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Reading Iza's Ballad

Reading Iza's Ballad

Many of us read The Door by the Hungarian writer Magda Szabo when the English translation came out last year in a NYRB edition and were in turns captivated and haunted by the character Emerence. When an earlier book (24 years earlier) by Szabo, Iza's Ballad, came out in translation, it immediately went on my list. Vintage has also issued the book, which I missed when I was first looking for it.

The publisher's description goes like this:

     A profoundly moving novel with the unforgettable power of Szabo's award-winning The Door. When Ettie's husband dies, her daughter Iza insists that her mother give up the family house in the countryside and move to Budapest. Displaced from her community and her home, Ettie tries to find her place in this new life, but can't seem to get it right. She irritates the maid, hangs food outside the window because she mistrusts the fridge and, in her naivety and loneliness, invites a prostitute in for tea.

     Iza's Ballad is the story of a woman who loses her life's companion and a mother trying to get close to a daughter whom she has never truly known. It is about the meeting of the old-fashioned and the modern worlds and the beliefs we construct over a lifetime.

The first line of the book is this:

The news arrived just as she was toasting bread.

In his introduction, George Szirtes, the translator asks the following questions:

What to do with the old? What to do with parents or grandparents who can't cope with modern life but cling to lost ways of acting and feeling What, for that matter, will our children do with us when we get old? Will they be there to treat us with respect and tenderness? Will we understand their ways of perceiving the world and will they have much sympathy for ours?

Iza and Ettie, the characters in Iza's Ballad, are perhaps not quite as deeply etched into my soul as Emerence has been, but they are indelible nonetheless. I read the book which begins with a death and a funeral, slowly, not by choice but because I had other obligations. I had to read a couple of other novels for the book clubs I facilitate at the library. Things came up. I attended the funeral of my longtime friend's husband at which I read a poem. I made cookies. I talked to my daughter on Skype. I took extra shifts at work. Life required things of me and I complied. I constantly had this feeling that I wanted to get back to this book and immerse myself into it, to completely disappear into this other time and place and mostly to just sink into the very good and true writing. Which is more rare than one imagines. As much as I would have liked to read this book in a few long sittings, close together, I came away thinking that perhaps it was meant to be read like this: in between good things, hard things, and those everyday obligations. The reading of the book seemed hard-won. It seemed a fair exchange between writer and reader.

Perhaps another thing that I should say about my reading of the book is that my father's stepmother (the only mother he knew because his own mother died in childbirth) was Hungarian. As a child I found her so difficult to understand, only partly because her English was never fluent. She had different ways but she was kind and loving and made amazing plum dumplings. I can't help but see her in the characters of Emerence and Ettie.

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