Frankfurter Ailgemeine Zeitung - 6 October 2004

They were all praying for me to do my best

The ABC of bodies: Stephen Vizinczey takes a dizzying look at the future of the past

By Werner Spies


A book comes back. Stephen Vizinczey's In Praise of Older Women" is said to have reached five million readers since its first appearance forty years ago. The depiction of restless, ever-new approches to body and soul finds an echo in the fate that has befallen the title. The first German edition, whih came on the market in 1967, was called ,,Frauen zum Pflucken". This stupid praise of a harvest festival changed in 1988 to Lob der erfahrenen Frauen. And now, at the third attempt, a new translation of the novel is announced as ,,Wie ich lernte, die Frauen zu lieben".

Such changeableness may strike the reader as a symbol for the Tantalus-wishes that are described in constantly changing variations on these pages. But actually the publisher's attempt to establish the book with a new title arises from a basic misunderstanding. Here what the author expresses magnificently, the shadowed melancholy of spasmic, irretrievable convergences, gets lost. For something of what Tanizaki was able to express with his initiation into the Japanese psyche can be heard in an undertone in Vizinczey's novel: Tanizaki's tract In Praise of Shadows (1933-34) substantiates the rise in passion from the elegiac twilights on the border between time and space. And if we know that this book, which is apparently based on autobiographical experience, was written by a native Hungarian, there is no getting away from the fact that the experiences with Countess 5, Fräulein Mozart, Klan, Ilona, Zsuzsa, Boby, Paola and Ann could lead to the closing sentence from ,,Bluebeard": ,,you were the most beautiful of my women, the most beautiful of all."

The insistence on ,,older women", which the title expressively underlines, is not only about profiting from the passionate enjoyment of experience and refinement. The author provides the reasons for it in scenes which make same-age relationships seem devoid of tension - indeed hopeless. For the adolescent the sight of bodies which are at some remove from his own time becomes a dizzying look into the future of the past. Apart from the theatrical excitement and thrilling pain of parting and mutual feeling, every meeting recapitulates something of the Feldmarschallin and Octavian [in Richard Strauss's Rosen/cavalier]. Everything that occurs gains, thanks to András's strict Catholic upbringing, an additional, forbidden exaltation. The fetichism of things, the adoration, which are fixed upon the slightest details of the strange body, reach liturgical depths.

Slowly András, still paralysed by anxiety about sin and damnation, finds his way into the ABC of bodies. This is fostered by a moral experience which Georges Bataille in his treatise ,,"L'érotisme" tracks down in an expressive sentence from the Marquis de Sade: ,,There is no better way to familiarize oneself with death than to connect it with the idea of excess." The idea of a mystic communion, to which András's exalted fantasies of martyrdom lead directly, lure the teenager [child] under the protective skirts of the women who welcome him into a fatherless household with sweets and caresses. The hero experiences this initiation in the most ardent way. Only only one thing makes him mistrustful: ,,The only restriction that I felt was the consciousness that they were all praying for me to do my best."

After the first scenes, after the witty depictions of lapdog eroticism which the young boy gets from his mother's tea-parties, one begins to get an idea of the pattern of the book. It is lucky that this investigation appeals to us, because otherwise the reading of it would seem all too harmless. For the forty years that the book already has to its credit have ensured that what was provocative at one time and ensured the big printings has long since disappeared. Descriptions of perfumes, of haif-undressings, of exploratory touchings - which little András, as precocious as he is ignorant, has to begin with - belong to a long biblical and literary tradition. One thinks of Potiphar's wife or the lustful Brunelda in Kafka's Metamorphosis.

The upbringing-novel, or rather, the punishment-novel, which expels Karl to Amerika, was bound to attract Vizinczey. For he himself followed in the footsteps of Karl Rossmann. When he describes how the refugees flocking from Budapest see buses at the Austrian border with signs on them displaying their various destinations in big letters - Switzerland, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, or Vienna - we think of the grotesque scene-setting with which Kafka, in the Nature Theatre in Oklahoma, assigns the immigrants to their workplaces. Also The Confessions of Felix Krull did not pass by this book without leaving a trace. The tricky, immoral side of Felix Krull, his ability to come to an arrangement, are part of it. That leads András gradually, by way of pimping in the American army camp, to the satisfaction of the claims made by his need. We think of Felix Krull's amorous contract-labour in the bed of Madame Houpflé, from whom, at the lady's request, nothing virginal but at least money and jewellery are to be purloined.

All this takes place in slow motion, in a systematic way. The women come and go, one after another. The first-person narrator lets the women act they will, sketches a sort of lesson on temperaments. The sequel gives no prizes for a display of cloned beauties. He is interested in the initial irrelevance of the physical. This disappears sometimes behind a glowing interpretation. András adds up the various realities, gives the impression that he has to assemble woman out of them. We think of the most famous commonplace of erotic synthesis, the genesis of the portrait of Helena which Zeuxis was supposed to paint for the temple of Hera in Kroton. Zeuxis selected five women from the city and assembled the most desirable body parts from each into one overall picture. Vizinczey too - although he also gives so many details - follows a platonic idea.

But the most important effect of the book has to do with time - with meticulously calculated time. First the decisions from which the seducer draws energy and courage make for tingling anticipation of what he finally experiences. It's all about the leap into cold water. It's not without reason that the wait on the edge of the Lukács Bath, that relic of Ottoman glory in Budapest, plays an initiatory role. For it comes down to the right moment. The reader feels this from the very first pages. And he thinks of what distinguishes the content of the book, the ,,older women" and the decision making test of courage.
He can hardly wait for the allusion to Julien Sorel and Madame de Renal. Soon he comes upon the remark that the 19th century Russian and French novelists counted among András's favourite reading. For, the narrator writes, ,,They taught me a great deal about the women whom I was to meet in my life." But then comes the decisive reference to Stendhal's book. ,,There's a passage in The Red and the Black which was very much on my mind in those days. It's about young Julien Sorel's fear of approaching Madame de Renal, who has engaged him as tutor for her children... Julien: ,The moment the clock strikes ten, I will do what I've promised myself all day I would do this evening, or I will go up to my room and blow my brains out.'

The present time and history become the decisive second theme. Like all important or at least readable erotic books, Vizinczey's book is played before the background of dramatic world events. Just like Casanova's memoirs, the account András's love life reacts to his own time, even if it is sometimes related in a cursory manner. The childhood in Székesfehérvár and later in Budapest serves as a background to the early picaresque fumblings. The Nazis' murder of András's father, who belongs to the anti-fascist circle around Admiral Horthy, the end of the war with its mountains of corpses, the spyings and the Stalinist terror, the crushing of the Hungarian uprising, the flight to Austria, exile, which led the author to Canada, all this belongs to history. The book devotes many pages to the Hungarian resistance. Suddenly the theme of the novel becomes meaningless. The extended descriptions granted to the meeting with the American army in Salzburg lead to the following: ,,Citizens of great states tend to believe that victories are forever; Hungarians focus their minds on the decay of power, on the inevitable fall of the victors and the resurgence of the vanquished."

Regarded in this way, the energy to erase blank spots from the map of passion is tied to the tenor and despair of the time. Fear serves as a foil to the quest for tenderness. It's about hideouts and escape attempts. Politics supplies the book, which again and again could easily succumb to burbling on, with retaining walls. In the place of meaningless repetition comes a mixture of reflection and precise seduction. To this the author adds a flawless portrayal of body places and gymnastically difficult contacts. The detail emerges from the factual description.