Literary Truths & Lies

by Ana Maria Navales


There are two kinds of literature. One helps you to understand, the other helps you to forget; the first helps you to be a free person and a free citizen, the other helps people to manipulate you. The Hungarian writer Stephen Vizinezey, exiled first to Canada and now resident in London, writes this in his book Truth & Lies in Literature. It is important not to forget that truth.

When Vizinczey published his first novel, In Praise of Older Women (1965), most of the critics received it with hostility or silence. The novel has now gone through more than forty editions and its sales continue to rise. This reminds us how. eternally wrong literary critics tend to be. The profile of Sainte-Beuve, a very authoritative critic of the 19th century who never took notice of the works of Stendhal (for whom this was 'a punishment equivalent to being ignored by all the quality papers and television') leads us into the portrait of the renowned critic as charlatan. 'Regarded as the champion of literature, he is in fact its deadliest enemy, depriving the best writers of their audience and readers of the best writing, and doing this mainly by virtue of his position, because readers are only too inclined to take his opinion on trust'. A schematic and accurate identikit-picture.

Needless to say, the author of An Innocent Millionaire, this Hungarian who wields a pen like a scalpel, is also a literary critic. But 'he is not a graduate of the milk-and-water school of criticism, content to write elegant, urbane disquisitions on this or that, a mandarin of the literary tradition' his editor Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson explains to us. No, indeed. Vizinczey's three great authors, Stendhal, falzae and Kleist, appear in this book, intelligently analyzed, alongside Tolstoy, Gogol, Nerval, Thomas Mann, Norman Mailer and some others, who form the constellation that illuminates the literary world of this Hungarian who loves words and hates fraud, who sharpens his critical weapons and makes them shine by the light of his intelligence, with bravery and not too much acidity.

His essays go beyond the field of literature and tackle the great themes of religion and politics, cruelty and death, everything that can interest this restless and reflective man, this man who 'writes like an angel' and is always committing outrages against the official guardians of literature. In every culture there exists a deep divide between what is alive and what is praiseworthy, he says speaking of Kleist, who was already attacking the tittle-tattle of critics at the beginning of the last century, the great Prussian writer who was poor and unsuccessful and ended by committing suicide, and was acclaimed only after his death.

The prologue to the book reproduces A Writer's Ten Commandments, those tablets of the law in which Vizinczey gives practical advice to beginners. Each commandment has a corresponding gloss which deserves some emphasis: 'A writer is born from talent and time' or 'The provincial is usually an intelligent, gifted person who ends up... betraying his talent by aping morons whose only talent is forrgetting on', or 'You've got to decide what is more important to you: to live well or to write well'.
As for basic literature on the writer's life, Vizinczey recommends the preface to Shaw's Dark Lady of the Sonnets, Jack London's Martin Eden, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and above all Baizac's Lost Illusions. To this list one would have to add some chapters from his own book of reviews and essays which show how the writer has illuminated his own room in the world of literature, its lights and its shadows.

Let us end with this paragraph on the multiple reincarnation of Sainte-Beuve: 'We see Sainte-Beuves on all the review pages, praising the spurious, the innocuous, the pretentious, and damning everything that is truthful, lively, passionate, unruly - anything that might move you deeply and stir you to think - anything that might change you. Because if you change, who knows, the world might change - and that must not be.'

by Ana Maria Navales