently complaining to that I’d lost the will to read.
“When Ettie’s husband dies, her daughter Iza insists that her mother give up the family house in the countryside and move to Budapest. Displaced from her community and her home, Ettie tries to find her place in this new life, but can’t seem to get it right. She irritates the maid, hangs food outside the window because she mistrusts the fridge and, in her naivety and loneliness, invites a prostitute in for tea.
Iza’s Ballad is the story of a woman who loses her life’s companion and a mother trying to get close to a daughter whom she has never truly known. It is about the meeting of the old-fashioned and the modern worlds and the beliefs we construct over a lifetime.” GoodReads.
Iza’s Ballad is a Ferrante level good book. And I do not state that lightly. predominately told from the perspective of Ettie and Iza, it looks at the difficult relationships between family, lovers and friends.
There is a of internal thought and debate in this novel as characters fail to communicate with each other in a way they would understand or are able to articulate. Ettie and her daughter Iza are from two different worlds, one at home with coal fires and paraffin coffee makers, the other at ease in the modern world. In trying to care for one another they begin to dance around needs and wants. Invariably ignoring wants for the assumed need of the other – though never communicating their feelings. Without Vince, Ettie is lost in the world. Iza has also taken the role of carer and can’t express her emotions without logic taking over.
Until Iza’s narrative is presented to us, it’s easy to hate her. She insists her mother rest without really trying to understand what she would really like to be doing. Ettie feels rejected by Iza, and Iza trapped by duty. However, you come to understand Iza, and realise there are no good and bad characters in this novel. All are likely to annoy and delight in the course of it.
Ettie begins to shrink as she is less and less useful, as she lacks purpose and understanding. To me, she represented a housewife, rooted in the private sphere, existing for her intelligent husband and intelligent daughter. It’s almost as though she has never developed who she is, as she has existed to care for these two extraordinary people. So to express her feelings, that she was happiest being what they needed, is near impossible. She doesn’t know how to exist in a world where she is not in the role of wife and mother. If Budapest gave Iza freedom, it brought Ettie closer to death.
This is wonderful book, beautifully translated – the best I’ve read this year.