Book Review: In Praise of Older Women, by Stephen Vizinczey

Strange encounters in dingy precommunist apartment blocks, necking and feeling up

TVR Books | Susan Doering | November 2010

Truth and Lies in Literature

As a destitute immigrant writer in Canada at the age of 24, fleeing from the aftermath of the Hungarian revolution and with about 50 words of English, Stephen Vizinczey saw himself faced with two choices: to fling himself either from the top of a high building in Montreal or into the challenge of learning to write well in a new language. His fear of ending up alive in a wheelchair instead of dead in a coffin made the decision.

Nine years later, in 1965, Vizinczey had written his first novel in English which, despite initial rejections from several staid publishing houses and even the supposedly daring women’s magazine Cosmopolitan, eventually climbed the bestseller list with help of positive reviews from renowned critics and literati such as Northrop Frye and Margaret Drabble and has since been reprinted several times culminating in being republished this year by Penguin as a Modern Classic.

Although the author himself is unsure as to whether this status is actually to be welcomed or not ("classic" has a bitter aftertaste!), it has induced many to either re-read a book of their youth or, as in my case, to read it for the first time. The former have been unanimous in their praise, joyously reliving their own sexual awakening and the new promiscuity of the sixties in the frank scenes and bluntly overt language. For the rest of us, meeting the anti-hero, the author’s alter ego, for the first time and accompanying him on his seducing (not seductive) adventures, the experience is more distant.

From the vantage point of the new century, it is the literary technique and the social context that interest the reader rather than the content, which no longer shocks. The fictitious narrator is András Vajda, Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who proclaims that his book "is addressed to young men and dedicated to older women – and the connection between the two is [his] proposition", and that his "highly selective memoir" is centered on "the universal predicaments of love".

Predicaments are, indeed, what the reader is offered. Strange encounters in dingy, pre-communist apartment blocks, uneasy meetings with husbands in ménages à trios, frantic attempts at dating and necking and feeling up (the vocabulary of the time), frenzied dance-floor and backseat-of-taxi gropings, unlucky underwear grapplings, uncomfortable up-against-a-tree fumblings, and fraught relationships, all with endings more bitter than sweet; this is the stuff of a young man’s days and nights.

We are, of course, reminded on the one hand of the great novels of youthful male initiations, discoveries and conquests, such as Fielding’s Tom Jones, Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir and Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale and also, naturally, of D.H. Lawrence.  Vizinczey’s book cannot quite take a place on the level of these models, yet it does offer a sly and waywardly tongue-in-cheek study of a middle-aged man’s musings on his youthful failures and failings.

Vájda’s declared eponymous intention in writing this memoir is to praise older women. However, the author cunningly subverts any success in such an undertaking and firmly places the sadness of sex at centre stage. In his adventures the young Vájda comes nowhere near an understanding of the women in his path, and both are constantly disappointed with their fleeting encounters and fragile relationships, even when they seem to be yearning for something deeper. Often, certainly, it is circumstances which prevent a couple from getting to know each other better; by virtue of their being "older", most of the women that Vájda takes up with are married.

Yet it is far more his psychological inability to acknowledge any world outside his own that causes the unbridgeable gap. Our protagonist suffers in fact from the malaise of egoism and an underlying Peter Pan syndrome, as he even himself admits at the end of his puerile outpourings. The reader is alternately amused and annoyed by the doings of the young man, neatly done by the author who, retaining throughout the first-person perspective, nevertheless allows us in the dialogues to glimpse the distance from which the women view him.

The novel is set against the backdrop of Communist Hungary, and although neither historical nor political events play a major role, the era is well captured in the setting of dilapidated apartment houses, the atmosphere of the menacing shadow of the Security Police and the supporting cast of shadily corrupt, small-time politicians and bureaucrats.

This semi-autobiographical account of masculinity is clever and often funny, and the author has succeeded so exactly in reproducing the tone and attitude of the protagonist that it well deserves its classic pigeon-hole.


In Praise of Older Women

by Stephen Vizinczey

University of Chicago Press, 1990

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