Corriere della Sera

Sunday 19 December 2004

On the verge of suicide, he reacted by studying English and starting to write

Vizinczey, Hungarian exile
“saved” by the classics

He fled from Budapest after the tragedy of the revolution, and just recently came the attention of the Italian public


…. Stephen Vizinczey came to the attention of the Italian public only a few years ago. Yet for more than three decades this Hungarian writer who writes in English (after many moves he now lives in London), has been known throughout the English-speaking world, in France, Spain, Portugal and many other countries.

Why this silence on our part? It is hard to explain. The author, now over seventy, published his first book almost forty years ago, in Canada. According to his own account, when he escaped from Hungary in 1956 and arrived in that immense though almost uninhabited North American country, at a certain point – out of despair, loneliness, misery - he took an elevator to the roof of a skyscraper intending to throw himself off. The life instinct prevailed and at that moment he decided to learn English and to write in that language. In Praise of Older Women, which appeared a few years later, immediately became a world bestseller. In the United States, after an initial fiasco, it sold more than a million copies in a few months.

That book, which Marsilio published in Italy in 2003, has already gone through three editions here. A few days ago the same publisher, encouraged by the writer’s success, published a second book of his, enriching the already numerous family of authors who do not write in their mother tongue. The new volume is called A Writer’s Ten Commandments and as you read it you immediately discover that it consists of the reflections on literature of an impassioned witness to his time, a “fanatical” lover of some of the great classics, a thinker free of prejudices but caustic and lively, defender of everything which is direct, sincere, “effective”.

In this book Vizinczey collects essays and prefaces commissioned by various important English-language newsapapers and magazines in the course of three decades. In spite of one’s suspicion of lessons delivered by writers about literature, it can be said that this author’s passion is really contagious. We feel ourselves caught up in his love for Stendhal, Balzac, Baudelaire, Kleist, Thomas Mann, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and others, as well as in his hatred of racism, tyranny, despotism and the big telematic lie. So it can be said that this book touches on the same erotic passion – carnal but not confused – that permeates Vizinczey’s previously published novel, In Praise of Older Women.

Some of his essays would seem to be written to make young people read. Even when he criticizes some of the titans of Western literature such as Goethe for their lack of courage, even cowardice, Vizinczey doesn’t mix with vulgar scandal-seekers. The discovery, made only in the year 2000 by an American scholar, about some of the misdeeds of this German poet of incomparable greatness, move the author to reflections that are very serious but not mean.

His impassioned defence of Imre Nagy, the Prime Minister of Hungary in 1956, who was hanged three years later, his analysis of the behaviour of the Hungarian people, “who like the Jews have survived all their defeats”, a people who look back on their history in terms of centuries not decades, are pages which merit close attention. But those which refer to literature are often really enjoyable and instructive. One can’t agree with everything that Vizinczey writes. He delivers a hasty judgment on Kafka, for instance. But we can share his overwhelming admiration for Kleist, that restless but uncomprising spirit who committed suicide with a woman at the age of 34, the great German playwright and fiction writer of the early 19th century, translated into English for the first time 150 years after his death. And the same is true of Stendhal and Balzac. To bring the classics back to life with such passion, to discuss them, to get angry about them, to blast them, to praise them, is an important example for a time which chases bestsellers that are often merely consumer goods and machines for making money. So let us welcome to Italy (where he also lived for some time) this writer. an invincible lover of everything that is vital, as all true art always is.