Praising Older Women
Book reviewed: In Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey
This is not the kind of novel I’d normally pick up. For one, were it not for the word “novel” on the front, I would have gotten the genre wrong — the title suggests more of a sexual manifesto or a confession than a work of fiction. For another, I fear I am no longer at an age when a book like that is much of a selling point. I picked it up anyway, intrigued by the author’s biography. The Hungarian-born Stephen Vizinczey was one of those 20th-century Mitteleuropean writers who, buffeted by historical vicissitudes, found themselves washed up on the rugged shores of the Americas, where their Continental sensibilities were confronted (or affronted, some might say) by the Mammon-worshiping ethos and drive-through mindset of the New World. Unlike most of these castaways, Vizinczey had the audacity to leave the comfortable sanctuary of his native tongue and stake a claim in the language of his adopted homeland. If the effusive publisher’s note is anything to go by, the gamble paid off; Anthony Burgess, who knew a thing or two about good writing, proclaimed that Vizinczey taught “the English how to write English.” Clearly not someone to pass over, then.
Recounted in the first person and broken into short chapters (each one opening with a pensée from some canonical eminence), the semiautobiographical In Praise of Older Women is the story of András Vajda — or, more accurately, of his amatory peregrinations. Born in a Hungarian town in 1933, the same year the Nazis took power in Germany, András quickly learns that history is a hostile element. He is only two when his father is murdered at the hands of a fascist goon and only ten when the Americans start raining bombs on his town. As the war draws to a close, the enterprising András insinuates himself into the US army and, leveraging his linguistic abilities, becomes its whoremaster. It is an inauspicious start for a future ladies’ man, but András is a romantic at heart, and an unfulfilling encounter with a prostitute rescues him from the destiny of a spiritual bankruptee. Pursuing his sensualist proclivities in post-war Budapest, András hits upon the discovery that the only women a young man should bother with are older ones, though the criteria for “older” are ambiguous — the women András himself bothers with seem to be of a perfectly fertile age.
András gradually masters the art of seduction (and the study of philosophy, when he is not womanizing), but the art of escaping historical turbulence is another matter. His conquests take place against the backdrop of the drab and increasingly repressive reality imposed by the Soviets; the failure of the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 forces András to flee his birthplace for the greener pastures of the West. He ends up in Rome, down-and-out but still untamed, and he whiles away the time by spending his prodigious skills on a woman with a decidedly hyperborean temperament — for an Italian anyway. The Hungarian Casanova eventually settles in Toronto, where he accepts a teaching post at a university and, after a spate of erotic adventures with local women, comes of age — sort of.
“The book is addressed to young men and dedicated to older women,” the narrator says in the beginning. Older women might be flattered, but aspiring Don Juans should think twice about incorporating any of the advice, such as it is, into their playbook. András’s tactics are bound to raise a few eyebrows, even among those not especially moved by modern conventions. In one chapter, András propositions a vivacious redhead at a local bathhouse by confessing to the girl he’d like to rape her. He tries to pick up another target — a blond violinist this time around — by offering her the first accessory within reach if she only agrees to spend the night with him; the accessory in question is a battered tin ashtray with a beer advertisement. He pursues an affair with a working-class mother — by his own admission, a Magyar version of Eliza Doolittle — he encountered in a city park while she was enjoying a day out with her kids, though not before establishing the woman’s husband presents a low risk to his physical safety; once the sexual excitement wears off, the protégé is discarded. Professor Higgins was classier.
But let’s cut the author some slack. Any novelist who sets out to write about sex is entering a minefield; Vizinczey, to his credit, emerges with his limbs intact. It’s not all about love affairs, either. A handful of observations on the follies of modern society are interspersed throughout the text, and they tend to be cogent. Anticipating the “incel” movement, the narrator puts his finger on the sorry state of the relations between the sexes. Inspired by an article in a porn magazine sent to him by one of his students, András judiciously notes that “if there is a sexual revolution, it is of the most lonely kind.” But he doesn’t seem to realize that pornography — including the raunchy magazine he was sent — has, in no small measure, spawned this “revolution” by disembodying the body, desacralizing sex, and turning lovemaking into a purely biological function. András’s reflections, here and elsewhere, are skin-deep; he grazes but never penetrates. Given the overall lightness of tone, this is perhaps inevitable, but it has the effect of rendering the more serious passages inconsequential.
I would have found the final chapters of the novel its least satisfactory part if it weren’t for the setting. András’s humorous description of Toronto, a city I know only too well, is generally on the money, as when he writes, for example, that it is a town where the streets and squares are named after developers, mayors, or trees. His comical interactions with Toronto women — who, among other things, “watch television for hours every day . . . and pride themselves on being practical” — might raise some hackles, but would resonate with many a man looking to lead a life of romance in Canada’s largest metropolis. The skyline has changed completely; other things, not so much. But here, too, the narrator doesn’t linger; as with his paramours, András is always eager to waltz on.
The novel’s tone belies the time in which it was written. Though a child of the 1960s, In Praise of Older Women is redolent of the world of yesterday — or rather, the world of the day before yesterday, to borrow John Lukacs’s reworked Zweigism from his book about Budapest. András is a creature of that lost world, an old-fashioned gallant who laments the passing of an era when women were courted by men who knew how to love to them. The modern times are inimical to the old-fashioned game of Eros; “the solitude of speed” (András’s term) leaves no time for men and women to give Aphrodite her proper due. Yet despite all the odes to the fairer sex, whose members are only too happy to requite his devotion to them, András is no romantic looking for his Laura, Beatrice, or Lotte. He loves his women until he tires of them (or, as sometimes happens, they of him); his inamoratas are interchangeable and easily replaceable. While he might fancy himself as a gentleman in the old style, András is really just a pick-up artist — with some Old-World sophistication thrown in. He certainly knows his Balzac and his Bartók, and he can embellish his sexual raids with Habsburgian or fin-de-siècle pizazz, but, when all is said and done, his agenda does not extend beyond finding an easy lay. This is not a moral indictment. The problem is not that András is a roué — he is not — but that, ultimately, nothing much is at stake here.
Vizinczey claimed he knew no more than fifty words of English upon his arrival in the West. If true, In Praise of Older Women is an extraordinary accomplishment. But high-quality literature does not recognize extenuating circumstances; a literary work must stand or fall on its merit. For all its belle époque flourishes, this book is a case of the parts being greater than the sum. The result is fairly pedestrian and, given the sensation the novel caused when it came out, it adds up to little more than a period piece. Vizinczey ends the novel — a mild spoiler here — by dispatching András to a teaching post at the University of Michigan. András has grown wiser, but he isn’t quite ready to sow his wild oats; more experiences await in the provincial town of Ann Arbor. The exact nature of these experiences is not hard to guess, but details will be revealed elsewhere — “the adventures of a middle-aged man,” we are told, “are another story.” So they are, but that age segment would require a bit more gravitas.