When Vince Szőcs dies at the age of 80 his daughter Iza decides to take her mother Ettie from the small town she’s lived in most of her married life to live in her flat in Pest. Ettie is a true countrywoman, born to be a busy homemaker, a well-known figure in a tight-knit community, but, devastated by the loss of Vince, she clings to Iza.
In no time the arrangements are made.
The idea that she was moving her mother to Budapest was no surprise to anyone. Iza couldn’t have done anything else; that was just the way she was. She was not only a brilliant doctor, a properly grateful child, but a good person. Mrs Szőcs must be so pleased with her. Old Vince had gone, of course, poor thing, but here was his daughter to take his place as protector. What delight it must be to move to Budapest, to leave bad memories behind and to enjoy a happy old age in new circumstances: it was not just to be free of cares and worries but to avoid loneliness at seventy-five and to give oneself over to peaceful reflection! Iza would look after her, she would have nothing to worry about for the rest of her life. (55)
Here she was, a small child again with a bag on her arm, led by her mother, an adult Iza – Iza in black, looking pale. Iza’s hand was strong, as was her voice telling her, ‘No crying!’
Would she never see this town again, nor the house where she had lived with Vince? (65)
It’s late in the book that we finally learn the origin of the title Iza’s Ballad. It’s the ballad of the lovely virgin bride, cold in death, that Iza could never bear because it was so sad:
she would burst into tears and plead for the dead character to be brought to life again (311)
Iza has schooled herself since childhood not to yield to the emotion of suffering, to be an indomitable soldier for what is right and never to spare herself in the service of others. As a child she was her father’s fierce defender when he was sacked from his job as a county judge and ostracised because he would not bring in an unfair verdict demanded by the authorities. She was at first refused entry to medical school because of who her father was, and only got there with the help of an influential friend. She will fight to the death for a good cause. As a doctor she is an excellent diagnostician because she’s “insistent, careful and patient”. She loves her parents and the husband Antal who left her for a reason she doesn’t understand, but that becomes clear to us as the book goes on. The world is not wrong to admire her, but there’s a terrible price to pay for her achievements: Iza has replaced imagination and empathy with a faultless competence, just as she deals with her mother’s battered old furniture in the move to Pest:
“The other things had to stay behind, darling. What we have here has been repaired by the upholsterer and the furniture man. Isn’t it perfect and lovely?”….
She didn’t ask about the house plants, about Vince’s peaked caps or his cherrywood stick. She undid the top buttons of her coat because she felt she might suffocate. (87)
Self-effacing Ettie is very different from the powerful Emerence in The Door, but this is another picture of the struggle of the human spirit as it advances into old age, life accelerating, the world changing, the solid foundations of a well-lived life shifting and tottering.
Iza is like an actor who reads with exquisite diction and observes all the stage notes but understands nothing of the emotions she expresses with such technical skill. There could not be a stronger contrast with Lidia, the nurse who is her ex-husband’s second love:
He had never known anything like Lidia’s love, a love so vulnerable it had no self-defence mechanisms, and he responded to her devotion just as unconditionally, just as innocently. (163)
Lidia’s warmth is associated with her tender care of Vince as he lies dying and the bond that develops between the two when they realise they came from the same town. It’s Lidia who sings the old ballad with Vince in his last days:
the old man’s voice drifting into the corridor like the humming of an innocent, half-conscious, happy child (313)
And because Iza, trying to be such a good human being, has stamped out in herself the weaknesses and needs that make us human and loveable, has rejected the rich, messy colours of Ettie, Vince, Antal and Lidia’s world for clean black and white, she too is a tragic figure. The book’s four sections are called Earth, Fire, Water and Air. Iza wants nothing to do with the messiness of earth, the drama of fire, or the dangerous fluidity of water. In the end she’s left with air. But life needs them all.
This is an absolutely engrossing book, subtle and powerful in its exploration of personality, painfully moving, constantly surprising and delighting with resonant images that remind us Szabó started life as a poet: the suitcase that stands “like an animal watching, waiting to be called”; the image of Ettie carrying her copper candelabrum “raising it high above her head the way a tame old stag carries its tines”; the image of Lidia “standing with her back to the windowsill, the flowerpots, the flowering cacti and house plants framing her like some ungainly autumnal bridal costume.”
Very highly recommended. I liked it even better than The Door.
First published in 1963. English translation by George Szirtes, Harvill Secker 2014.