In Praise of Genius
Article by Harry Reid
This month a new edition of Stephen Vizinczey's erotic novel, In
Praise of Older Women, was published as a Penguin Modern Classic.
This is good news - not only is one of the great works of the twentieth
century available again in this country, but the spotlight will
fall once more on the man I regard as the greatest living writer.
One of the many things about Vizinczey is that he writes English
so well, with persistent clarity, precision and grace. He did not
learn the language until his mid twenties. As a radical student
playwright in Budapest in 1956, he took a leading part in the failed
uprising against the Soviets. As the insurgents - with justice,
decency, patriotism and honour on their side, but no backing from
the West - were ferociously put down by the Soviet military, Vizinczey
had to flee for his life. He ended up in Canada, destitute and with
fewer than fifty words of English: a writer without a language,
as he put it. He struggled and came close to suicide.
But he sustained. Painstakingly, he taught himself English and he
began to write scripts for the National Film Board of Canada. He
published In Praise of Older Women almost a decade later. Like Nabokov
and Conrad before him, he came to English late and then deployed
it with a mastery that most native speakers could only dream of.
In Praise of Older Women was condemned by some as some as pornography.
In spite or perhaps because of that, it was a phenomenal seller.
There is nothing pornographic about it. It is a beautiful and tender
book, the semi-autobiographical tale of the amorous adventures of
a young man who learns much, not only in matters of sex, from older
women. It is a primer for men on the threshold of adulthood and
a paean of elegant praise for older women. Unlike many male writers
who write about women, there is no fear or hatred. In Praise of
Older Women is warm and wise.
He followed up with An Innocent Millionaire twenty years later.
This superbly structured novel is different in tone: funnier, but
also bleaker, less optimistic and angrier with the rottenness of
the world. Some sneered at it as upmarket Harold Robbins while intelligent
critics such as Graham Greene and Brigid Brophy were almost ecstatic
in their admiration.
This newspaper sent me down to London to interview Vizinczey when
Corgi brought out the paperback edition in 1984, with an initial
print run of almost one million copies. His publisher warned me
that he could be difficult and challenging. I was already engrossed
in his writing, but I was nervous when I arrived at his large apartment
on the western fringes of Kensington. I needn't have worried. He
received me like an old friend and the conversation that ensued
- five or six hours of it - was the most heady I have ever experienced.
I realised that for the first time in my life, I was in the presence
of a genuine genius. Vizinczey reminisced about the 1956 uprising.
'Before our failed attempt at revolution, I did not know there is
more to value than life, and that is freedom. But, if I hadn't lived
under Communism, I'd be a communist today.'
As his Scots/Canadian wife, Gloria, fussed around him, he talked
about sex ('today girls are too compliant for their own good.'),
about ideology ('where people go to avoid learning from experience');
and about politics ('public affairs are mismanaged because decisions
are made for private reasons'). And he talked about literature.
He amazed and annoyed me by forbidding me - he can be didactic -
to read any of the nineteenth century classics by the likes of Scott,
Dickens, Eliot and so on. These writers, he said, wrote prose that
was bloated and hypocritical. Instead, I should read Balzac, Stendhal
and Kleist, his trio of heroes.
He was boastful - 'modesty is an excuse for sloppiness and self-indulgence'
- but his boasting was not bombastic; it was the talk of an ambitious
and highly serious artist. He lacerated 'idle hacks' and 'cultural
phonies'; above all, he told me to despise what was fashionable
and modish. This was not so much an interview as a provocative and
constantly rewarding seminar.
Vizinczey has visited Scotland only rarely, but he is making a
brief visit here later this month. He believes he has an authentic
affinity with our country; 'It's about the same size as Hungary
and both countries are always being bossed around by bigger ones.'