Stumbling Toward Affection: On Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad

Last year’s release of Magda Szabó’s The Door, retranslated from the Hungarian by Len Rix in 2003, received the energetic praise often given to startling discoveries. Named one of New York Times 10 Best Books of 2015, the book was described as “bone-shaking” and “vivifying and claustrophobic.” Calling it a “masterpiece,” Claire Messud credited it with altering her understanding of her own life, and Deborah Eisenberg described its effect as “like being spun at varying velocities through a tube…” As they effused about the novel’s visceral sensations, many reviewers noted regret and surprise that this book and author were only now published here, twenty-eight years after its original release and eight years after the author’s death.

Thankfully Szabó’s death needn’t halt her latent U.S. publishing, and this year we gain Iza’s Ballad, translated by George Szirtes. Like The Door, Iza’s Ballad centers on two women and their stymied relationship, but whereas the mother-daughter bond in The Door is metaphorical, the relationship in Iza’s Ballad is literal. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t ease tensions.

Both novels open with a death. In the case of Iza’s Ballad, it is the death of Vince — husband to Ettie, father to Iza, and man so beloved that at first he feels like his loved one’s flattened projection. His passing leads Iza to move her mother, Ettie, from her familiar village to cosmopolitan Budapest, where Ettie can live with Iza and be taken care of.

The “enormous relief” Ettie gains from Iza’s generosity soon gives way to tremendous disappointment and frustration as neither knows the other’s needs, nor understands the other’s actions, and efforts at kindness get lost in the noise of personal anxieties and prejudices.

In her new home, Ettie loses her name and gains the descriptor “the old woman.” Applied to a woman who toasts her bread using a fork and oven, who fears the refrigerator and toaster, and who struggles to use a water boiler, the new term, suggesting obsolescence, is particularly callous. The changed life also robs Ettie of much of her will and energy. Caring for Vince had animated her life, but her efforts to replicate this caretaking with Iza, to cook and clean for her and serve as secretary, prove fruitless. Iza doesn’t see her mother’s need to be needed, and she has a more pragmatic approach to her mother’s happiness, thinking to provide her with a life of leisure and failing to see the fear of uselessness this lax life might incur. Worse, Iza really has no obvious need for her mother. As a successful doctor, she has built for herself a life of obligations, one with a competent maid, many friends, and a possible suitor. Ettie’s only potential use lies in being her mother, but Ettie never realizes this.

Without a duty, Ettie wanders the streets, but after an encounter leads to Iza scolding her, even the rootless walks turn treacherous. The maid, Teréz, more readily perceives Ettie’s needs and asks her to do the grocery shopping, though in fact her shopping delays Teréz’s work. The request lifts Ettie’s spirits until she learns it came from a place other than necessity and concludes it must come out of pity. For Ettie, the realization is “one of those rare moments of perception when everything becomes blindingly clear,” and she fails to find solace in Teréz’s quietly affectionate act. While the discovery transforms Teréz from a “stern loudmouth” to an “abstract idea of pure virtue,” the transformation leaves Ettie feeling she has “no right to accept her kindness,” and thus widens the gap between them. It is hard, after all, to relate to an abstract idea.

Clouded by memory and filial love, Ettie’s relationship with Iza proves even more arduous. For all her brilliance and goodwill, Iza cannot see her mother’s needs. She worries about her mother’s health, but instead of asking how she feels, as a daughter might, she checks her vitals, like a doctor would. She grabs her hand, “her fingers open in affectionate play but really to check her pulse,” and regardless of this act’s actual affection, Ettie only sees the play.

If not for the fact that almost all the book’s relationships are fraught with miscues and confusions, we might think Iza and her mother’s tattered relationship comes from their disparate personalities. Ettie lives in a world of symbols, where a shawl is most useful placed over a mirror. Iza “doesn’t believe in anything old people believe in.” Calling her parents “two old sentimentalists,” she has no patience for rituals and views suffering as something to blot out through pragmatism. When Ettie does place a shawl over a mirror, to mourn Vince’s death, Iza takes it and throws it over her mother’s shoulders, uninterested in the symbolism and blind to the shudder her act induces.

Most of this family strife occupies the book’s enticing first half. The close third-person voice bounces between mother and daughter, exploring their emotions in succession rather than in tandem, but then it jumps to Iza’s ex-husband, Antal, and the simmering family drama widens its scope, giving us the backstory not only of Antal and Iza’s romance, but of his childhood, of the charity Vince gave him, and of Hungary’s politics.

The details this shift provides only enhance Iza as a paragon of goodness. We discover she’s paired her ambitions in medicine with a passion in politics, defying a warning by saying, “Politics will be my life as long as I live.” Her and Antal make for an incredibly earnest pair, but while Antal admits his passions for her, Iza thinks a “lack of emotion characterized their relationship even at its most passionate.”

Appropriately for a book sensitive to the stumbles of communicating, Iza’s Ballad uses dialogue sparingly. Often quotation marks cordon off thoughts, not speech, and conversations are relayed rather than depicted. Vince, now ghost and memory, offers the easiest communion, likely because he is no longer separate from his loved ones. One night Ettie feels his presence, and, as “the darkness of her mind” lifts, the need for speech disappears, so she doesn’t tell him “how hard it had been waiting for him, and how impossible it was to describe the dreadful emptiness of life without him because Vince knew all that.” This moment gives the alternative to all the stilted efforts between living characters, but we’re left with speech as either inept — like when Iza and Ettie try to express themselves — or unneeded. Either way it’s never effective.

Presented with the author’s biography — Szabó was forbidden from publishing between 1949 and 1956, the year of the Hungarian Uprising — and the book’s glancing discussion of politics, it’s easy to gloss over the characters’ individuality and see them as political bodies: Ettie as the old regime, outdated and useless in the postwar world; Iza as the present and future, idealistic, diligent, whose calculations to better the world turn the people she means to help into quantified bodies; Vince and Antal as bridges to these women’s disparate worlds. Tempting as this cursory reading is, to prioritize it would be to do as Iza does: reduce complex figures to predictable entities.

Iza’s Ballad too readily offers up this interpretation. Though stimulating, the broader meaning clouds the fervency with which Szabó depicts intimate, interpersonal moments. (A skill we see refined in The Door.) The leap to Antal gives a lot of interesting information, but with already such an ardent and realized world built within Ettie’s mind and Iza’s home, Szabó’s shift feels unnecessarily jarring, and by broadening its focus the novel loses some of its earlier tension.

Though the novel cannot separate from politics, its finest moments arise when the characters’ irreducible humanity bursts out. When Iza, the most inscrutable character and the one closest to being a mere vehicle for ideas, shows herself capable of “suffering like everyone else” and cries, but alone and before her mother sees her, we’re given access to the jagged forms through which these characters express themselves and recognize them as greater than an author’s puppets. That Ettie intuits the crying from the state of Iza’s eyes also suggests uncalculated moments might present the best hope for authentic interactions.

A novel neither of connection nor understanding, Iza’s Ballad is one of gestures: a daughter feeling her mother’s wrist for a pulse, a son-in-law pretending to be in need, a former lover placing his hand on his ex’s brow, a writer offering tickets to a concert for his possible mother-in-law’s birthday. Absent antagonists and filled with loving, goodhearted characters, Szabó’s novel might be confused for that of an idealist, were it not for its characters’ muted and pervasive despair. Without evil men to blame, we must study the protagonists’ frustrations, see in them our own, and consider how one can look at others and perceive them as more than manifestations of vitals and symptoms. Providing an unflinching and earnest portrait of love’s inexpressible forms, Iza’s Ballad elevates the resulting blunders to an art form, showing how through their failures, loving gestures become flails of affection.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.