The Magnificant ego
by Robert Fulford
Saturday, December 6th, 1965
ON A WET SATURDAY afternoon in October, Stephen and Gloria Vizinczey
sat beside the fire in their living room and talked happily about
the sudden success of Stephens first novel, In Praise Of Older
Women. This was in Rosedale, the leafiest and most pleasant part
of Toronto, and the apartment was filled with the richly satisfying
air of prosperity. We ate Danish pastries and drank coffee. As they
talked, answering my questions, Stephen and Gloria several times
giggled with delight, like little children. And for good reason:
Stephen Vizinczey is now that rare thing in Canadian literature,
an overnight success.
Last August he was an eccentric, would-be novelist with a thick
accent and a crazy plan to publish his own book. Since then he has
won the praise of the countrys best critics, has sold out
his first Canadian edition of 5,000 copies, and has leased the American
rights for a 40,000 cash advance. He has had nibbles from London
and Hollywood, and his future in general gleams with promise. Last
August he couldnt have got onto the CBC television network
by any means short of bribing a producer, but in October, when he
appeared on This Hour Has Seven Days, the CBCs advertisements
used his name to attract attention to the most popular public affairs
show in the country. Perhaps never before in Canada has so much
happened so quickly to a writer.
Stephens success fits a classic North American pattern
the eager immigrant, hardened by bitter experience in Europe, arrives
on the Canadian scene, sizes it up, and then proves he has more
energy, imagination and sheer success-hunger than any native.
Stephen is a short, wiry, nervous man, 32 years old. He chain-smokes
through a filter-holder he seems always to be refilling. When he
talks to you he moves in close, gesturing intensely: most North
Americans, in his presence, feel the need to achieve a more comfortable
social distance by hiding behind a desk or a coffee table. Stephens
accent is richest, thickest Budapest. He has been in Canada since
1957 but his tongue continues to resist the English language. When
he refers, for instance, to Bob Weaver, the literary critic, the
name comes out: Bob Veaver. His syntax, too, is a constant reminder
of Middle Europe. He would never have done it if I wouldnt
have told it to him is the kind of sentence that may tumble
Gloria Vizinczcy is a pretty redhead, charming and athletic and
highly intelligent. She married Stephen two years ago. Her first
husband, the actor Donald Harron, is the father of her two girls,
Martha, who is 14, and Mary, 12. The girls live with the Vizinczeys
and this winter the four of them are in southern Italy, spending
some of Stephens royalties while he works on another book.
Just before they left Canada, Stephen made a purchase which perfectly
symbolized his new, careless affluence: he bought a white convertible
Mercedes-Benz, with black leather upholstery, for $7,858.50, including
the charge for delivering it to their hotel in Naples.
You must really want something, Stephen said as he
thought back over what had happened. Most of the people in
this country are half-hearted about what they want. Im not.
When he was 11 years old, in Hungary, Stephen planned to be a writer
and dreamed of the day statues of him would be erected beside those
of Shakespeare, Goethe and Shaw. Ever since I was a kid I
have wanted to write a masterpiece and a hit. Now I think
Ive done it.
He seems never to have doubted it would happen, but Gloria is
surprised. All along, she said,I thought he was
out of his mind. She was carried along in this enterprise
by Stephens drive. Everyone else thought he was crazy,
too. My friends at the CBC (she was a radio producer) were sort
of sympathetic when they heard what he was doing. Poor girl, with
that crazy husband. They didnt say so, but I could feel it.
This country, Stephen said at one point, is
full of brilliant people who are thought to be slightly nuts by
the people around them. He was talking about someone else,
but the remark applies to him in the months before his book appeared.
He knew he ran the risk of becoming a joke among the people he worked
with at the CBC. His novel, based on his own sex life, was outrageously
self-revealing. If the critics sneered and the public refused to
buy, the experience would be a personal as well as a professional
defeat. After all, people who pay for the printing of their own
books are usually senile ministers with sermons they want to see
immortalized, or eccentric lady poets. They almost always come to
grief, paying out thousands of dollars to unscrupulous publishers
who live off the vanity of amateur authors. Stephen accepted the
danger of falling into this class when he set himself up in business
as his own publisher.
But my wanting to be a success was more important than fear,
he said. And Gloria added, Stephen has no false pride
hes really not afraid of looking silly, as I am and most people
are. But he has pride in his literary talent. Since his first
poem was published, when he was 12, he has regarded himself as a
writer of magnificent promise. When he was 16, he came to the notice
of George Lukacs, the Hungarian intellectual who is universally
considered the greatest literary critic in the Communist world.
Lukacs published Stephens adolescent poetry in his Budapest
magazine, Forum, and Stephen began to feel he was well on the way
to having his statue erected in the park.
A year later, after he took a special test, Stephen skipped two
years of secondary school and entered the University of Budapest.
From there he moved to the College for Theatre and Film Arts. He
graduated in 1956, part of a restless and brilliant generation of
Hungarian intellectuals and artists.
In Stephens career two distinct types of revolution come
together. In Europe, perhaps the most important revolution since
1945 was the shaking of total Soviet power in eastern Europe; Stephen,
as a Hungarian rebel, was in the front line of that revolution.
In North America in recent years there has been a revolution in
taste how we speak to each other in public, and what we say,
have both changed radically. Again, Stephen has landed in the front
lines by writing a book that as a Sherbrooke newspaper reviewer
put it has torn the last of the veils from the subject
Stephen has been a rebel since he reached adulthood. Long before
the revolution, he and his friends were convinced that not only
was the Hungarian government rotten, the whole idea of Communism
was dead wrong. Stephen was later to describe the Communist world
as an internment camp that includes half the globe.
In Budapest he and other good students were paid a comfortable subsidy
to attend university and were encouraged to develop their talents,
so long as they refrained from plays or poems the regime disliked.
But all around them the young people saw a poverty-stricken society
held together by fear.
I knew, for instance, he wrote in an article on Hungary
published in the United States in 1958, more than one student
whose parents were burdened with such weighty crop requisitions
(or quotas) that they were required to deliver more wheat to the
State than their land would grow.
Often, such a students whole scholarship did not suffice
to make up the difference. We were constantly forced to take up
collections among ourselves to save someones parents from
arrest. Thus, we could not help but feel that the money we received
so effortlessly was being sweated out of others.
In 1950 he ran into censorship for the first time. A Budapest
radio station broadcast a long poem he wrote. It was scheduled for
publication in a young peoples literary monthly. The manuscript
was already at the printer when word came through that party officials
had ordered it banned. It dealt with an unhappy adolescent love
affair and Stephen was informed that this was bourgeois sentimentality.
Unhappiness is not a Socialist feeling, the director
of the magazine explained, though he was the same man who had accepted
the poem enthusiastically a few weeks earlier.
In 1955 a play Stephen wrote in university, The Last Word,
was banned. It concerned a journalist driven to suicide by the bureaucrats
above him. It won two prizes, was praised in print by a critic who
read it in manuscript, and was scheduled for professional production.
Rehearsals were held, but 10 days before opening night the cultural
commissars directing the Budapest theatres banned it, because of
dangerous implications. His second play, Mama,
about a family driven apart by oppressive social conditions, was
taped for broadcast on a Budapest radio station, then dropped for
the same reasons. (In translation it reads remarkably well: it resembles
the work of the Angry Young Men of Britain in the 1950s, though
it was written before they appeared.)
By now, the spring of 1956, Stephen was considered politically
unreliable. Mama was finally broadcast, heavily censored,
on Oct. 4, 1956, when, as Stephen recalls, Men were beginning
to make their own decisions.
I took part in the revolt, Stephen was later to write,
Because I hoped that we were not fighting in vain and that
Hungary would be free. He was a founding member of one of
the literary clubs that started the revolution, and he fought in
the streets. When the Soviet tanks arrived in Budapest, he fled.
He was briefly captured by Soviet soldiers, then released with the
connivance of some Hungarian policemen. He made his way to Austria,
lived in Italy for some months, and then set out for the new world.
In 1957 he arrived in Montreal.
I had read so many bad things about North America in the
Communist press that I naturally assumed it was paradise.
In his first year in Montreal he discovered it was something less
than that he lived on $500. Later he found work with the
National Film Board and in 1961 he founded a magazine called Exchange.
It lasted only three issues but impressed a great many readers:
Hugh MacLennan, for instance, called it one of the best magazines
he had ever read. Three years ago Stephen moved to Toronto and went
to work for CBC Radio. Two years ago he began writing In Praise
Of Older Women.
About this time I ran into him in a corridor at the CBC. I
really have something, he told me. You know that everyone
always advises writers, Write about what you know. Well,
Im writing a book about sex.
In Praise Of Older Women purports to be the memoirs of
one Andras Vajda, a Hungarian intellectual who fights in the revolution
and then moves to Canada. The central point is that when inexperienced
boys and girls learn about sex together, their mutual bungling can
lead to tragedy or at least humiliation. Therefore, a young man
should learn about life from older women. But this is only a framework
for an eloquent and engrossing account of the narrators life
in the bedrooms of Europe and Canada. Northrop Frye, of the University
Toronto, the most distinguished of Canadian literary critics, provided
the best brief description: The book is written with great
lucidity and charm, and packs an astonishing number of overtones
into its somewhat single-minded pursuit of its theme.
Frye endorsed the hook on the jacket, illustrating Stephens
ability to attract the patronage of distinguished writers. Lukacs
discovered him in Hungary; during his brief stay in Italy he was
greatly helped by the important novelist Ignazio Silone, and when
he became a Canadian his citizenship sponsors were Hugh MacLennan
and F. R. Scott, the two elder statesmen of the English-speaking
Montreal literary community.
When Stephen finished the first few chapters of In Praise Of
Older Women, he showed them to a Toronto book publisher. The
publisher, pleased, offered him a princely advance of $250. Thats
when I began to wonder about book publishers, Stephen said
later. That kind of money was no good to me. I wanted to earn
a living out of writing and it seemed to me that having your book
published by one of the regular Canadian firms wasnt the way
to make money.
So he set up the Contemporary Canada Press, his one-book publishing
firm. He got together $4,000 of his own and Glorias money
and borrowed another $3,000 from the bank. Gloria typed his manuscript
and edited his English. Shes a great editor, Stephen
said later. When Brigid Brophy (a British critic) happened
to praise the punctuation in the book I was so pleased, because
that was all Glorias. He began the hard work of one-man
publishing. Stephen began to demonstrate a special talent for getting
others to help him. A Toronto freelance writer arranged some of
his publicity, without payment. George Feyer, the cartoonist, designed
a dust jacket, also as a gift (it wasnt right for the book
and Stephen, summoning his courage, rejected it). An employee of
Coles bookstores, Jack Jensen, took the photograph which finally
appeared on the jacket (unable to get an older woman who would agree
to being called one, he posed a 22-year-old and made her look older).
But Stephen and Gloria did the bulk of the work themselves. He
designed the typography and produced a book better than many designed
by pro art directors. Two separate printing houses read the manuscript
and turned it down on the grounds that its content might hurt their
reputations. A third accepted itfor a price of $14,400 for
5,000 copies but begged Stephen to keep the firm's identity secret.
As the publishing date drew near the printers casually mentioned
that the book might be a week or so late. Stephen made the printers
lives miserable, phoning them constantly and threatening legal suits,
till they delivered on the precise date originally named.
Stephen brought the same furious intensity to the serene world
of Canadian book selling. He personally visited every bookstore
in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.
I used to make jokes about salesmen, he said after
it was all over, but not any more. I think its the most
difficult and humiliating job on this continent. But Stephen,
selling his own work, turned out to be a persuasive salesman and
soon there were displays of the book everywhere. When it was not
displayed, Stephen complained loudly. Wheres my book?
he would shout at the bookseller. Where are you hiding it?
Didnt you see the papers? Its a best seller. Display
it. When one store refused to give him a prominent display,
he coldly withdrew all copies.
He and Gloria kept the 5,000 copies in their basement, made out
invoices and packaged the books for sending elsewhere in the country.
Stephen made every delivery in Toronto and kept in close touch with
sales. At one point last summer he could tell you exactly how many
copies had been sold in each store in the city.
Ian Ballantine, the head of Ballantine Books in New York, was
in Toronto the week the book appeared. He bought a copy, read it
on the plane trip home and phoned Stephen as soon as he reached
New York.He wanted to buy the American rights for advance of $3,000,
and Stephen went to New York to see him. He took along several copies
and sent one of them to the most famous of American publishers,
Bennett Cerf at Random House. With it, he enclosed a note saying
that Cerf could have the book if he would offer much better
than the standard deal. Cerf, who had heard of the book from
Pierre Berton, one of its early supporters, offered Stephen a $15,000
advance. Stephen said he would take it, then wavered, and then spoke
to Ballantine again. Ballantine finally realized that what Stephen
wanted was some real money, now; he offered $40,000 and the contract
In Canada, meanwhile, the book was getting mixed reviews. David
Legate, a Montreal critic, said it was tedious. James Bannerman
in Macleans, hated it, and Richard J. Needham in the Toronto
Globe and Mail said it had a yawn in every sentence
But Kildare Dobbs in Saturday Night said he loved it and reported
that he had passed it on to his 16-year-old son, for educational
purposes. P. W. Lee of the Caigary Albertan vrote: What might
have been pornography emerges as life. The Winnipeg papers
were enthusiastic. The Kingston Whig-Standard suggested that Vizinczey
might be starting a new tradition of graceful writing in Canada
and the Vancouver Sun reviewer called it one of the most diverting
books Ive read in ages. In the end the favorable reviews
outnumbered the unfavorable.
Soon Stephen found himself in the peculiar role Canadian broadcasting
thrusts on new celebrities he was expected to fight his publicity.
When he appeared on This Hour Has Seven Days, a panel of women deplored
him and his book. One said, The book isnt written in
a loving tone, and the programs producers introduced
the film of the interview in a gratuitously insulting way. On the
Pierre Berton Show he was attacked by Nancy Phillips and Gladys
Taylor, lady columnists for the Toronto Telegram. On Torontos
CFTO TV, he appeared in a show called Answering Service and battled
fiercely with Michael Landon, the actor who plays Little Joe on
Bonanza. Little Joe, who hadnt read the book, accused Stephen
of writing dirty literature in order to make money and Stephen said
stupid actors should keep their opinions to themselves.
He appeared on Assignment, The Observer and any other show that
would give him a minute or two of airtime. Suddenly, he was everywhere
in bookstores, in the papers, on radio and TV. Working with
a passion previously unknown in Canadian publishing, he completely
surrounded his audience. And then he escaped to Italy, still breathing
hard. On the wall of the bathroom in the Vizinczeys Toronto
apartment theres a Victorian colored print of a schoolgirl
carrying a laurel wreath. The caption reads, Prizes are the
reward of labor. It is not sufficient to carry off the prize, but
we should merit it. The picture is there as a joke, obviously,
since Stephen and Gloria arent the sort of people who take
I9th-century maxims seriously. Nevertheless, that little slogan
has come to have a certain reality in their lives.