In his first book, Stephen Vizinczey praised older women; everyone else praised the first book. Ahead of Vizinczey’s appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Scottish Review of Books looks at his life and work.
Number Five in Stephen Viz-inczey’s Ten Commandments For Writers is: Thou Shalt Not Be Modest. He explains: “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.” He believes that big writing is about big effort. His first great bestseller In Praise of Older Women on first reading seems a slight and delightfully easy novel. Its wistful
kindness is obvious from the start but this is deceptive; its profundity comes to you later. As someone once said, easy reading means hard writing. Vizinczey rewrote In Praise several times before he self-published it in Canada in 1965.
“For me writing means rewriting and reading means rereading,” he says. “Reading is a creative act, just like writing. The printed book is not the whole novel. The reader brings the text to life in his or her imagination.
“The writer and reader relate to each other like the composer, and the musicians who perform the work. The score is only half the symphony – it’s the players who turn the silent notes into music.”
In Praise was the first and only self-published novel to head the bestselling charts in Canada. It swept the world, a social as well as a literary phenomenon. According to one commentator, it even created a global mass movement of love, bringing younger men and older women together across the continents. When a revised edition was published in Britain in 1985, it was the 32nd new edition in just twenty years.
Addressed to young men, dedicated to older woman, the novel is about the sentimental and erotic education of Andras Vajda, a young Hungarian whose loves and adventures loosely mirror Vizinczey’s own, and whom one critic described as a cross between Stephen Dedalus and Tom Jones (the latter being the hero of Fielding’s novel, not the singer).
In Praise was condemned by some as pornography, and that may have contributed to its huge early sales. A reviewer in middle America was so disgusted that she called for its author to be assassinated. But to call it pornography is a nonsensical misjudgement; it is is a very tender book, while pornography is filled with hate. It now has the status of the greatest erotic classic of modern times, though its fame faded somewhat in our new century. Then, earlier this year, partly thanks to the efforts of the Edinburgh-based literary agent Judy Moir, Penguin Classics brought out a new paperback edition. It has since been reprinted six times and is, once again, a bestseller.
Some reviewers came to the book new; others revisited it as an old friend, and most of these commented that, to their surprise and delight, they found the book even wiser and richer than they had remembered. Despite its enormous success in the 1960s, Vizinczey was robbed of the wealth it should have brought him because he put his commercial affairs into the hands of his US publisher. Like the master he is, he turned the wrong done to him into the allegorical grand theme of his second great novel, An Innocent Millionaire, which he wrote and rewrote over a dozen years,
This is the supreme novel of the twentieth century. Published in 1983, it divided critics and Vizinczey’s fellow novelists and writers. Some, like Graham Greene, Nina Bawden, Anthony Burgess and Wolf Achilles, regarded it as a masterpiece; others complained that it was too complex, too panoramic and took on too many targets, reflected too many themes.
I prefer the verdict of Christina Monet, who quietly found in Millionaire “a worldly compassion and an expansive humanity worthy of Stendhal.” That was doubly fitting, as Stendhal, along with Balzac and Kleist, are Vizinczey’s three leading literary heroes.
While it perhaps has less charm than In Praise, the second novel has more humour. Vizinczey confesses that it took him the first two versions to write out his anger, and to begin to write the novel we now have, in which he shows how things work, how humans are conned, how the law is used to despoil people. The Swiss critic Wolfram Knorr wrote: “What is fiendishly clever about Vizinczey is that in spite of his ironically bitter narration he sees and perceives everything in a detached and realistic way. There are no one-dimensional villains, no black and white portrayals.”
This is absolutely right; the person who perhaps does most harm in the novel is one of the most pleasant minor characters, a well-meaning, sexy girl who wants to be nice to everyone and to see the best in them. Unwittingly, she brings about catastrophe.
Millionaire is a long novel, but its almost magical readability impels you to read it too quickly. A slower reading reaps more reward. It falls into three parts. The first is about the early life of its half- Scottish tragic hero, Mark Niven, a young man who is too innocent for the duplicitous world in which he finds himself. This long introduction is set mainly in Europe; it is among many other things a meditation on the underrated profession of acting, for Mark’s father Dana is a distinguished actor whose career is a series of suitably dramatic ups and downs.
Then the narrative sweeps to the perfectly orchestrated central section, set in the Bahamas, where Vizinczey assembles a magnificent, subtly complex cast of innocents, rogues, dupes, grotesques, dunces and one or two who are almost saints. Hardly any profession escapes mordant censure, and just about all the human sins and vices are portrayed in their rampant viciousness. Yet there is a redeeming irony, there are some exquisitely realised sex scenes, and many of the colourful episodes are splendidly funny.
Finally, there is a long coda set in New York, where Vizinczey shows how the legal profession helps to engineer fraud and theft. This last section exposes the organised thieving of the modern world with epic grandeur, a literary zest that surpasses even what a Balzac (or a Dickens) could muster.
It amounts to the most potent attack on avarice and hypocrisy that I have ever read. The reader is left in no doubt about the sheer rottenness of so much humanity.
And yet this masterpiece, in the words of Anthony Burgess, “in some curious way breathes a kind of desperate hope”. The rest of Vizinczey’s oeuvre consists of two splendidly contentious collections of criticism and essays. The first is The Rules of Chaos, which deals in part with the unpredictability of the future. The other collection, Truth and Lies in Literature, has been published in many countries – a new edition will come out in Holland this autumn and Penguin hope to bring it out in the UK next spring.
He has also written a third novel, which has sold well in Spain and other countries, but has never been published in English.
This amounts to a flimsy canon for an authentic titan of contemporary literature, but then few writers rewrite and revise as painstakingly and as carefully as Vizinczey does.
Vizinczey is now 77. He had an action-packed early life, and has known many vicissitudes.
He has a reputation for being contrary and irascible. The first time I interviewed him, in London in 1984, his then publisher, Christopher Sinclair Stevenson, warned me in advance that he could be “very difficult”. On the contrary; I found him full of warmth, the most persuasive and profound talker I’ve ever met. The opinions, the aphorisms – he seems to come up with a new one every other minute – are rattled out with a fierceness that seems to brook no dissent. Yet if you interrupt him – as I did with growing confi-dence, and as his delightful Scots-Canadian wife Gloria does all the time – he does not resent it, but rather listens to what you say, and then fires back a considered salvo.
“ All big countires are dysfunctional. No-one in them knows what is going on. There’s a lot of waste. The EU is far too big. So was the Soviet Union, so is today’s greater Russia, so are the US, China, India. Americans would be better educated and more civilised if the US was at least three different countries.”
One of the events that marked Penguin’s welcome revival of In Praise earlier this year was a soiree in Edinburgh’s Dovecot Galleries, attended by about 150 people from all walks of Scottish life. Vizinczey spoke only briefly, and then listened respectfully while the other principal guest, Scotland’s education minister Mike Russell MSP, spoke eloquently about the importance of writers. After the speeches Vizinczey moved round like a man half his age, listening, greeting, chatting, joking and deploying an elegant old world courtesy that is straight out of central Europe. Feisty, fierce, ferocious? Never. As more than one of the many he spoke with said: “He’s a real charmer”.
He was born in rural Hungary, where his father, a headmaster and prominent anti-Fascist, was stabbed to death by a Nazi when Stephen was only two. He and his mother moved to Budapest, where he was brought up among a large extended family. In his teens he became a precocious writer; he was taken up by George Lukacs, the most prominent Marxist intellectual of the day.
“Lukacs published my early poems, he got me into his Institute for Aesthetic Studies, for graduates working for their doctorates, when I was only 16. But the University of Budapest was a dangerous place. Every day someone was taken away by the Hungarian equivalent of the KGB. Later when I got into trouble because of my plays, the fact that he discovered me saved me from arrest,” he recalls.
“But in spite of my gratitude to him, I stopped respecting him. Lukacs never stopped talking about the importance of reflecting reality, yet he never seemed to hear the steps of the police resounding on the corridor as they led away professors and students, on the other side of our doors. I realised then that ideology is where people go to avoid learning from experience.”
Vizinczey found more artistic freedom at the Academy of Theatre and Film Arts. Three of his plays went into production before being banned by the Communist regime. Then came October 1956, and the revolution. He was one of the squad of students who managed, with the help of several tractors, a lot of steel wire and a blow torch, to topple the huge statue of Stalin that besmirched the centre of Budapest. He wrote for the revolutionary newspaper, he fought the Red Army on the streets.
All revolutions, whether they succeed or fail, are confused and complex. Vizinczey recalls how his group of armed students arrested a street corner demagogue who was demanding that the occupying Soviet troops should retreat, flying a white flag on every tank. As he says, most of the rebels were in their own way realistic – they would have been only too happy to kneel and wave red flags, as long as the Soviets went. The revolutionaries naively thought the West would come to their aid. There was little chance of that, and the developing Suez crisis put paid to any lingering hopes. The revolt was put down with cruel ferocity; Russian soldiers searched for and shot dead wounded men in the wards of the hospitals.
“You become a rebel when you feel you would rather die than continue living as you do,” he says. “I was lucky: I survived.”
Vizinczey fled for his life, and after various adventures near the border he made it into Austria, and then Italy, where, to his surprise, he was feted.
“During the revolution in Budapest one of my banned plays had been featured in the Italian papers. I became a star writer for a socialist paper, with two Hungarian-Italian translators. I even got a scholarship from the Congress for Cultural Freedom.
“I had a great life and was invited to all the big parties. I met Fellini, I was a celebrity. At a party held by the deputy prime minister, I met the Canadian Ambassador who said to me: ‘We need writers in Canada.’ I thought I would be as welcome in Canada as in Italy and that I would be able to learn to write in English.”
In Montreal, with only a few words of English, a writer without a language, as he puts it, he was wretched. Far from being a celebrity, he was destitute, he had no political value. Communism and the Hungarian Revolution did not mean much in Canada. He slowly learned English but he could not find suitable work.
“Eventually I pretended I knew about accountancy and I got a job with a small business. I was completely incompetent, but my employer, a kind fat man, didn’t have the heart to fire me. When I sold an article to a New York magazine I went to his office and told him I can’t do this job, I quit. He was so happy he came out from behind his desk and kissed me on both cheeks and gave me two months’ extra salary.
“When I ran out of money I went to the top of a skyscraper and was ready to jump. But looking down I was afraid I wouldn’t die. I’d be a cripple with a broken back and broken legs, and I couldn’t face that.
“At last I got a commission from the National Film Board for a script. A young German film maker corrected my English. In fact he was doing most of the writing. I acted out the story.”
He then edited a magazine, but it failed. He went to work for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, where he met and fell in love with Gloria who worked on another show, with offices on the same floor. He started and rewrote In Praise many times, eventually self-publishing it in 1965. But when he was cheated out of much of the money he should have made from its extraordinary success, the experience gave him the idea for the theme of An Innocent Millionaire. “You never learn from success,” he says. “You only learn from failure.”
Since the late 1960s Vizinczey has lived with Gloria in London, in a spacious apartment on the Old Brompton Road, where West Kensington meets Earls Court. They receive guests warmly, and he talks, with enormous seriousness, about the business of writing and reading.
Recently he was furious when a girl from Oxford University came to interview him. “She told me she did not read to enjoy, she read to evaluate. This is the kind of nonsense that makes me want to close down each and every department of English. They do so much to alienate the young from reading.
“Students have to read far too many books about books, rather than the books themselves. The great writers survived because they were geniuses in the art of communicating what they meant. They don’t need interpreters. What the students have to earn is a bit of history, so that they can put what they read in its historical context. ”
(One of the most quoted aphorisms from An Innocent Millionaire is: No amount of learning can cure stupidity, and higher education positively fortifies it.)
“No one,” he avers, “can educate you but yourself. To understand writing you have to go to the wise guys of the past, they give you the perfect perspective on the present. These days we live in this NOW civilisation, it’s assumed that the past is over and done with. Books themselves are not supposed to matter. Television, computer games destroy the imperative to read, to think, to learn…. Although I do accept that life is too short to read certain authors.”
And he tilts at what he calls “the redundant verbiage” of the likes of Dickens or Scotland’s finest, Walter Scott. “Some of it may be good but two-thirds of it is just words that add nothing to the story or our understanding of the characters.”
As for the business of electronic journalism, he is contemptuous. “Take the news on television. It’s like bad fiction. You are told everything five times. You can read in a newspaper in five minutes what you get out of a half hour news broadcast…”
Who in our times do you admire? “Those who do the individual, brave act. Like the whistleblowers. In the medical profession, in the big corporations, above all in the European Union, if you blow the whistle when something is very wrong – you are ostracised and vilified. You lose your job and your pension. Powerful people are confident that they can intimidate everybody, so they never give up.”
He believes the EU has created a new ruling class which, like all ruling classes, flourishes at the expense of ordinary people. The EU leads him on to Scotland. He is sympathetic to Scottish nationalism but he cannot understand why an independent Scotland would want to be in the EU. “You Scots really want to be ruled from Brussels instead of London? Really? You may have managed to destroy the poll tax, but you would never manage to destroy any taxes from Brussels.”
He thinks nationalism is inescapable. “Now it’s deprecated, like marriage, like the family. The champions of empires, including modern empires, and the young and the attractive – all of them believe that nationalism is out of date. Nationalism is as important as family loyalty. The young, the attractive and the multilingual who can find work and sexual partners anywhere in the world don’t need their nation, or their family – but if you are unattractive or not very bright, if you are old, who the hell is ever going to care about you, except your family and your nation?
“All big countries are dysfunctional. No-one in them knows what is going on, no-one could possibly control what is going on. There’s a lot of waste. The EU is far too big. So was the Soviet Union, so is today’s greater Russia, so are the US, China, India. Ameri-cans would be better educated and more civilised if the US was at least three different countries.”
It was the Victorian novelist George Gissing who said that fiction has enormous ethical importance because it allows people to write the truth. As the author of two triumphantly true modern world classics, Stephen Vizinczey is living proof of that.