Sunday, October 22, 2017

Two humiliating negatives

The door no longer creaked as it had done in her father's time; it opened quietly, but she was immediately and simultaneously aware of both past and present, of the smooth movement of the door and the creak that was no longer there. She shivered under the eiderdown. Two humiliating negatives.
Iza's Ballad, by Magda Szabó, is an achingly beautifully sad novel.

The title of the book is somewhat misleading. It's about the people that surround Iza, and while this helps create a picture of the life she moves through, we never get to know her intimately. Which is, perhaps, the point.

Translator George Szirtes explains in his introduction (I've learned to save these for after I read the novel — if they don't contain outright spoilers, they can very much colour your perception of the work) that the Hungarian title is Pilátus, the reasons for which I won't go into here. The English title sets a different expectation, and I'm not sure it's much better.

I picked up Iza's Ballad expecting to learn something about myself. After all, my name is Iza too, at least in some circles. For the most part, it's the story of how Iza, a successful doctor, divorced, brings her aging mother to live with her in the big city after her father dies. I have an aging mother too.

Iza is good person. She always does the right thing. Textbook. The world is her problem to solve. She views her mother as a patient more than as a person.

Her mother, Ettie, referred to mostly as "the old woman," loves her daughter dearly, doesn't want to hurt her feelings, respects her judgement, and, above all, trusts her (whom else can she trust?) — Iza always knows what to do, she's so clever.

It's heartbreaking to see these two women working at cross-purposes, both well-intentioned, both trying to do the best for the other, and failing miserably. It's a massive failure of communication, as well as a failure of courage on Ettie's part and a failure of understanding on Iza's.

We're treated also to portraits of Iza's father Vince, a former judge whose career fell victim to censure; her ex-husband Antal, an orphan, now a doctor in her small hometown; Lidia, his new love interest, a nurse who sat by Vince's deathbed; Domokos, a writer, Iza's would-be suitor; and other minor characters who flit through their lives, both in Budapest and in the villages. These people are so fully and compassionately drawn.

The eponymous ballad is not simply a poetic rendering to tell us this is Iza's story; there is an actual folksong at the heart of her character, one so sad, she could not bear to hear how it ended.

[I could find no trace of this particular song, words by Bajza József, but I imagine it is something like this one.]
"Good Lord," thought Lidia, "how exhausted she must be with that constant self-discipline, that need to save not only her family but the whole world. How hard to live with the hardness of heart that dares not indulge itself by grieving over dead virgins! The poor woman believes that old people's pasts are the enemy. She has failed notice how those pasts are explanations and values, the key to the present."
Beyond that, Iza's Ballad is about our idea of home — is it our stuff? the people? And what when our belongings and our loved ones are gone? Sometimes it really is a place, but it's a half-remembered, half-imagined place. It may be a seemingly random, inconsequential place imbued with only half-real memories and meaning.

The original Hungarian title would appear to be a harsh condemnation of Iza. I prefer to take pity on her. She is after all, her mother's daughter.

I read Szabó's The Door last year and thought it was brilliant. I was delighted to learn that Iza's Ballad was available in English. I was devastated to realize that Szabó died ten years ago, and thus only a finite number of her works will ever be available to me. I'll be looking up the recently released Katalin Street shortly.

Reviews Worth Reading
The Globe and Mail: In Iza’s Ballad, Magda Szabo delivers a compelling parable of mid-20th century progress:
But Iza's Ballad relies on contrasts; Ettie exists fundamentally in relation, and opposition, to her daughter. [...] It is more of a study of the spaces between people, and what those represent.
New York Times: In Magda Szabo's Novel, a Widow Is Uprooted From What She Loves (Lauren Groff):
Szabo excels at summoning the delicate and wordless spaces between people who love each other; as the book goes on, the emotional layers build quietly and almost unbearably. You feel tragedy amassing, somehow, out of ineffable wisps of feeling.
Anomaly: Stumbling Toward Affection: On Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad:
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.

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