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IZA'S BALLAD by Magda Szabó Kirkus Star


by Magda Szabó translated by George Szirtes

Pub Date: Oct. 18th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-681-37034-7
Publisher: New York Review Books

A man’s death changes reality for his widow and daughter.

Originally published in Hungary in 1963, this newly translated novel by Prix Femina Etranger winner Szabó (1917-2007) (The Door, 2003, etc.) explores the clash of cultures between the country’s rural villages, mired in tradition, and its capital city, Budapest, uneasily sloughing off personal and collective memory. Szabó’s gentle, deliberate narrative begins in 1960 with the death of Vince Szócs, a judge whose career was truncated when he made a decision opposed by the rightist military regime; he was 66, already weakened by illness, when he was finally “rehabilitated.” He and his wife, Ettie, lived a simple, circumscribed, rustic life. Ettie “didn’t trust machines” or even “things as basic as electricity.” She preferred candles and toasting bread over a fire; “when the fire was lit she didn’t feel she was alone, not even when the house was empty.” The couple's daughter, Iza, takes charge the moment Vince dies, insisting that her mother come to Budapest, where Iza is a respected, well-paid physician. "What a delight it must be to move to Budapest,” neighbors thought, “to leave sad memories behind and to enjoy a happy old age in new circumstances.” But Ettie becomes disoriented and lonely in her daughter’s modern apartment, where a housekeeper cleans and cooks, where she has no friends and nothing to do, and where she cannot feel Vince’s spirit. As the story unfolds, Szabó reveals the complexities of the past, not only for Ettie, but also for Iza, whose coldness and self-discipline seem inexplicable to many who know her; Iza’s estranged husband; and his fiancee, a nurse who once deeply revered Iza but comes to pity her: "The poor woman believes that old people’s pasts are the enemy,” Lidia realizes. “She has failed to notice how those pasts are explanations and values, the key to the present.”

Ghosts, angels, and demons hover in this quiet meditation on grief, love, and history.