By Magda Szabó, translated by George Szirtes, New York Review of Books, 328 pages
Every generation sees life in a different way, which can cause tensions in the relationships parents have with their grown children. This theme is explored masterfully in Yasujirô Ozu’s 1953 film, In the movie, an elderly couple goes to Tokyo to visit their adult children, but as the visit wears on, they sense they are a burden. They eventually return, weary and disillusioned, to their town. Magda Szabó’s 1963 novel set in post-World War II Communist Hungary, and recently reissued by New York Review of Books, is a literary
After Vince’s death, his daughter Iza, a medical doctor, makes what by any standard could be considered a generous move. She invites her widowed mother Ettie to live with her in Budapest. Iza also packs up her mother’s house and accepts a surprise offer from Iza’s divorced husband, Antal, to buy the house. In addition, she reorganizes her Budapest condominium, where a housekeeper, Teréz, cleans and cooks, to ensure Ettie will be as comfortable as possible. And yet, Ettie feels forlorn in her new surroundings. Why?
Iza’s approach is part of the problem. Ettie takes more pride in being useful than in being comfortable. Ettie brings to Iza’s condo a bundle of dry twigs, which she has painstakingly collected so that she will be able to light warming fires in her daughter’s house, a favor she imagines her daughter will appreciate. But Iza has no need for fires. Her radiator’s heat would wither any houseplant. “It was hot here, too hot, and she glanced here and there looking for a stove. There was no stove in the room, only a red-coloured radiator, its controls shaped like slices of lemon, like a kind of laughing red mouth.” Unsettled, Ettie throws the dry twigs in a bottom drawer so her daughter won’t see them.
The central mystery here is about the past. Iza is an embodiment of perfection, both personal and professional. So why did Antal, also a doctor, divorce her? In an impressive display of restraint, Szabó unspools this question all the way to the end of the novel, when Iza’s true character is finally revealed to us. Then we experience as a body blow what was in front of us all along. While the ending is brilliant, for a modern reader, it also raises a flag about how Iza’s character is drawn. Professional women are all too often stereotyped as being coolly efficient. Iza needs to be a workaholic in order to succeed in a maledominated world, and it is a pity that the novel treats that as something of a flaw.
Ettie’s character is the real masterpiece here: She is painted with such intimate strokes that she recalls that relative who we might think we know, but who retains an edge of unpredictability. Almost eighty, Ettie yields a number of surprises, one of which is how deep her love for her late husband runs. Being privy to Ettie’s stream of consciousness is a strangely moving experience. “She no longer dared offer the slightest help, not even the simplest things such as emptying an ashtray, or tidying the room when Iza was suddenly called away somewhere. Once she had thrown out a teaspoon along with the coffee grounds and the dog ends. The janitor brought it back up in the morning and Teréz made such a fuss about it that she was too scared even to throw out dead flowers. Generally, she went in terror of Teréz.” Szabó employs shifting points of view in the novel, and other than Ettie, the person we want to get to know most is Iza, who always manages to keep us at arm’s length.
A few years after Antal divorces Iza, he begins to see the woman who had nursed Iza’s father, Vince. The nurse is more emotional than Iza ever was. This plot is a fascinating case study of how society and culture socialize women in ways that are, at the very least, demoralizing. Iza is praised for being a talented doctor, but she is punished for ostensibly not being warm enough. Even today, our society is wary of an intelligent woman who doesn’t smile enough, whereas the same combination of characteristics are accepted as a sign of introspection or even genius in a man.
Genius or not, Iza has a genuine desire to help others. As a girl, she didn’t like to hear her father sing a popular ballad about a virgin who had died. She begged her father to revive the virgin (if only in song). Still, the intention to help a person doesn’t always guarantee that the recipient’s suffering will be alleviated. Iza just wants her life, and the life of her mother, to go smoothly. But Ettie comes from a generation for whom life is not worth living if it doesn’t contain certain indefinable satisfactions, such as feeling that her money-saving savvy or her traditional cooking are appreciated. This rich novel is a startling reminder that it is possible to speak regularly, and with good intentions, to family members without ever coming an inch closer to understanding one another.
— Priyanka Kumar