March 4, 2010
Stephen Vizinczey: In Praise of Older Women
Here is further proof that the books which tend to delight me most are not new titles but reissued editions of lesser-spotted works. As with Emanuel Litvinoff’s Journey Through a Small Planet, here we have a skinny book with a funny name, a title I didn’t know by an author I’d never heard of, which turns out to be just wonderful. This book, Vizinczey’s first novel, was initially self-published, but went on to become such a success that when it was first translated into French in 2001, it stayed in the bestseller charts for over a year – but hey, let’s not be put off. Maybe the French have better taste than we do.
In Praise of Older Women (1965) begins, “This book is addressed to young men and dedicated to older women — and the connection between the two is my proposition.” It is subtitled The Amorous Recollections of András Vajda, though the background details of the narrator’s childhood in Hungary match Vizinczey’s own.
Given than Vajda’s interest in women seems to begin “at the age of three or four,” it’s perhaps inevitable that they were always destined to be older. One of his earliest memories at this age is of refusing to go to bed while family members were visiting. The relatives came to his room while his mother put him to bed, and “she smacked my bottom and kissed it, and promised that they would all kiss it if I would go to sleep afterwards without any more fuss.”
I still remember lying on my stomach and looking over my shoulder to see all those grownups lined up waiting their turn to kiss my bottom.
All this may account for the fact that I became an open-hearted and affectionate boy and a conceited brat. Taking it for granted that everyone would love me, I found it natural to love and admire everyone I met or heard about.
Vajda’s interest in women is, it seems, entirely open-hearted: not only does he love them, but he also loves them. It is an early involvement in the church — “I already viewed myself as a great saint, temporarily stranded in childhood” — which “taught me to experience elation and awe.” To this he attributes his sense and love of “elusive mystery — an inclination that women are born with and men may acquire, if they are lucky.”
In Praise of Older Women therefore walks a fine line between the twin risks of sentimentality and misogynist objectification. It avoids both not least through the clear, calm prose and the sheer charm which Vizinczey manages to pull off in the telling. He – or Vajda – also warns readers that “although I hope this memoir will be instructive, I have to confess that it won’t help you to make women more attracted to you than you are to them. If deep down you hate them, if you dream of humiliating them, if you enjoy ordering them around, then you are likely to be paid back in kind.”
In fact before Vajda can become a lover of older women (“I knew! I knew you were a nibbler!”) he arranges it for others, becoming “a whoremaster for the American army before my twelfth birthday”. Respectable women were reduced to approaching Vajda, where “they would ask me – blushing, but often in front of their silent husbands and children – whether the soldiers had venereal disease and what they had to offer.” But Vajda himself remained uninvolved in the transactions, “a virgin pimp”, however much he wished otherwise. He attempted in vain to seduce a Countess who “would only go with an officer, and only for two or three times the usual rate.”
The mentions of the American army remind the reader that Hungary in the early 20th century was at the centre of world events, and the book digresses from time to time to address the political background. Parties at Vajda’s school (where he failed to succeed with girls his own age) “were sponsored not only by the PTA but by the Communist Youth Organisation. Our modern gym was decorated for the dance not only with crêpe paper and balloons but with huge pictures of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, who glared down at us from the top of the climbing ropes.” Vizinczey doesn’t seek to draw parallels between the central thread of the book and the political ruminations (“The worst thing about this whole rotten colonial police state isn’t what they do to you but what they might do if only they happen to think of it!”). Instead he emphasises that throughout upheaval and revolution, life, lust and love go on.
Vajda, encouraged by French and Russian novelists that “women were often attracted by a young man’s awkwardness and inexperience,” eventually breaks his duck and embarks upon his erotic journey, initially with a neighbour’s wife. “Trying to make love with someone who is as unskilled as you are seems to me about as sensible as going into deep water with a person who doesn’t know how to swim either.” He finds compatibility with older women, but some differences too. One tells him: “It’s wonderful that you can still feel sorry for yourself. It means that you’re still at the stage where you think you deserve to be happy.” Another brings home to him the truth of his serial attachments: “This idea that you can only love one person is the reason why most people live in confusion.” It’s a maxim that Vajda will ultimately adopt as his own:
We hang on to the hope of eternal love by denying even its temporary validity. It’s less painful to think ‘I’m shallow’, ‘She’s self-centred’, ‘We couldn’t communicate’, ‘It was all just physical’, than to accept the simple fact that love is a passing sensation, for reasons beyond our control and even beyond our personalities.
But even this pessimistic – or realistic – conclusion doesn’t tarnish the gleam of Vizinczey’s little gem. It’s rare enough to find a book which pursues its subject matter with such single-mindedness, rarer still to find one which executes it so well. Really, with my fetish for titles from revivalist imprints such as Penguin Modern Classics, NYRB Classics and Pushkin Press, perhaps this blog should be renamed In Praise of Older Books.