by Stephen Vizinczey

Truth & Lies in Literature


Truth & Lies in Literature

Reviews | Excerpt | Read the Bookline


English Language Reviews


14 August, 1986
When Hackery is Literature
by Mark Le Fanu, The Times

“Gathered here is a selection of the essays which the distinguished Hungarian born, but now British domiciled, novelist Stephen Vizinczey has contributed over the last 20 years or so to such newspapers as The Times and The Sunday Telegraph....”



6 July, 1986
In Praise of Other Writers
by Frederic Raphael, The Sunday Times

“...On the evidence of this compendium of stroppy reviews and enthusiastic essays, he is a breath of the kind of fresh air that gives academics cold shoulders....”



September, 1986
Getting Worked Up About Great Literature
by Ray Sawhill, Newsweek

“In his new collection of essays and reviews, Truth and Lies in Literature, Stephen Vizinczey comes on like a pistol-packing stranger here to root out corruption and remind us of our ideals.”



July 5th 1986
SV Views Ethics Through literature's lens
by Trevor Ferguson, Montreal Gazette

“In the midst of this brilliant collection of reviews and essays, Stephen Vizinczey remarks that the best review and criticism of a book is the book itself. His wisdom is commended to readers of this review particularly, for Truth and Lies in Literature is a great book, a fascinating and invigorating book, a book of extraordinary passion and sense, which cannot be fully extolled in a brief critique.”


24 August, 1987
Truth in Fiction
by Frederic Koeppel, The Commercial Appeal

“Stephen Vizinczey bears the burden of having written a novel (his first, called In Praise of Older Women) that is considered “a modern classic....”



Good Writing As Seen Through Vizinczey’s Provocative Prism
by Luis Cardoso, The Telegraph-Journal

“In an essay on Jean-Paul Sartre, Stephen Vizinczey contends that “consistency is for trains: what we want from a philosopher is insights, whether he comes by them consistently or not....”



August/September, 1986
As Ye Sow, So Shall You Reap
by Lynn Scarlett, Reason

“...That is Stephen Vizinczey’s underlying thesis in Truth and Lies in Literature, and it is against this yardstick that he measures the works of Stendhal, Balzac, Rousseau, Tolstoy...”



22 August, 1986
Exile and the Dangerous Muse
by Bruce Bebb, Los Angeles Reader

“It is when no one’s position is safe and no idea can be taken for granted that thruths about our existence are allowed to surface,” Stephen Vizinczey writes in the earliest of these 54 reviews and essays....”



14 June, 1986
In Homage to the Classics
by Norman Snider, The Globe and Mail

“The problem with Stephen Vizinczey as a writer is that he defies too many categories. For the last 30 years he has spent a good deal of time in this country, but nobody has yet claimed him...”



14 December, 1986
In Praise of Passion
by Paul Chipchase, The Sunday Telegraph

“It is an axiom of Stephen Vizinczey’s literary criticism that we can only really admire a writer if we share with him a quite large number of fundamental assumptions and prejudices about the way the world is run....”



French Language Reviews


10-16 May, 2001
Difficile a Orthographier
by Bernard Frank, Nouvel Observateur (France)



27 April 2001
Verities et mensonges en Litterature
By Bruno de Cessole (France)



Spanish Language Reviews


4 Feburary, 1990
El novelista contra el topico
By Pedro Sorela



25 January 1990
Verdades y mentiras literarias
By Ana Maria Navales, Heraldo de Aragon (Zaragoza)

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.



Feburary 16, 1990
by Jesus Morenzo Sanz, Dario 16
(English translation of original Spanish text)

This book, resounding like an impassioned speech in favor of clarity, liberty and the enjoyment of life, not exempt from the tragic burden of destiny, is constructed from a prologue, 'A Writer's Ten Commandments', which is a programmatic declaration of the dissolving acid that Vizinezey sprinkles over the vain complacencies of literature, and seven thematic sections...



Feburary 1990
Leer con Vizinczey
Menene Gras Balaguer, La Vanguardia (Barcelona)


Italian Language Reviews


December 19, 2004
Vizinczey, esule magiaro <<salvato>> dai classici
by Giorgio Pressburger
Corriere Della Sera


Portuguese Language Reviews


July 7, 2011

View the Introduction shown in PDF below


Great writers are not those who tell us we shouldn’t play with fire,
but those who make our fingers burn”

-Stephen Vizinczey

lineFirst published in England and Canada, Truth & Lies In Literature is a collection of reviews and essays focusing on the classic past and the world of ideas in European literature.

Truth & Lies In Literature, one of Stephen Vizinczey's two books of criticism, has been commended for it's bold truth-telling.

Vizinczey's “views are strong as his style, which is swift and vigorous, never sloppy and never, never dull.” Publisher's Weekly said, “If a critic's job is to puncture pomposity, deflate over-hyped reputations and ferret our true value, then Vizinczey is a master of the art.”


Reviews for

Truth & Lies in Literature


“Indifferent to literary theories, he displays a kind of intuition and commonsense that we rarely have a chance to experience.”
– Fernando Fagnani, El Cronista (Buenos Aires)

“350 caustic, passionate, lucid, stimulating, fierce, free, exuberant, intransigent, reinvigorating and evidently biased pages, which gives them their whole savor.”
– Pol Charles, Le Mensuel littéraire et poétique (Brussels)

“A unique voice in international literature. . . . Vizinczey, whose life has been forever marked by the Hungarian insurrection of 1956, possesses a brilliant mind, a huge heart and an implacable sense of liberty. . . . He has done us a great service by telling us with passion and lucidity that our cultural patrimony is not repressive or restrictive, as some people would have us believe, but on the contrary liberating and, yes, joyous.” – Norman Snider, The Globe & Mail (Toronto)

“A great book, a fascinating and invigorating book, a book of extraordinary passion and sense. . . . The author has the audacity to plunk literature down in the midst of strife, bold and indefatigable, as the articulated conscience of the world.” – Trevor Ferguson, Montreal Gazette

“Vizinczey did not fit into any of the categories with which the literary, political or commercial publishing establishment felt comfortable, but his concern for the techniques of writing and his determination to proceed always from observation of human nature, and not from a preconceived idea of what a human being should be, have made his prose world class. . . . It is the mark of a great writer and stylist that enjoying his work is not predicated on agreeing with him. Vizinczey is such a writer.” – Barbara Amiel, Ottawa Citizen

“One of the best books for writers ever published, by one of the best 20th-century writers ever published.” – Alan Twigg, The Province (Vancouver)

“. . . never los[ing] sight of the primary purpose of a review, the strictly utilitarian one of conveying to his readers a sufficient idea of the books to allow them to judge whether they want to read it.”
– I.M. Owen (poet)

“This breathtaking novel about greed, power and moral responsibility is an indispensable survival kit for the cold years to come.” – A. D., Wiener (Vienna)

“There are several sentences in this book that one would like to see posted on the wall in front of all the literary journals on the planet.” – Bernard Quiriny, Chronic'Art (Paris)

“We may not agree with him, nevertheless he makes us breathe the air of the mountain peaks and shows what a real literary criticism can be.” – Maurice Nadeau, La Quinzaine littéraire

“The irony, the lightness, the profundity, the naturalness and the exactitude of the novelist are found again intact in the texts of the critic.” – Pierre Lepape, Le Monde (Paris)

“You can open Truth and Lies in Literature not quite anywhere but almost. And it will be really bad luck if you don't find a passage which makes you want to read the whole book. Thus: 'Thousands of novels are published every year. . . . Consequently, most published novels are written by people who don't know how to write and most reviews are written by people who don't know how to read.'”
– Bernard Frank, Le Nouvel Observateur (Paris)

“A writer and critic who has scarcely any equivalent in France. . . . Living his youth under a dictatorship, he contracted an insurmountable aversion to imposture and trickery. An aversion as profound as his love of literature. To dare to exclaim that the king is naked: many critics think it but don't have the moral courage to say it. Against his own interests, Vizinczey has the nerve to proclaim the scandal of truth.” – Bruno de Cessole, Valeurs actuelles (Paris)

“Thirty years of literary criticism of the works of world literature. 'True greatness is like infinity, we cannot measure it.' It is with this quote that Vizinczey begins his essay on Stendhal, an important, profoundly engaged and exciting work which with its power and its seriousness can unreservedly be placed beside Samuel Beckett's famous essay on Marcel Proust. Reading Vizinczey's essays is a joy and prompts us to take down from the shelves the books that he praises and to read them again.” – Martin Grzimek, Deutschlandfunk (Cologne)

“This writer's passion is truly contagious. You are carried away by his love for Stendhal, Balzac, Baudelaire, Kleist, Thomas Mann, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. . . . As you are by his hatred for despotism and the mass-marketed lie. You might say that this book deals with the same erotic passion – carnal, but not disordered – as the passion that imbues Vizinczey's novel, In Praise of Older Women.” – Giorgio Pressburger, Corriere della Sera (Milan)

“A formidable book . . . Vizinczey does not employ the nuanced and allusive language of so many critics, but follows the example of his master Stendhal . . . . When he speaks of Stendhal, he undoubtedly speaks of himself: 'He confided that he saw only one rule in the business of writing: to be clear' Then: 'Only a great soul dares to have a straight style.' Like Stendhal, Vizinczey is a passionate professional in the service of works 'which arouse nations to pity in the aid of generous sentiments.' ” – Luigi Sampietro, Il Sole 24 Ore (Milan)

“With incomparable elegance and clarity, Vizinczey writes about those visionaries who have penetrated deeply into the human soul and he awakens in the reader an irresistible curiosity about their works.” – Luis Bernardo Perez, Excelsior

"Not only a classic but an indispensable reference work for writers, critics and even readers. The rigor of Vizinczey's judgments allows for both generosity and hope.” – Reforma (Mexico City)

“An argument in favor of lucidity, liberty and the enjoyment of life; an exposé of stupidity, deceit and literary squalor. Stimulating in his love as in his hates. Vizinczey's hypercritical and plainspoken writing will undoubtedly help more than one reader (and more than one writer) to be less pedantic and pretentious, to become wiser and more lucid, and also, perhaps, more courageous. . . . An intellectually exciting and morally inspiring book.” – Jesus Moreno Sanz, Diario 16 (Madrid)

“Vizinczey talks about things that matter, with an assurance of judgment that shuns compromises and fashions. The ideas which emerge from Truth and Lies in Literature are the same ones which inspire the author's two very different novels, so that the reading of these essays ends by conferring on the novels (and the novels end up by conferring on this book) a mysterious coherence.”
– Pedro Sorela, El País (Madrid)

“[Vizinczey's] essays tackle the great themes of religion and politics, cruelty and death, everything that can interest this restless and reflective man who "writes like an angel" and manages always to outrage the official guardians of literature.” – Ana Maria Navales, Heraldo de Aragon (Zaragoza)

“A challenge to any form of half-heartedness and all kinds of resignation and timidity. Vizinczey's view of literature pushes the literary center back to what is meaningful and alive, away from all academic spinelessness and easy formalism.” – Christer Enander, Kvallsposten (Stockholm)

“Mr. Vizinczey can make us care about his favorite writers like Kleist and Stendhal because the flavor of his own writing makes it apparent, without tedious egotism, that he himself has experienced the rapture of love, and reflected on its immutable meaning. In a word, he unerringly knows how to find the weight of experience, and states it in unflinching, aphoristic English.”
– Mark Le Fanu, The Times (London) (full text review)

“A breath of the kind of fresh air that gives academics the shivers. . . . The great virtue of this collection lies in its steady concern with serious matters, of life and death.”
– Fredric Raphael, The Sunday Times (London)

“Excellent. . . . [Vizinczey's] essays and reviews arc a very uncommon mixture of exuberance and severity. When he loves a writer – such as Kleist or Balzac – he wastes no time on mean qualifications: his intelligent passion to explain why has the boldness and glamour of a cavalry charge.”
– Paul Chipchase, The Sunday Telegraph (London)

“Few people will read this book without being stung to disagreement or anger; but fewer still will read it without being stimulated, enlightened and elevated.”
- Harry Reid, The Herald (Glasgow)

“. . . a brilliant, incorruptible critic.” - Michael Foot

“[Vizinczey's] views are as strong as his style, which is swift and vigorous, never sloppy and never, never dull.” – Jeffrey M. Landaw, Baltimore Sun

“He is one of the few contemporary writers who can use the word 'moral' without quotation marks. . . . At the center of Vizinczey's criticism is his devotion to the major 19th-century novelists – French, German and Russian (but not British). To read [his] reviews and essays is to reconfirm the suspicion that not all thinkers and writers are ideologues, that some few can distinguish between truth and lies, even in literature. . . . an art form in the hands of Stephen Vizinczey.”
– Thomas D'Evelyn, The Christian Science Monitor

“Truth & Lies in Literature deserves classic status for the vigorous common sense the author brings to his wide reading. Vizinczey has no patience with trends in criticism like structuralism or deconstruction that fiddle with word patterns. Instead his concern lies with the portrayal of human characters in the full range of their passions and attitudes.”
– Fredric Koppel, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis)

“Every piece in the book is good, and many are so good that, after dipping into the middle, I stayed up half the night, reading with growing amazement and admiration.”
– Bruce Bebb, Los Angeles Reader

“The real function of the critic should be to draw the reader to the work of art, and that is precisely what Vizinczey, one of the greatest critics I have ever encountered, does.”
– Edwin Howard, Memphis Business Journal

“Vizinczey comes on like a pistol-packing stranger here to root out corruption and remind us of our ideals. He carries the role off with inspired gusto. . . . His own essays convey the sheer fun of getting worked up about art. . . . Vizinczey's boldness and pugnacity are bracing and can be very funny. . . .” – Ray Sawhill, Newsweek (full text review)

“Stunning. Transports the reader on an intellectual and emotional odyssey. . . . In drawing out the truths and lies about reality set forth in literature Vizinczey imparts more about man and the state than a library of scholarly tomes. . . . Vizinczey does not see the world through rose-colored glasses, yet his world is one of optimism, It is optimistic because his world is peopled with individuals whose intrinsic worth does matter, He shows that even in the most vicious circumstances we do have choices.” – Lynn Scarlett, Reason (Los Angeles)


An Excerpt from

Truth & Lies in Literature



A Writer's Ten Commandments

This was written in response to a request from Raymond Lamont-Brown, editor of Writers' Monthly, who asked me for something ‘full of sound, practical advice for people who in many cases are quite new to the business of writing'.

To be a writer you need all the brains you've got.

A writer is born from talent and time – time to observe, to study, to think. So you can't afford to waste a single hour earning money for non-essentials. Unless you were lucky enough to he born rich, you had better be prepared to live without too many worldly goods. True, Balzac got special inspiration from running up huge debts and buying things, but most people who have expensive habits tend to fail as writers.

At the age of 24 after the defeat of the Hungarian Revolution I found myself in Canada with 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. In the end, learning to write in another language was less difficult than writing something good, and I lived on the edge of destitution for six years before I was ready to write In Praise of Older Women.

I couldn't have done it if I had cared about clothes or cars – indeed, if the only alternative I saw had not been the top of that skyscraper. Some immigrant writers I knew took jobs as waiters or salesmen to save money and create a 'financial base' for themselves before trying to make a living by writing; one of them now owns a whole chain of restaurants and is richer than I could ever be, but neither he nor the others returned to writing. You've got to decide what is more important to you: to live well or to write well. Don't torment yourself with contrary ambitions.

Don't let anybody tell you you're wasting your time when you're gazing into space. There is no other way to conceive an imaginary world.

I never sit down in front of a bare page to invent something. I daydream about my characters, their lives and their struggles, and when a scene has been played out in my imagination and I think l know what my characters felt, said and did, I take pen and paper and try to report what I've witnessed.

When I've written and typed my report I read it over and find that most of what I've written is (a) unclear or (b) inexact or (c) ponderous or (d) simply could not be true. Thus the typed draft serves as a kind of critical report on what I imagined, and I go back to dream the whole thing better.

It was this way of working that made me realize, when I was learning English, that my chief problem wasn't the language but, as always, getting things right in my head.

Most bad books get that way because their authors are engaged in trying to justify themselves. If a vain author is an alcoholic, then the most sympathetically portrayed character in his book will be an alcoholic. This sort of thing. is very boring for outsiders. If you think you're wise, rational, good, a boon to the opposite sex, a victim of circumstances, then you don't know yourself well enough to write.

I stopped taking myself seriously at the age of 27 and since then I've regarded myself simply as raw material. I use myself the same way as an actor uses himself: all my characters – men and women, good and bad – are made up from myself plus observation.

Modesty is an excuse for sloppiness, laziness, self-indulgence; small ambitions evoke small efforts. I never knew a good writer who wasn't trying to be a great one.

‘The works of genius are watered with its tears,' wrote Balzac in Lost Illusions. Rejection, derision, poverty, failure, the constant struggle against one's own limitations – these are the chief events in the lives of most great artists, and if you aspire to share their fate you should fortify yourself by learning about them.

I've often taken heart from re-reading the first volume of Graham Greene's autobiography, A Sort of Life, which is about his early struggles. I've also had the chance to visit him in Antibes, where he lives in a small two-room flat (a tiny place for such a tall man) with the luxuries of benign air and a view of the sea but few possessions apart from books. He seems to have few material needs, and I'm sure this has something to do with the inner freedom which radiates from his works. Though he claims to have written his 'entertainments' for money, he is a writer who is directed by his obsessions without regard to changing fashions and popular ideologies, and this freedom is communicated to his readers. He liberates you from the weight of your own compromises, at least while you read him. This kind of achievement is possible only for a writer of Spartan habits.

None of us has a chance to meet many great men in person, but we can be in their company if we read their memoirs, journals and letters. Avoid biographies, though – especially dramatized biographies in the form of films or television series. Almost everything that comes to you about artists through the media is sheer bunk, written by lazy hacks who don't have the faintest notion of either art or hard work. The most recent example is Amadeus, which tries to convince you that it is easy to be a genius like Mozart and very hard to be a mediocrity like Salicri.

Read Mozart's letters instead. As for specific literature on the writing life I'd recommend Virginia Woolf's A Room of My Own, Shaw's preface to The Dark Lady of the Sonnets, Jack London's Martin Eden and, above all, Balzac's Lost Illusions.

In my teens I studied to be a conductor, and from my musical training I picked up a habit which I think is essential also for writers: the constant, daily study of masterworks. Most professional musicians of any standing know hundreds of scores by heart; most writers, on the other hand, have only the vaguest recollections of the classics – which is one reason why there are more skilled musicians than skilled writers. A violinist who had the technical proficiency of most published novelists would never find an orchestra to play in. The truth is that only by absorbing perfect works, the specific ways great masters have invented to develop a theme, to construct a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, can you possibly learn all there is to be learned about technique.

Nothing that has already been done can tell you how to do something new, but if you understand the masters' techniques, you have a better chance to develop your own. To put it in terms of chess: there hasn't yet been a grandmaster who didn't know his predecessors' championship games by heart.

Don't commit the common mistake of trying to read everything in order to be well-informed. Being well-informed will allow you to shine at parties but is absolutely no use to you as a writer. Reading a book so you can chat about it is not the same thing as understanding it. It is far more useful to read a few great novels over and over again until you see what makes them work and how the writers constructed them. You have to read a novel about five times before you can perceive its structure, what makes it dramatic, what gives it pace and momentum. Its variations in tempo and time-scale, for instance: the author describes a minute in two pages then covers two years in one sentence – why? When you've figured this out you really know something.

Every writer will pick his own favorites from whom he thinks he can learn the most, but I strongly advise against reading Victorian novels, which are riddled with hypocrisy and bloated with redundant words. Even George Eliot wrote too much about too little.

When you are tempted to overwrite, read the short stories of Heinrich von Kleist, who said more with fewer words than any other writer in the history of Western literature. I read him constantly, along with Swift and Sterne, Shakespeare and Mark Twain. At least once a year I reread some of the works of Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Balzac. To my mind Kleist and these 19th-century French and Russian novelists were the greatest masters of prose, a constellation of unsurpassed geniuses such as we find in music from Bach to Beethoven, and I try to learn something from them every day. This is my 'technique'.

I often meet aspiring writers from out of the way places who believe that people who live in the media capitals have some special inside information about art which they do not possess. They read the review pages, watch arts programs on television, to find out what is important, what art really is, what intellectuals should e concerned about. The provincial is often an intelligent, gifted person who ends up following some glib journalist's or academic's notion of what constitutes literary excellence and betrays his talent by aping morons whose only talent is for getting on.

Even if you live at Land's End, there is no reason for you to feel out of touch. If you have a good paperback library of great writers, and if you keep re-reading them, you will have access to more secrets of literature than all the culture phonies who set the tone in the big cities. I know a leading New York critic who has never read Tolstoy and is proud of it too. So don't waste time worrying about what is the declared fashion, the right subject or the right style or what sort of things win prizes. Anybody who ever succeeded in literature did so on his own terms.

No writer has ever managed to please readers who were not on approximately his own level of general intelligence, who did not share his basic attitude to life, death, sex, politics, money. Playwrights are lucky: with the help of actors, they can broaden their appeal beyond the circle of kindred spirits. Yet only a couple of years ago I read the most condescending reviews in the American papers for Measure for Measure – the play itself, not the production! If Shakespeare can't please everyone, why should you even try?

This means there is no point in forcing yourself to be interested in something that bores you. When I was young I wasted a lot of time trying to describe clothes and furniture. I didn't have the slightest interest in clothes or furniture but Balzac had a passionate interest in them which he managed to communicate even to me while I was reading him, so I thought I had to master the art of writing exciting paragraphs about cupboards if I was ever to become a good novelist. My efforts were doomed and used up all my enthusiasm for what I had been trying to write about in the first place.

Now I only write about what interests me. I don't look for subjects: whatever it is that I can't stop thinking about – that is my subject. Stendhal said that literature is the art of leaving out, and I leave out everything that doesn't strike me as important. I describe people only in terms of their actions, statements, thoughts, feelings, which have shocked/mystified/amused/ delighted me in myself or others.

It isn't easy, of course, to stick to what you really care about; we would all like to be thought of as people who are curious about everything. Who ever attended a party without faking interest in something? But when you write you have to resist the temptation, and when you read over what you have written, you must always ask yourself, 'Does this really interest me?'

If you please yourself— your real self, not some fanciful notion of yourself as the noblest of persons who cares only about the starving children of Africa – then you have a chance to write a book that will please millions. This is so because no matter who you are, there are millions of people in the world who are more or less like you. But no one wants to read a novelist who doesn't really mean what he writes. The trashiest bestseller has one thing in common with a great novel: they are both authentic.

Most new books that I read seem to me half-finished. The writer was satisfied to get things more or less right, and then moved on to something new. For me writing becomes really exciting when I go back to a chapter a couple of months after I've done with it. At that stage I look at it not so much as the author but as a reader – and no matter how often I rewrote the chapter originally, I can still find sentences which are vague, adjectives which are inexact or redundant. Indeed I find whole scenes which though true add nothing to my understanding of the characters or the story, and so can be deleted.

It is at that stage that I ponder the chapter long enough to learn it by heart – recite it word-for-word to anyone who is willing to listen – and if I cannot remember something, I usually find that it wasn't right. Memory is a good critic.

[originally published In]
Writers' Monthly, July 1985


Truth & Lies in Literature
by Stephen Vizinczey