“My books are my life”
-Stephen Vizinczey

Stephen Vizinczey - the name is hard to pronounce and hard to spell, but it is worth learning, because it belongs to a master of our time." (Epoca) Born in 1933 in Hungary, he was two years old when his father was assassinated by the Nazis; later, his uncle was murdered by the communists. During his student years he wrote poems and plays. Three of his plays reached production stage but were banned by the communist regime. The second, The Last Word, won the Attila József Prize, but the police came to the theatre to stop the dress rehearsal and seized all the copies of the script. His third play, Mama, also banned, was broadcast on Radio Budapest 3 weeks before the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and was scheduled in the National Theatre for the spring of 1957, by which time he was sough for by soviet army security and the communist secret police. (National Post - October 24, 2006; The Herald - October 26, 2006).


He fought in the revolution and after its defeat he fled to the West, speaking only about fifty words of English. Since then, "like Conrad and Nabokov, he has risen to the ranks of those foreigners who handle English in a way to make a native Anglophone pale with jealousy" (Leslie Hanscom, New York Newsday), and "can teach the English how to write English" (Anthony Burgess) He learned the language writing scripts for the National Film Board of Canada. Subsequently, he founded and edited the Canadian literary-political magazine, Exchange, and joined CBC/Radio Canada as a writer and producer.


In 1965 he quit his job, borrowed money to publish his first novel, In Praise of Older Women, and distributed it by car and through the post. Highly praised by Northrop Frye and the poet Earle Birney as well as other writers and critics, it became the first and only self-published novel to top the bestseller lists in the history of Canadian publishing. Its subsequent publication and success in Britain the following year drew worldwide attention and it became an international bestseller. Ever since it has been regularly reissued in some of the 21 countries where it appeared, often in new translations, and in the past four decades has acquired a reputation as a modern classic. In 2001, In Praise of Older Women was described by Pierre Lepape in Le Monde as "a masterpiece… a dazzling novel…". In 2004 it received the Elba Prize in Italy. It has been filmed twice: the Canadian film starred Tom Berenger; the Spanish version starred Faye Dunaway along with leading Spanish actors. The novel is due to be reissued in the UK in the spring of 2010 as a Penguin Modern Classic.


In Praise of Older Women and Vizinczey's second novel, An Innocent Millionaire (1983), were welcomed by Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess, among many other writers and critics. "I was entertained but also deeply moved," wrote Anthony Burgess in his review. "Here is a novel set bang in the middle of our decadent, polluted, corrupt world that, in some curious way, breathes a kind of desperate hope." Throughout the world Vizinczey has been compared to the great classic novelists of the 19th century, notably Stendhal and Balzac. The passing decades did not seem to diminish the novel's standing. "A great contemporary writer," wrote Spain's Carles Barba, "the passion for liberty, the passion for love, the passion to become somebody marks the singularity of this author at every moment." (La Vanguardia, 19 September, 2007)


He is also the author of the 1968 philosophical treatise, The Rules of Chaos ("Power weakens as it grows.") an extension of his 1967 article in The Spectator in which he listed the reasons why the USA was bound to lose the war in Vietnam.


Truth and Lies in Literature (1986) is his collection of reviews and essays, most of which originally appeared in The Times and The Sunday Telegraph. Recent editions in French, German, Swedish, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian include the essays which he has written since the 1980's and which were published originally in The London Review of Books,ABC Literario, 24 Ore, and Reforma. Used copies of the original English editions may be found in some used books shops and on the Internet..


Reviews of all these books are posted on this website.


His works have sold more than six million copies around the world during the past 45 years, He is considered "one of the great contemporary writers, who mkes the crucial themes of our time his own and transforms them into the stuff of fiction with humour and passion" (Sergio Vila-Sanjuan, La Vanguardia).


He is not so much a writer as a re-writer. He is working on the last revisions of his new novel, 3 Wishes.

His e-mail address is inforeauthor@gmail.com

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A Novelist all on his own
by Robert Fulford
The Toronto Star
Monday, July 12th, 1965

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The Magnificant ego of SV
by Robert Fulford
The Canadian
Saturday, December 6th, 1965

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September 19, 2007
The Master of Active Passions
by Carles Barba, La Vanguardia (Barcelona)
(English translation of original Spanish text)

FICTION: “Thanks to their unfading freshness, readers can now enjoy two great works of Stephen Vizinczey, rediscovered by RBA...”


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Interview
by Tom Juranka
Imprint (Toronto)
Friday, February 10th, 1984

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When a boy loves a woman
by Stephen Vizinczey
National Post (The Scotsman)
Wednesday, July 30th, 1997

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La estética disidente
By Juan Domingo Arguelles
El Nacional (Mexico city)
November 1996





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History’s surprises
by Stephen Vizinczey
National Post (Toronto)
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

How could such a small nation as Hungary rebel against the Soviet Union, one of the two superpowers and a ruthless oppressor?

Well, for one thing, Hungarians knew the Soviet Union would eventually collapse. We had been subjects of the Ottoman Empire from 1525 to 1700, when half the population died of starvation or the plague and children were kidnapped to be brought up as soldiers of Allah. There is still a Hungary, but where is the Ottoman Empire? We survived the rapacious and murderous Habsburgs and the Third Reich. This history of defeats and survival is a kind of religion with the Hungarians, as it is with the Jews; our heads are full of the calamities that failed to destroy us. Citizens of powerful nations and their leaders tend to believe that power is eternal and victories are forever, but Hungarians focus their minds on the decay of power, on the inevitable fall of the victors and the resurgence of the vanquished. They think in terms of millennia, to keep their self-respect and pride against the deadly powers of the present. Their mindset includes the past and the future. While millions of Americans seriously worried about the Soviet Union taking over the United States, we had no doubt, even under the watchful eyes of the security police, that the Soviet Union would disappear, just like our oppressors before it. We didn't know when, but we were waiting.

"No one has done so much for freedom, democracy and civilization in recent history as the Hungarians," wrote Camus on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the '56 revolution, and his comment is still valid. 1956 was the last revolution in which people fought and died for liberal Western values. That's the thing about revolutions: Only those who are willing to die can play.

Of course, it is a long process. I cannot imagine a Hungarian suicide bomber. None of us wanted to die just to kill a few innocent people. Even after the Soviet Army re-entered Budapest on Nov. 4 to crush the revolution, our ambulances picked up, along with wounded rebels, wounded Soviet soldiers. (After the Soviet Army regained control, they were ordered to comb hospitals and shoot wounded male Hungarians.) I feel insulted when the rabble who lynched secret policemen are referred to as rebels; these were people who hid in basements during the fighting. Few who have actually faced death in battle have a desire for lynching.

Revolutions erupt for many reasons, some historical some practical, some totally non-political. In this case, at the previous World Cup final, Hungary's magnificent team including Puskas (one of the best goal scorers in soccer history), Kocsis and Grosics, seemed certain to win against West Germany. In the first minutes of the game, when the ball was in another part of the field, a German player walked up to Puskas and kicked him so hard that his leg was broken. That outraged millions of Hungarians. For the first time under the communist dictatorship, which forbade gatherings unless the party ordered them, there were huge demonstrations all over the country, without the permission or blessing of the security police. These spontaneous demonstrations turned out to be the dress rehearsals for the outbreak of Oct. 23. People tasted the pleasure, the relief of going on the streets and expressing anger -- and they weren't punished for it.

Still, the revolution might never have happened, but for the regime's blunders. After Stalin's death in 1953, his successors instituted some mild liberalization throughout the empire. Imre Nagy, a communist with no blood on his hands, was appointed prime minister of Hungary, and he managed to abolish torture and forced labour and to free the political prisoners, but he was soon dismissed for being a dangerous liberal. The Stalinists came back to power, but during Nagy's brief tenure several top secret policemen were tried and imprisoned for their crimes. It was one of the regime's irreversible mistakes. Thugs, many of them former Nazis, who had tortured or killed whomever they were told to, lost their zeal for carrying out atrocities. If their bosses were going to prosecute them tomorrow for what they were ordered to do today, they preferred to do as little as possible. I remember on an almost empty tram one morning two people were openly abusing the regime. One of the other passengers was a captain in the blue uniform of the AVO, the security police. A year earlier, the two complainers would not have said anything; even if they had, he would have arrested them. Instead the AVO officer sat as if he had heard nothing and got off at the next stop.

The functionaries didn't know whether they were coming or going. A year earlier, I won a prize for a play about a communist journalist who killed himself. We got to dress rehearsals before the AVO arrived, banned the play and collected all the copies. But when I was called to the Ministry of Culture to be told why my play questioning the party's authority could not be performed, I was given a grant to write another play. I used the grant to write a play about a young man who sees no future for himself in Hungary and escapes to the West, as I did a few months later -- although I then had no intention of doing so. This one was also banned, but Radio Budapest broadcast it on Oct. 6 and the National Theatre accepted it for spring, 1957. People in authority began to make their own decisions, and not just in the cultural field, without waiting for orders or approval from higher-ups.

Another fatal blunder of the regime was giving military training to university students. Every summer we had to spend a month, and after graduation three months, in military training, graduating as reserve officers of the Hungarian Red Army. Students learned there -- those who still had any doubts -- how vile our rulers were. We were taught that during an attack we, as officers, should stay behind our troops and if any of our soldiers men were halted by enemy fire, we should start shooting them in the back, so that under fire both from the front and the back they would be more likely to advance than retreat. The result of this training was that we decided that in case of conflict with NATO the first thing to do was to shoot our superiors and the Soviet officers attached to our units. And we also learned to handle Soviet arms. After the defeat of the revolution the first thing the Soviets did was to abolish military service for university students. During the revolution, my group took over a press building where we started a newspaper called Igazsag with the help of a cameraman newly graduated from the Moscow Theatre and Film Academy. He received his summer military training in Russia and came home as a fully trained Red Army tank officer. When we managed to get a tank, the Soviet troops found one of their own tanks firing at them. They must have been surprised.

This is the way history happens: one surprise after another, for everybody. I was certainly surprised finding myself fighting in a revolution. I was a founding member of the Petofi Circle, a group of students, young artists and intellectuals who were later credited with starting it all. On the morning of Oct. 23, six of us had the task of meeting three tractors from the country and pulling down the statue of Stalin with steel cables. The dead tyrant, already denounced by Moscow as a monster, still dominated Budapest, a symbol of our status as a suppressed nation. I was as close as anybody could be to what was to follow, yet I had a movie date for nine in the evening. I imagined that by then we would have Imre Nagy back as prime minister, and we could go to the movie.

The Stalin Square was empty when we got there, and a single policeman could have picked us off with a handgun. A couple of us got into taxis and went to different parts of the city, stopping when we saw small crowds to ask them whether they had heard that people are bringing down the Stalin statue. By the time we got back to the square, it was packed by thousands of spectators who provided a protective shield. The AVO could not have possibly dislodged us.

We had no technical knowledge and hoped to pull down the colossal bronze statue with steel cables tied to the tractors. We were surprised that the cables snapped. But eventually someone with a blow torch came around and cut off Stalin's feet at the boots. A crowd is always noisy, but when the bronze colossus hit the pavement, there was total silence; I could hear thousands of people breathing. I looked at my watch. I wanted to remember the exact time that marked the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union and its empire. It was 9.30 pm.

The silence was followed by the sound of machine guns. We heard that the AVO was shooting at people at the radio building. The war began, so we fought. Many of us thought of Count Zrinyi, who held up the Turks for years at his small castle of Szigetvar. Finally, in 1566, Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Sultan, came to crush this "anthill" with an army a hundred thousand strong. Zrinyi and his soldiers resisted until they ran out of food and ammunition. Then they dressed up in their parade uniforms, put gold coins in their pockets for the soldiers of the Sultan who would be men enough to kill them, and rode out from the ruins of the castle in a desperate cavalry charge. They got near to Suleiman before they were cut down. Shocked by the unexpected assault, the Sultan collapsed and died of apoplexy during the struggle around his tent. The Turkish army withdrew and the resulting power struggle for the Ottoman throne gave Hungary several years of respite. Zrinyi's grandson wrote a valiant epic poem about the siege, so he continued to lead his cavalry charge in our imagination, teaching us that even the few can inflict deadly blows on the many, even on the greatest powers. And that's what we did.

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- Stephen Vizinczey fought in the Hungarian revolution and came to Canada in 1957. He worked for the NFB and the CBC, and edited the literary political magazine Exchange. His books, including In Praise of Older Women, have sold five million copies in 22 languages. He is finishing a new novel, Wishes.

© National Post 2006

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The lesson of 1956: value freedom more than life
by Harry Reid
The Herald (Glasgow)
October 26, 2006




© Newsquest (Herald & Times) Ltd. 2007


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