In May of last year I read my first work, The Door, by one of the greatest post World War Two Hungarian writers, Magda Szabö. The Door, first published in 1987 and translated into English in 2015 was a New York Times distinguished book of the year. I found the portrayal of the central character, an older woman working as a maid for an upper middle class couple amazingly powerful. At that time there were no other novels by Szabo I could access. (I largely only E read) so I was very happy when I was offered a review copy of another of her books which has just been translated, Iza's Ballad.
There are four important characters in Iza's Ballad, and elderly couple, Vince and Ettie, their adult daughter, a physician, Iza and Iza's ex-husband Artal. The plot action takes place over only a few months but much of the course of the lives of the characters is slowly unraveled. Just as in The Door the impact of an older woman, in this case Ettie, on a younger adult is central to the novel. For years Iza has supplemented her parent's pension with her earning as a physician. This produces feelings of guilt and dependency as well as resentment.
The mother, quite elderly is from a different world than her daughter, making her way in a rapidly developing Communist Hungary The father, before he was blacklisted for his political views, was a magistrate. During the Nazi occupation of the country Iza was active in the occupation. When the father dies Iza brings her mother to live close to her in Budapest to be sure she can be cared for. On her side the mother struggled to do whatever her daughter thinks is right. Ettie is very proud of her daughter but they come from different worlds. The mother does not really approve of the romantic life of her divorced daughter. Eventually the distance between mother and daughter widens.
The power in this novel is in the characters and the relationship between mother and daughter. Much time is spent recalling the father and Iza's marriage but it is the mother-daughter relationship that is central to the story. It is also the story of the impact on modern development on the older culture of Hungary.
Anyone who has ever become at all a partial care giver to a dominant mother will relate powerfully to Iza's Ballad. To those new to Szabo, begin with The Door.
Magda Szabó (1917–2007) was born into an old Protestant family in Debrecen, Hungary’s “Calvinist Rome,” in the midst of the great Hungarian plain. Szabó, whose father taught her to converse with him in Latin, German, English, and French, attended the University of Debrecen, studying Latin and Hungarian, and went on to work as a teacher throughout the German and Soviet occupations of Hungary in 1944 and 1945. In 1947, she published two volumes of poetry, Bárány (The Lamb), and Vissza az emberig (Return to Man), for which she received the Baumgartner Prize in 1949. Under Communist rule, this early critical success became a liability, and Szabó turned to writing fiction: her first novel, Freskó (Fresco), came out in 1958, followed closely by Az oz (The Fawn). In 1959 she won the József Attila Prize, after which she went on to write many more novels, among them Katalin utca (Katalin Street, 1969), Ókút (The Ancient Well, 1970), Régimódi történet (An Old-Fashioned Tale, 1971), and Az ajtó (The Door, 1987). Szabó also wrote verse for children, plays, short stories, and nonfiction, including a tribute to her husband, Tibor Szobotka, a writer and translator of Tolkien and Galsworthy who died in 1982. A member of the European Academy of Sciences and a warden of the Calvinist Theological Seminary in Debrecen, Magda Szabó died in the town in which she was born, a book in her hand. In 2017 NYRB Classics will publish Iza’s Ballad (1963). From the webpage of The New York Review of Books.