To Learn How To Live
by Pierre Lepape
Le Monde (Paris)
25 May 2001
“András Vajda reads women the way that Vizinczey makes love with books: with the same desire to understand through pleasure, the same opening up of the mind and the heart, the same freedom, the same lucidity and passion for truth and beauty.”
ÉLOGE DES FEMMES MÜRES (In Praise of Older Women)
by Stephen Vizinczey
Translated from the English) by Philippe Babo and Marie-Claude Peugeot, published by Anatolia-Le Rocher
VÉRITÉS ET MENSONGES EN LITTÉRATURE (Truth and Lies in Literature) by Stephen Vizinczey.
Translated from the English by Philippe Babo and Marie-Claude Peugeot, published by Anatolia-Le Rocher
“There are two basic kinds of literature,” writes Stephen Vizinczey. “One helps you to understand, the other helps you to forget; one helps you to be a free person and a free citizen, the other helps people to manipulate you. One is like astronomy, the other is like astrology.” But if the difference between astronomy and astrology, between science and charlatanism, is clear to most people, Vizinczey adds, the difference between true and false literature is not. “Flattery, white lies, pretentiousness, delusions, self-deceptions are constantly taken for great literature, while great literature is more often than not abused, ignored and suppressed.”
The author of this crystalline statement was born in Hungary in 1932 (1933). He was a student in Budapest in 1956 when Soviet troops drowned in blood their Magyar colony’s desire for independence. Vizinczey was one of those who fought to the end, even after all hope was lost. In the matter of truth and lies, he knows what he is talking about, he has paid for the knowledge. After the crushing of the revolt, he had to flee. He reached Austria, then Italy, then Canada, where he landed knowing about fifty words of English. “When it got through to me that I was now a writer without a language, I took an elevator to the top of a high building on Dorchester Street in Montreal, intending to jump. Looking down from the roof, terrified of dying but even more afraid of breaking my spine and spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair, I decided to try to become an English writer instead.”
For six (eight) years, living from hand to mouth, he learned to become a writer in a language of exile. At the end of his apprenticeship, he published a masterpiece, In Praise of Older Women. This dazzling novel has only taken a little more than thirty- five years to be translated in France after being translated pretty well everywhere else in the world, inspiring two films and selling more than three million copies. It makes you wonder where our publishers had their heads. While they spent their time in the waiting rooms of American literary agents and churned out translations of the products of the transatlantic fiction industry, sparing us no piece of rubbish, no Z-series concocted by the clones from creative writing schools and backwoods publicity agencies, they were no doubt looking elsewhere when it was a question of Stephen Vizinczey. Maybe they found his name unpronounceable - or maybe he was still much too European.
Thanks are therefore due to Samuel Brussell and his Anatolia collection. Vizinczey’s two books are too delectable for us not to forgive his French publisher for presenting Éloge des femmes müres in an excessively enticing manner. “A classic of erotic literature,” proclaims the back cover. Whereas fortunately it is something else altogether. At the price of discouraging some readers who are fond of sexual spectacles and amorous gymnastics, it has to be said that Éloge, far from being about fantasies and neuroses, seeks, like all great novels, to teach those who read it the truth about life. It is a novel of apprenticeship which would be a good thing to offer to young people of both sexes as soon as they approach the enchanted and agonizing shores of sexuality. A treatise on humanity.
The book recounts the initiation of a young man into the happiness of love, the itinerary that leads him to the discovery of himself and others through women's experience. His name is András; he resembles the author like a brother. Growing up in Hungary, he knew the privations and troubles of war and postwar, the Stalinist terror and prudishness which did not spare bedrooms, the revolution of 1956, flight from his country, the dizziness of exile, the discovery of the New World, so strange, so remote from the traditions and solidarities of old Catholic Europe. Faced with the youth cult and the barriers between age-classes which bear down on modern societies, where each generation seems to belong to a different period of history, Vajda-Vizinczey, “having been lucky enough to grow up in what was still an integrated society”, wishes to help to bring about a better understanding of “the truth that men and woman have a great deal in common even if they were born years apart”.
Vajda begins from a simple observation: when adolescent boys and girls, knowing nothing about life and the other sex, want to begin lovemaking, they do it so clumsily, with so many fears, anxieties, preconceived notions and models furnished by bad books, that their double ignorance turns what should be a pleasure into combats. And often for a whole lifetime. After several catastrophic experiences with adolescent girls, Vajda, who refuses to look on women as his enemies, decides to rid himself of his sexual illiteracy by learning from those who know: older women. In his peregrinations he not only discovers simple and cheerful enjoyment, sexuality without anguish, fleeing culpability, sin or performance, he learns the warmth, tenderness, delicacy and complexity of human relations, the voice of the other, the wearing away of time, friendship, understanding, habit and the ways of getting around it, the errors, the shames, the joys. A sort of polymath of love.
There is nothing extraordinary about Vajda’s adventures, no bluff, no illusion, no ecstatic trances or exhibitionism, not the slightest provocation. Vizinczey has no use for transgression and little metaphysical flights. Learning life seems enough of a challenge to him, after nearly losing his own. Éloge des femmes müres is also a declaration of love for, and infidelity to, his mother country. “At twenty-three, I still believed that there could only be one true country for each man. Having to leave Hungary so soon after being ready to die for her, I became a philandering internationalist.”
The irony, the lightness, the profundity, the naturalness and exactitude of the novelist are found again intact in the texts of the critic. Besides, there is so little disparity between the inspiration for Éloge and the inspiration for Vérités et mensonges that certain passages of the novel turn up in the literary essays. András Vajda reads older women the way that Vizinczey makes love with books: with the same desire to understand through pleasure, the same opening up of the mind and the heart, the same freedom, the same lucidity and passion for truth and beauty. You would lose something if you read one of these books without the other.
Like all good books, Vérités et mensonges contains sentences that you want to copy out in the way that you frame a painting. For example: “Most professional musicians know hundreds of scores by heart; most writers have only the vaguest recollection of the classics - which is one of the reasons why there are more skilled musicians that skilled writers. A violinist who had the technical proficiency of most published novelists would never find an orchestra to play in.” Or, “The greatest French playwright is Shakespeare translated into French.” Or again: “The only way to get at the truth now is through a novel.”
You will see that Vizinczey is an intrepid critic and that he adores Stendhal. He writes pages admirable for their clarity and profundity about his hero. He recalls that Stendhal took nothing on trust, and he follows his example. With fine vigour, he attacks those writers whom he accuses of cheating, manipulating, trampling on the truth like uhlans, with the pretext, he says, of serving art. Which Vizinczey, following Sartre, calls bad faith, a concept that is both aesthetic and moral. That literature has anything to do with morality is another affirmation that breaks usefully and agreeably with the propaganda surrounding us. Vizinczey’s enthusiasm for writers who teach us how to live is as great as the ferocity with which he attacks those who flatter, amuse the gallery, spout hot air and speak for their own little coterie.
His admirations are no surprise: Hungarian poetry (he makes you want to discover it), the prose writers of the 19th century, French, Russian, German, with a predilection for Stendhal, Balzac, Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky and Kleist. On the other hand, he shows himself joyously severe with those tutelary saints Goethe, Melville, Sainte- Beuve, Nabokov (whom he reproaches with “beautifying what is repugnant in the extreme”) or Malraux, the archetype of those French intellectuals who confuse prestige with genius. His essay on Styron is entitled “Anatomy of Serious Rubbish, or the Bay of Pigs of the American Literary Establishment”. Vizinczey’s intelligence is so bracing, so contagious, that reading his books plunges you into a bath of joy for at least a week.