“Perfectly Alone”: Magda Szabó, Iza’s Ballad

iza-1Now she could see the picture that used to hang over her bed, the face of the little girl gathering strawberries, a face whose Old German sweetness vanished, replaced by a wreath of wheat-coloured hair from under which her own wrinkled face looked out, and she saw that, in place of the little basket the running girl had carried, there was now her own black string bag. At that moment she realised what she could do for Iza, the Iza that lived inside her, not the stranger rushing about in taxis or the one who talks in whispers to Teréz and looks up from her books with such a stern gaze. Vince was no longer at her side but this time she didn’t call him. This was a moment when she had to be perfectly alone.

It isn’t until nearly the end of Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad that we learn the significance of the novel’s title. As a child, Iza–now a successful doctor–had stopped her father Vince from singing “a beautiful ballad from his student days” because she could not bear its sad story:

In the middle of the chamber
Raised up high on her bier
a lovely virgin bride
lies dead and cannot hear.

We find this out both belatedly and indirectly from Lidia, who nursed Vince on his deathbed. By the time we hear the story of Iza’s ballad, Lidia is engaged to Iza’s ex-husband Antal; Vince has been dead since the novel began. Lidia has been at most a peripheral presence in the novel up to this point, but it turns out that she is a keen observer, particularly of Iza, whom she once watched with awe and admiration but comes to regard with a mixture of pity and horror–as, I think, do we.

It’s not that Iza does anything horrible–at least not deliberately. Iza’s Ballad is a heartbreaking novel, but it is painful in large part because the central characters in its quiet unfolding tragedy, Iza and her recently widowed mother Ettie, want so much to do right by each other. After Vince’s death, the competent and self-sufficient Iza takes charge of her mother in ways that are paradoxically at once generous and ruthless: determined to do everything for Ettie, Iza fails completely to understand what Ettie actually wants or needs. In her turn, at once adoring of and intimidated by her daughter, Ettie suffers in silence as one after another of her modest attempts to retain her autonomy and preserve some sense of self, some continuity between her old life and her new, is stifled by Iza’s single-minded efficiency.

Immediately after Vince’s funeral, for instance, Iza packs Ettie off to a nearby resort town to “relax, have a lie-in, look at the trees, read, sleep and buy a couple of sessions at the baths because it looks as though your bones need it.” Iza pitches this plan as a kindness, so Ettie won’t have to deal with the difficult work of packing up for her impending move to Iza’s flat in Budapest. Ettie is “happy to think how much Iza loved and looked after her, but she had never been so sad in her life as when she finally went to Dorozos,” where she and Vince had “longed to go.” During her stay there, Ettie cheers herself by dreaming of how she will arrange her furniture in Iza’s flat:

She took great delight in the effort, drawing little semicircles for chairs, a square for the table and oblongs for the beds. She carefully put the plan away in her bag so she could produce it when Iza appeared and they could get straight to work. The furniture would have arrived by now, Iza will have sent it up by truck. There’d be plenty to do once they got to Pest. But it would be good work and it made her happy to think about it. Making a home.

But it turns out Iza has taken care of everything in her own way: “She was happy that once again, everything had been done for her, but she thought of the slip of paper in her handbag and tears came to her eyes.”

iza-nyrbThis is how things go for Ettie and Iza once settled in Budapest as well. Iza does what she thinks is best, and Ettie’s attempts to participate are either thwarted or criticized. Ettie’s ways are not Iza’s; she does not belong in the modern world of the flat, the city, the trams, the markets, the technology. Her cooking, her shopping, her cleaning–none of it is right. She tries to make a friend and brings home the wrong sort of person. Eventually she realizes that she is an inconvenience, a burden, on both Iza and her housekeeper Teréz: “Teréz would get on better without her. Iza could never relax when she was around.” One of the strangest and saddest signs of Ettie’s growing isolation is the relationship she develops with Iza’s refrigerator, at once a symbol of the alien modern world and a stand-in for the old life from which she has been so completely cut off:

The old woman, who was frightened of all machines, found a curious way of making the acquaintance of the refrigerator. She discovered that the fridge made a sort of animal noise, a low purr. It startled her at first, but then she imagined having a conversation with it and would sit beside it, feeling she was not alone.

But then she spills soup on it and Iza, discovering that she cleaned it up without turning off the electricity first, warns her off, and “after that she no longer tried to make friends with the refrigerator.”

Ettie recovers some sense of purpose and will as she undertakes a trip back home to see to installing the headstone she ordered for Vince’s grave. It is there, back in the village where she once belonged, filled once more with memories of the life she once lived, reconnected to old places and friends, and full of love for her husband and daughter–who, alone again in Budapest, is relishing her restored space and privacy–that Ettie realizes there is something she can do to free both herself and Iza of the intractable unhappy tangle their lives have become. That Iza does not realize the deliberate sacrifice her mother has made is just one more sign of why Ettie made the choice she did.

izas-balladThough it incorporates several people’s perspectives and stories besides Ettie’s, including Iza’s, Iza’s Ballad felt to me like Ettie’s book, which is why the novel’s title puzzled me at first. It’s Lidia, who looks at Iza and sees her clearly “for what she was,” who articulates why it is really Iza who is central, Iza whose “self-discipline” is also “a hardness of heart that dares not indulge itself by grieving over dead virgins.” Iza’s perfection is the result of a lack of imagination and empathy, a resolute clarity of purpose that obscures rather than illuminates. The things that made Ettie’s life vivid and meaningful to her are invisible or irrelevant to Iza. “The poor woman believes,” Lidia reflects,

that old people’s pasts are the enemy. She has failed to notice how those pasts are explanations and values, the key to the present.

This personal insight has historical implications too in a novel that is very much about social changes and their consequences. Though they are compellingly individual, the characters–Ettie and Iza and Vince and Antal especially–are also illustrative of these more abstract processes; their particular actions, such as Antal’s renovations to Ettie and Vince’s house after Ettie’s move to Budapest, carry symbolic resonance about change and competing ideas of progress and improvement.

Lidia’s comment about the significance of the past to the present also gave me a useful way to think about the novel’s attention to characters’ back stories, and to its somewhat circuitous organization. I found it slowly going and digressive at times: I was emotionally engaged with Ettie’s struggle and wanted the novel’s focus to stay there, with her. Thinking about the novel in broader terms, as an exploration of changing mores and competing values, not just family dynamics, gave retrospective significance to sections I wasn’t originally that interested in. What will stay with me, though, is the pathos and tenderness of Szabó’s picture of Ettie. “Maybe she was already dead and hadn’t noticed?” she wonders as her life shrinks and her spirits fade under Iza’s well-intentioned but murderous regime of care; “Could a person die without being aware of it?”