Tuesday, June 7, 2011

IN PRAISE OF OLDER WOMEN by Stephen Vizinczey

According to a legend recounted on the front endpapers of my edition of this book, an early reviewer disgustedly tossed his advance copy into a wastebasket and wrote to the American publisher, "...I hope that Mr. Vizinczey will be murdered before he has time to write another book." When the book that caused this Khomeini-esque reaction in 1966 is read today, one wonders what aspect of this urbane, restrained and rather tame novel (tame not only for our time but for its own, the time of Naked Lunch, Last Exit to Brooklyn and the lifting of the Chatterley ban) was so upsetting. A highly literary erotic bildungsroman set against a background of historical tragedy (World War II, Nazism, Auschwitz, Stalinism, the 1956 Hungarian uprising), In Praise of Older Women reads like a lighter, more comic, much less ironically detached, Budapest version of the The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This comparison is intentionally anachronistic; Vizinczey's work preceded Kundera's by about two decades and might have influenced it, in a very general way. In contrast to Kundera's great work, Vizinczey's novel is good, interesting and minor. I want to call it a 'major minor novel.' (Unbearable Lightness is a major novel; Catch-22 is a Major Major one.) It's smart about sex and cognizant of the complexities of love. The chapters on 1956 and the narrator's experiences in Italian exile are wonderful, as are the passages in which Vizinczey's narrator indicts intellectuality and political action as flights from the self--"No argument can fill the void of a dead feeling," he writes--even as he flees from himself into erotic entanglements. Vizinczey should perhaps have given this irony greater emphasis, given us a more Nabokovianly unreliable narrator. As it is, Andras Vajda is an insufficiently unreliable narrator, more Henry Miller than Humbert Humbert. A more mysterious, elusive central character would've made the book more deeply interesting.

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