Valeurs actuelles

27 April 2001

By Bruno de Cessole

On truth in literature

It is no use trying to understand the soul of an epoch, the truth about society, the way in which men live, love, suffer and die, by reading the works of historians and sociologists. These are no more help than columns of statistics. The press and, even more, literature are much better pointers.

Does this mean that literature is always the refuge of truth, that essentially it eludes lying and charlatanism? Not at all. Falseness of mind and imposture show up there as they do elsewhere, but because they conceal themselves under the cloak of art they benefit from a curious impunity. They are so well protected by the alibi of art that not many critics and readers are brave enough to nail them to the pillory. No doubt this is the reason why we see charlatanism proliferating with impunity in literature and the plastic arts.

In criticism, Diogenes and Alcestis have had very few disciples and emulators. So we have to mark with a white stone the day when we come across an avenger of abused truth. We owe it to the talent of Samuel Brussell, in his Anatolia collection published by Le Rocher, the discovery of a writer and critic who has no equivalent in France. This rare bird is called (and perhaps the difficulty of pronouncing and spelling his name is the reason for his belated publication) Stephen Vizinczey.

Hungarian born, exiled from his country after the 1956 insurrection in Budapest who became both Canadian and English, this former pupil of George Lukács learned English while writing film scripts and then working for the CBC and editing a literary and political magazine, Exchange. We owe two novels to him: In Praise of Older Women (Eloge des Femmes Mûres), which has just appeared in France, 35 years after its publication in English, in the abovementioned Anatolia collection), An Innocent Millionaire, and two collections of essays, The Rules of Chaos and Truth and Lies in Literature, which seem to have earned him an international reputation - except in France.

Spending his youth under a dictatorship where lies and political cant ruled all forms of life, Stephen Vizinczey contracted an insurmountable aversion to imposture and trickery. An aversion all the more profound because his love of literature is so demanding. The thirty essays which make up Vérités et mensonges testify to this. Without getting entangled in prudent understatements and circumlocutions, they express bluntly the enthusiasms and, above all, the humours and rages of a lover who is often disappointed by the deceptions and hypocrisies of literature and writers.

… and a redeemer of criticism: Stephen Vizinczey

Daring to exclaim that the king is naked: many critics think of it but few of them have the moral courage to say it. Against his own interests, Stephen Vizinczey has the balls to proclaim the scandal of truth. To take only one example, Anatomy of Serious Rubbish, or the Bay of Pigs of the American Literary Establishment, his scathing and pertinent review of a novel by William Styron, a false, pernicious and absurd book, “a compendium of all the false justifications which prevent white Americans from understanding what they are doing to the blacks and the punishment they are courting”, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was acclaimed by the American media, proving at the same time their incompetence and their corruption. The author paid for this brilliant stroke with the obstinate silence that greeted his subsequente books in the big American papers. For Stephen Vizinczey, the honour of true literature is in helping people to understand and to be free, whereas false literature calms our fears and anxieties and sustains our illusions. Unfortunately for him, our times seem to prefer soothing lies to the bitterness of truth.