Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Aging in (another) place: Magda Szabo’s novel Iza’s Ballad

Carol Levine
New York, New York, United States


Imprint II. Copyright 2017 Kelsey Hochstatter
Represented by Third and Wall Art Group LLC, Seattle WA

In Hungary in the early 1960s, Izabella (Iza) Szöcs is a physician, and a very good one, according to her patients and peers. Her specialty is rheumatology, but she makes “notes not just about the pain in the hands or feet or aching joint, but about the person and their sense of the world.” She practices in a busy clinic in Pest, across the Danube from Buda, a more residential part of the city. Her dedication wins her bonuses, even though she does not see as many patients as her colleagues.

Yet when Iza attempts to make a new life for her mother Ettie after her father Vince dies, all the empathy and sensitivity she lavishes on her patients disappears. As a daughter, Iza takes charge of her mother’s life in a way that she could not and would not do as a physician, with predictably tragic results.

Magda Szabo, the author of Iza’s Ballad,died in 2007 at the age of ninety, before her books, especially The Door (1987),2 achieved international fame in translation. Szabo’s novels skillfully blend personal conflicts and political change as Hungary emerged from World War II and the Stalinist era. For Szabo, as for Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”3


Generations in Conflict

Iza is an educated modern woman in a modernizing country; Ettie clings to her peasant roots and rituals. Although neither she nor Iza would know the term “aging in place,” a more recent American formulation, Ettie cannot imagine a life other than the one she knows. Having lived through war, Vince’s unjust removal from his job as a county judge, and their diminished status in the community, Ettie cherishes the familiar, not the new. Iza fails to understand this basic fact about her mother. As a doctor Iza helps her patients achieve their common goals of pain relief and improved function; as a daughter she wants her mother to change her way of life, a very different goal.

Ettie doesn’t understand politics; for Iza, everything is political. She and Antal, her former husband and a surgeon in the clinic in the rural village where Ettie lives, had collaborated on a campaign to restore the thermal hot springs in a nearby town and create a modern sanatorium. As a poor boy whose father had been killed in an accident carting boiling water from the springs, Antal had himself been a “tankardman,” delivering the scalding water to customers. The owner of the carting company paid for Antal’s schooling. Vince used his meager pension to buy Antal books. Later Antal used his influence to get Iza, several years younger, admitted to medical school.

The first chapter begins, “The news arrived just as she was toasting bread.” The news can wait while Szabo describes Ettie’s method of toasting bread. “Three years earlier Iza had sent them a clever little machine that plugged into the wall and made the bread come out a pale pink; she’d turned the contraption this way and that, examined it for a while, then stowed it on the bottom shelf of the kitchen cupboard, never to use it again. She didn’t trust machines, but she didn’t trust things as basic as electricity.” To toast bread, Ettie placed a piece on a miniature toasting fork and held it over an open fire.

The “news,” when we finally get to it, is delivered by Antal. Vince has only a little time left before his death from cancer. As soon as Iza arrives from Pest, she announces that she will take care of everything and Ettie will come to live with her.

Ettie is first relieved and proud that she has such a competent daughter, but she quickly learns that Iza’s plans for her do not include bringing all her possessions to Pest or becoming an essential part of Iza’s life. Ettie believes her role in Iza’s household is to keep tabs on Teresz, the housekeeper, and make sure she does not steal. Having lived for years in poverty, Ettie watches over every forint Teresz spends on food, even though Iza dismisses any need for thrift.

For the three women, the kitchen is a battleground. Ettie wants to cook greasy, heavy food; Iza has trained Teresz to cook healthy meals; as always, Iza wins. Ettie’s problem is simple: she needs to feel useful, to manage the household as she has always done, but Iza doesn’t need or want any help, and certainly not the kind Ettie wants to provide.

Deprived of her familiar surroundings, Ettie’s health declines and she is reduced to riding streetcars all day. For her part, Iza finds Ettie annoying and a nuisance, even though Ettie says nothing about Iza’s new lover Domokos, a writer. Domokos and Teresz are kinder to her than Iza.


In Search of Vince

Iza had arranged for a closed casket, so Ettie never got a chance to see Vince after he died. She has not really accepted his death. The crisis occurs when it is time to unveil Vince’s headstone. Ettie goes alone to the village and stays in her old home, which Antal has purchased from Iza. When she sees the huge, elaborately carved headstone she had ordered in her early grief, thinking it would be a tribute to Vince, she is horrified. She realizes that she has made a very expensive mistake. Without telling anyone, she sets out walking in the evening to the area where she and Vince had spent happier times. The place is now a construction site for new housing; she stumbles through the debris, searching for Vince, who she believes she sees and hears.

Iza learns of the outcome—an ultimately fatal fall—in a phone call from Antal. Iza is now all alone. Antal is going to marry the nurse Lidia who took special care of Vince; Domokos understands now why Antal left her. In her pursuit of perfection, Iza has driven away all the people who mattered to her. Lidia realizes that Iza is not the amazing doctor and daughter she had both feared and revered.

The “ballad” of the title makes its appearance only at this point in the story. It is a folk tune with lyrics written by Joszef Bayza, a 19th century poet and critic. It tells of a dead young virgin bride and the knight who wishes that it were he who had died instead of her. Vince sings it on his deathbed. Iza hates the song and never wants to hear it. It symbolizes the thing she cannot control.

As the translator George Szirtes notes in his introduction, the novel’s original title Pilátus referred to Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who acceded to demands for Jesus’s crucifixion. Pilate “was a virtuous and upstanding man but he too washes his hands of the events of which he has charge.” Was this title Szabo’s verdict about Iza? Iza certainly set in motion the events that led to Ettie’s death and her own abandonment by Antal and Domokos. But she was driven by the need to succeed, to prove worthy of her father’s belief in her, and to be a respected physician. That she failed to include her mother’s wishes in her plans and to make adjustments when the flaws became apparent were human failings, not limited to daughters and doctors in Hungary in the 1960s.



  1. Magda Szabo, Iza’s Ballad (New York: New York Review of Books, 2016), translated by George Szirtes.  Originally published in Hungarian in 1963.
  2. Magda Szabo, The Door (New York: New York Review of Books, 2015). Translation by Len Rix. Originally published in Hungarian in 1987.  See  “The Lady Writer and the Valkyrie” in Hektoen International http://hekint.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1990&catid=113&Itemid=613
  3. William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (New York: Random House, 1951).



CAROL LEVINE, MA, directs the Families and Health Care Project at the United Hospital Fund in New York. She is the editor of Living in the Land of Limbo: Fiction and Poetry about Family Caregiving (Vanderbilt University Press, 2014).


Winter 2017  |  Sections  |  Books & Reviews

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