9 May, 2004
Le denier des heros romantiques
by Jean-Pierre Dennis, Le Devoir

Le Devoir (Montréal)

9 May 2004

The Last of the Romantic Heroes

by Jean-Pierre Denis

Stephen Vizinczey has only written two novels in his life, Éloge des femmes mûres and Un millionnaire innocents, both of them translated into some twenty languages. It's not much, but at the same time it's a lot. Because Vizinczey is one of those rare writers who can inspire enthusiasm and identification in the reader. Not surprising! His masters are Balzac and Stendhal, and when he is doubtful about a sentence or a paragraph, it is to them that he turns for approval.

When the critics discovered Éloge des femmes mûres they were dazzled by this roman d'apprentissage, talking about "a bath of joy", "a graceful and evocative style which liberates us from the anxiety that often accompanies love", and even the "hormonal pleasure" that reading it procures. For Un millionnaire innocent, they have insisted above all on the social portrait of the powerful, portrayed by the author in a way that a German critic said Vizinczey's New York attorneys made Balzac's shyster lawyers look like little orphan boys. It is true that the author is well acquainted with the legal world, having come up against it several times, on one memorable occasion with his New York publisher Ian Ballantine, against whom he waged a seven-year lawsuit to recover his royalties. "Lawyers are wool merchants and their clients are the sheep who are shorn."

It would be difficult not to see in this unhappy and very expensive experience the germ of what he portrays in Un millionnaire innocent, a novel which he spent ten years writing. The hero is not a writer who is despoiled, but what is at stake amounts to the same thing. Someone robs both the soul and the treasure of a young man who has discovered by the sole force of his own work and his own tenacity the wreck of the Flora, which sank with its precious cargo off the coast of the Bahamas in 1820.

The treasure hunt

A treasure buried at the bottom of the sea, the solitary quest of a young man who sets out to discover it on board a boat called the Hermit, an impossible choice between the love of a woman and the abandonment of his search in the very name of that love, confrontation with the cruelty of the world which wants to take over his treasure without regard to what might be called "intellectual property" – we are not far from the fate of the writer who is ready to take on the whole world so as not to fail his truth and his intransigeance. Which makes Vizincey's hero at the same time a romantic hero. His heart is pure ("No man loves unless he becomes a child again"), his passion limitless, his generosity as much as his poverty are proverbial, his concern and love for others are noble… only his faith is rudely tested, the obstacles are so many and seem insurmountable. How, in fact, to defeat evil, which is everywhere? Maybe it would have been better for our hero to take the advice of his friend Eshelby who gave him paperback editions of Stendhal and Balzac and tried to convince him that it was "crazy to search for treasure when one could live a rich life for practically nothing,just by reading great novels… "

A meditation

on the human condition

A sort of social epic of modern times, Vizinczey's novel talks about everything and above all, evil, whether it is the murders of Martin Luther King, of John and Robert Kennedy, the election of Richard Nixon, the toxic waste dumped into the seas by immoral companies, the immoderate appetite for gain among the rich who are ready for anything, even murder – and above all, above all, lawyers! There are innumerable chapters on this subject, at least half the novel, and that is without repetition! Decidedly, this author hates lawyers, above all those who frequent the higher echelons, and the richer they are, the more fearsome and warped they are. In the reading, this part is a bit tedious, although it is instructive thanks to the details. The reader feels as overwhelmed as the hero, Mark, and wonders whether he wouldn't be ready to kill to make all that stop if he was in the same situation. It is not painful on the fictional level (it is a bit, all the same), it is unbearable on the human level. It makes us despair of the human condition and makes it even more necessary for the hero to get over this ordeal and get the better of his tormentors, even by suffering big losses. So long as there is some justice at last! And since Vizinczey cannot live without believing in love, let love triumph at last! To repeat what he said about the Hungarian people in his Vérités et mensonges en littérature, "the history of our defeats and our survival is a sort of religion with us, as it is for the Jews; our self-respect depends upon it, our heads are filled with the calamities which failed to destroy us."

A moving novel which reads like an adventure novel and is also a meditation on the human condition.