“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?”

Incompatible: Sally Rooney, Conversations With Friends

rooneyI don’t typically post about books I didn’t finish, and I don’t want to make a big contrarian to-do about my having given up on Conversations With Friends, but it is what I’ve been reading lately and I have given up on it, so I might as well at least comment briefly on it here.

I began the novel with some skepticism but also, as always, with the hope that I’d be pleasantly surprised. I told the friend who kindly lent me her copy that I feared it was going to be yet another new novel that is “coolly underwritten,” and it is exactly that. I tried to keep an open mind, though, especially because books that are minimalist in some ways can sometimes be very powerful. For me, books like that would include all the ones I’ve ready by Kent Haruf, for instance, though not Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, which I said ultimately read to me as if Strout had “used this dispersed form to let herself off the hook.”

It wasn’t exactly, or entirely, the spareness of Conversations With Friends that put me off it, however. It was something about the quality of the sentences, which seemed flat to the point of monotonous: not just the flat affect I’ve protested against before in highly polished contemporary fiction (even really smart fiction I admire, like Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children) but wearisomely unvaried in their tone and rhythm. A sample, chosen (honest!) by just letting the book fall open anywhere:

When I arrived at the house all the windows and doors were open. I rang the doorbell anyway. When I got inside he was drying his hands on a tea towel, like he’d just finished washing up. He smiled and told me he’d been feeling nervous about seeing me again. The dog was lying on the sofa. I hadn’t seen her on the sofa before and wondered if maybe Melissa wouldn’t let her sleep there. I asked Nick why he was nervous and he laughed and made a little shrugging gesture, though one that seemed more relaxed than anxious. I leaned my back against the countertop while he folded the towel away.

I was bored stiff by the process of reading Rooney’s prose, and while I am open to arguments about how really this effect is all about the narrator’s own inadequacies in some way, I simply didn’t care enough about Frances–or anyone else in the novel, as they all seemed equal parts dull and insufferable–to press on past page 100. Whatever revelation or maturation or epiphany lies ahead for Frances, she’s going to have to go through it without me as a witness.

Is it me? Is it the book? It’s both, of course, as it always is.

Postscript: Now I’m reading Magda Szabó’s Iza’s Ballad. How much more interesting, in every way, is this little excerpt than that quotation from Conversations with Friends? “‘The yellow globes shone jovially through the mesh of the bag. ‘She’s trying to work magic,’ thought the doctor. ‘She wants to work magic with three miserable lemons. She thinks that if she shows death she is not frightened of it, it will run away. She thinks that if she turns up at the old man’s bedside with lemons she will find him still alive.'”

May Day: Sabbatical Update

Arcimbolo LibrarianThe start of a new month seems like a good time to take stock, once again, of how my plans and projects for this sabbatical term are progressing. May is actually the point in a winter term sabbatical when being on leave stops meaning that much, as the regular teaching term is now over for everyone anyway. May is often very busy with meetings, though (including our department’s traditional ‘May Marks Meeting’), so my time is still more my own than it would be otherwise.

Looking back over the past four months, it does seem to me that I have been making pretty good use of that protected time. Since I placed my book orders for September, my early project to refresh my reading lists has been less of a priority, but it has definitely had results. The biggest change so far is to the approach and book list for Women and Detective Fiction, which I wrote about in my March update. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in my postscript to that post, I ran into problems with my revised book list for Pulp Fiction (specifically, True Grit turned out not to be available from a Canadian supplier), so I decided to go with Valdez Is Coming again and accept that the onus is on me to teach it differently to make it more accessible. Because I wanted at least something to change for this iteration of the course but had rather run out of enthusiasm for novelty, I switched out The Maltese Falcon for The Big Sleep, which I know reasonably well from teaching it in Mystery and Detective Fiction. My overall enthusiasm for Pulp Fiction is actually flagging right now; I hope that in 2020-21 I can offer a different first-year course, perhaps ‘Literature: How It Works,’ which would let me go back to the broader range of texts and topics I used to cover in our (now retired) courses ‘Introduction to Literature’ and ‘Introduction to Prose and Fiction.’

greatexpectationsI have until the fall to settle on the book lists for my winter term courses, which are British Literature After 1800 and 19th-century British Fiction (the Austen to Dickens variation). I’ve spent quite a bit of time examining anthologies for the survey course and concluded that the most reasonable way to go is a slim custom text assembled from Broadview’s wide-ranging options. (Who is actually assigning these behemoth volumes? And how do they assign enough in one term to make it worth their students’ expense?) The down side is that for copyright reasons I can’t include much material past Joyce, but I think I can fill in a small number of contemporary poems and a story or two by other means. I have been playing around with a lot of different options for longer texts that I think would work well in combination, because the assignment sequence I am planning to use includes a final essay for which students would compare our last book with either of our previous ones. (One reason for this is that it means one way or another everyone has a stake in our final reading.) Right now the front runners are Great ExpectationsThree Guineas, and The Remains of the Day: I can imagine a lot of interesting ways to connect Remains with the other two, including first-person narration, questions of class, dignity, money, and morality, and connections between personal and public politics. The 19th-century fiction book list is still uncertain: one of the big questions for me is whether Wuthering Heights will make it in or whether I’ll lose my nerve and fall back on old favorites. wuthering-oup

Since fall book orders went in, I have been dedicating most of my time to the more open-ended research I discussed in my earlier posts about the value of ‘uproductive’ time and re-learning patience. Although it still makes me intermittently anxious that I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with all this, I am relaxing more into the process of reading and inquiry–and I am also starting to get a sense of how the different things that interest me might eventually coalesce, though I am a long way from being sure about how to frame the central question, much less how to answer it. I am genuinely enjoying the luxury of just being interested: “curiosity-driven research” is supposedly fundamental to our work, but as I discussed in my post on ‘fallow time’ there are lots of professional disincentives to following your interests in new directions.

bookHaving said that, the more I read about Holtby and Woolf, and especially the harder I try to understand what’s going on with The Years, the more I’ve been identifying continuities between this material and longstanding interests of mine, including genre (my monograph was about history and fiction as means of telling particular kinds of stories about women’s lives) and the relationship between literary form and ethics (something I’ve addressed both explicitly and implicitly in a lot of my essays and academic articles). I had long casually accepted the image of Woolf as (to quote Janis Paul) “a kind of patron saint of inner vision and consciousness”; the books I’ve been reading on Woolf’s politics and cultural criticism have helped me see her differently, and especially as perhaps not so entirely unlike Victorian novelists in her interest in using fiction to make a difference in the “real world” (as Alex Zwerdling’s Virginia Woolf and the Real World has it). This week I’ve also been reading scholarship on Woolf’s connections to her Victorian predecessors, including Janis Paul’s The Victorian Heritage of Virginia Woolf and Emily Blair’s Virginia Woolf and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel, neither of which (though both are very interesting on their own terms) turned out to address quite the things I was looking for–but of course in some ways that’s encouraging, as it shows where there might be room for me in the conversation.

rooney.jpgSo that’s where I am now, at the two-thirds point in this six-month sabbatical. I have checked off a number of the concrete tasks I set myself, and I have made progress on the more amorphous but no less important task of refreshing my own intellectual engagement. There have been other things going on too, of course (including Maddie’s performance in Jesus Christ Superstar and, exciting in a different way, her acceptance of a place in Dalhousie’s Fountain School of Performing Arts for next year), and as always I’ve been doing other reading, most recently Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage and a reread of The Break for my book club (where it was a big success). My leisure reading right now is Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, which I am not liking at all (my goodness, her sentences are dull!)–but that’s a subject for another post!

“Splendid Non-Conformity”: Lissa Evans, Old Baggage

baggage‘I have no party affiliation, merely the aim of encouraging the girls to take their rightful places in the modern world. Knowledge, confidence, ready laughter and a strong overarm throw will equip them for many arenas.’

She was watching the teams as she spoke: why on earth Jacko had chosen to clothe the League in garments the colour of a municipal drainpipe was quite beyond her. By contrast, the Amazons, aligning themselves for a photograph, were a frieze of splendid non-conformity.

I enjoyed Old Baggage quite a bit. It is tighter and swifter than Their Finest, its focus and, I would say, its strength much more the depiction of character than the construction of plot. In fact, overall I liked the ‘old baggage’ herself, Mattie Simpkin, better than Old Baggage. She is splendid: unapologetically unconventional, proud of her suffragist past and determined not just to continue living up to her principles but to find some way to pass them on to a new generation already losing the sense of urgency that drove Mattie and her colleagues to violence and personal sacrifice in the fight for equality. Her supporting cast is good too, especially her close companion Florrie, nicknamed ‘The Flea,’ and her protege Ida, a smart working-class girl who joins the girls’ club Mattie establishes to promote mental and physical agility, called with apt grandiosity ‘The Amazons.’

old-baggageEvans does a wonderful job delineating Mattie’s world, from its domestic apparatus to its politics. The novel takes place mostly in 1928 and 1929, and while like Mattie herself this world is full of energy and change, it is also shot through with pathos from the aftereffects and memories of the war, in which Mattie’s brother Angus was terribly injured:

Shrapnel had sheared away a triangle of Angus’s skull and a wedge of brain matter beneath: a mortal wound that had nonetheless taken almost two years to kill him. He had lost his speech and his ability to walk, and most of his sight, but his charm had remained intact …

Like the war, the militant suffrage movement is now part of Mattie’s past, though both are also (as the title hints) baggage she cannot leave behind. The novel’s central question is what Mattie can and should be doing in the present–who she is now that the causes she fought for have (more or less) been won. This personal question merges with political ones as Mattie becomes increasingly aware that a new force is rising that threatens those hard-won victories: fascism. As her Amazons train, so too does the Empire Youth League; the two organizations neatly embody two profoundly opposed sets of value, one ruthlessly regimented, the other vigorous, wayward, and unruly, like freedom itself.

baggage-2This is all really good material, and the novel is well told start to finish, but my initial enthusiasm was somewhat deflated by the way its story eventually played out. Mattie compromises her own mission for reasons that seemed to me both out of character and insufficiently dramatic to create a genuine crisis of either conscience or story. The potential for significant conflict between the youth organizations, their leaders, and (most importantly) the larger political stakes they represent was not realized–perhaps because it would have been incompatible with the novel’s overall lightness of tone and touch–and the novel’s final twist not only seemed weirdly random but was a disappointing relegation of Mattie’s fighting spirit to a form of caretaking retirement. Perhaps the ending was meant to signal that the torch has finally been passed: that the best thing Mattie can do for the next generation of activists, or for the women (such as Ida) who are making new lives based on their achievements, is to free them from domestic responsibilities–to look after their baggage?–so that they can carry on. Still, I thought Mattie deserved better, though I suppose I should not underestimate the radicalism of the doctorate she earns. And as she says, quoting its subject, “All things are difficult before they are easy”: Mattie’s fighting life, which has certainly been difficult, has maybe earned her a future a bit out of the fray, away from the front lines of what we know too well would be an ongoing war.

Back to Normal


Our flurry of excitement is over: Jesus Christ Superstar had its brief but glorious run, and my parents are back in sunny Vancouver after 5 days of pretty relentless cloud, fog, drizzle, and just plain rain here on the other coast. Damp and chill notwithstanding, we had a lovely time visiting, eating, drinking, and of course applauding.

Mary Magdalene 1
Maddie as Mary Magdalene

And now it’s back to our regular dull routines, though with a welcome easing up of pressure now that they don’t include rehearsals. This is a big change and relief especially for Maddie, of course, but her schedule had lots of implications for us one way or another. It has been sinking in that as her school year draws to a close, so too do our years of parenting kids in school: as of September, both she and Owen will be at university and living in residence, which will change a lot of things about our day to day lives. For the first time since 1999, just for example, I won’t be dropping anyone off in the morning before heading to work–which among other things means I hope to walk in a lot more often. I definitely have some anxieties about the emotional repercussions of an empty nest; it helps to know they won’t be far away. I might even run into one or the other of them on campus sometimes–and if I’m very well behaved, they might even acknowledge me. 🙂

baggageThat’s all still in the future, though, and in the meantime Maddie has exams to get through and I have a bit more time on my sabbatical to make the best use of that I can. Now that everyone else is also done teaching, being on leave feels a bit less special, but I remind myself that May typically fills up with administrative commitments, so I can still enjoy not being part of that. I will write up a post soon reflecting on my sabbatical so far. Before too much longer, I may also actually finish reading a book, and then I can post about that too! I have three in progress: The Break, which I am rereading for my book club, Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage, which I am enjoying so far, and Lucy Parker’s The Austen Playbook which to be honest I am not really loving. I am not currently reading anything on assignment for a review: I’m not sure if that’s good or bad! (It does mean I’m available, if any editors are reading this…)

The other thing I’m doing is a bit of physiotherapy for a sore shoulder, which the PT said is suffering from something called “impingement.” It is likely related to strain from activities such as using my computer mouse and crochet, neither of which I would like to give up, so here’s hoping a proper regimen of stretches and strengthening exercises plus better attention to form will make it stop hurting and let me carry on.

Dull, as I said, but today the sun is finally shining and it seems plausible not just that spring will finally arrive but that summer will follow, with all its languorous pleasures, so I’m feeling pretty good, all things considered.

A Flurry of Excitement

jesus christ poster

I won’t be reading or posting much for the next little while. After much anticipation (by us) and a much greater amount of work (by the cast and crew), Citadel High School is presenting Jesus Christ Superstar, opening tonight and closing Saturday. Maddie is playing Mary Magdalene. Rehearsals have been intense the last few weeks! Everyone’s dedication is so impressive–not to mention their stamina.

We are very excited to see the show at last: we’re going tonight and again on Saturday. My lovely parents are flying in from Vancouver so that they can see it too. I’m always happy to see my parents, but this visit is particularly meaningful to me, as it has always made me sad not to be able to share these big events with my family. Since Maddie is graduating this year, this will be her last school musical, so I really appreciate that they are coming all this way for the occasion–leaving behind Vancouver’s beautiful spring for our barren mud and snow flurries! I’m sure we will all manage to have a good time despite the unpromising weather.


Spring trying to arrive in Halifax.

Recent Reading: Novels In Pieces

whistle-darkOnce again the two novels I’ve read most recently have, quite coincidentally, something in common, but this time it’s a matter of form rather than content. Both Emma Healey’s Whistle in the Dark and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer are composed of assembled pieces — too long to be fragments, too short (mostly) to be chapters, always with a suggestive or quirky ‘headline.’ This structure made me slightly irritable in both cases. Why is this a thing to do? What’s the point–aesthetic or thematic? It seems to me the novelist equivalent of those long essays (we’ve all read them) that have little rows of asterisks instead of actual transitions between their parts. It looks unfinished to me. Go on, write the whole novel! We can wait to read it until then. 🙂



I find I don’t have a great deal else to say about the novels themselves. I read them both fairly fast and with fairly rapt attention, which is something of an endorsement, though to some extent I think it’s also an acknowledgment that small brisk pieces are easier to consume than dense sustained narratives. (Could that be why … ?) Of the two of them, my strong favorite is Healey’s, which is a searching (literally and figuratively) story about a mother and her difficult teenage daughter, who goes missing for four days and then refuses to say where she was or what happened. Like Elizabeth Is MissingWhistle in the Dark effectively captures the stress of disorientation, of not knowing, of grasping at an elusive and also frightening truth. It also seems to me a very realistic portrayal of a mother’s frustration with being shut out and criticized precisely because she wants more than anything else in the world to help someone she loves. Even in situations less dire than that in the novel, that kind of emotional push and pull can be exhausting. Whistle in the Dark is grimmer than Elizabeth Is Missing: it has none of the whimsy and poignancy of Healey’s first novel and it takes us (again, both literally and figuratively) to darker places–even though in the end I suppose it tends in a happier direction, as there’s no escape, no epiphany, that can bring Maud back from her lost state, whereas we are left feeling hopeful about Jen and Lana.

My Sister, the Serial Killer seemed to me a deft piece of rather morbid and mordant entertainment: fast-paced, funny–in that “I can’t believe this is happening” way that isn’t really (IMHO) a particularly valuable form of wit, because it relies so much on shock–and superficially provocative. I think I would have liked and admired a novel that really grappled with the kind of conflict Braithwaite toys with: how far do you stand by someone committing unpardonable acts? What context, what background, what loyalty, what principle is worth more to you than holding someone accountable for murder? (This is a standard tool in the crime fiction kit, of course.) To me, however, Braithwaite’s treatment seemed glib and shallow and her protagonist’s choice morally indefensible without being interesting in any other way. Meh. YMMV.