In qualified praise of Stephen Vizinczey

Bryan Appleyard

  • Truth and Lies in Literature: Reviews and Essays by Stephen Vizinczey
    Hamish Hamilton, 399 pp, £12.95, June 1986, ISBN 0 241 11805 0
  • In Praise of Older Women: The Amorous Recollections of A.V. by Stephen Vizinczey
    Hamish Hamilton, 192 pp, £8.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 241 11378 4

There is nothing enigmatic about Stephen Vizinczey. He has views, he shouts, cajoles, threatens and sneers. He worships Kleist and Stendhal, loathes William Styron and Sainte-Beuve, is conspicuously silent about Flaubert and seems to have a love-hate relationship with Nabokov. He delights in summoning up his rhetoric of loathing for the Nazis and the Mafia and in distilling hard, frequently paradoxical conclusions from his insights. ‘Cowards are dangerous,’ he hisses in a review of Gitta Sereny’s book on the Nazis, Into that Darkness, and, at the end of the same review: ‘the safety of the state depends on cultivating the imagination.’ On the autobiography of a Mafia boss he says: ‘The book exudes moral insanity in the way most modern fiction does.’ Reviewing Kate Millett, he observes: ‘erection-anxiety is the main source of evil in the world.’

Truth and Lies in Literature, a collection of reviews and essays, is full of such stuff, and, indeed, his last collection, The Rules of Chaos, was dedicated to ‘those readers who still retain a childish curiosity about life and ideas and aren’t ashamed of it’. At that point, the polemic becomes embarrassing – patronising if you take it seriously, or a touch nutty if you don’t. It could be the dedication of one of those bundles of paper covered in green ink with which unhappy souls wander into newspaper offices, convinced they have found the meaning of life.

But the few occasions when Vizinczey falls off his rhetorical tightrope are worth ignoring for the pleasure of watching him stay up there the rest of the time. He is a writer who achieves balance by flinging himself to both extremes at once. Thus, as an exiled Hungarian who fled his native country after fighting the Russians in 1956, he has ample justification for loathing the temporising of George Lukacs: ‘like most of his contemporaries, he has revealed an unerring moral sense about crimes committed thousands of miles away, on the other side of the ideological border, and a blissful unawareness of the murders committed in front of his eyes.’ Yet at the same time he manages, against the weight of his own emotions, to see the power of Lukacs’s position as a defender of the humanist ideals of realist literature, and the moral sacrifices necessitated by that position. Lukacs’s apologias for Stalin gave him an influence which established Goethe, Mann, Stendhal and Balzac in official literature and that, observes Vizinczey, ‘may yet have significant consequences for the future’. It is as if the very strength of his idealism – about political freedom and the power of literature – drives him to see the most practical aspect of the argument. Furthermore, it permits him to express that pragmatism with the same persuasive force as the idealism.

In part, the noisiness of this balancing act arises from the fact that the examples I have chosen come from short newspaper reviews, in which the requirement to be seen to be making a point, any point, can frequently be overwhelming. In longer pieces – for example the title essay, published in Harper’s – the argument is no less fierce, but acquires a context which is infinitely more illuminating of Vizinczey the writer as opposed to the holder of opinions. This essay starts with Billy Budd and Vizinczey’s disgust both with Melville’s prose and with his notion that Budd should come to love Captain Vere, the man who orders his execution. ‘The twisted style goes with the twisted thinking,’ he mutters. For him, the idea that the abuser suffers more than the abused is one of the commonest lies in literature. Characteristically, he then switches to a mode of even greater generality and speaks of the difference between the kind of literature which helps you understand and that which helps you forget. The former makes you free, the latter makes you docile. Then, via Dickens, and aided by Proust, he launches an assault on Sainte-Beuve – a snob, riddled with bad faith, who ‘could be trusted to defend the pretentions of the privileged against any truthful representation of men and society’.

Against such monsters stand the realists. ‘Realistic fiction is liberating because it portrays individuals according to their abilities and treats them with the attention and respect due to their intrinsic worth rather than their social rank.’ Here he falls off the wire. The counter is obvious enough: are you, Mr Vizinczey, implying that non-realistic fiction is all about social rank? And what precisely do we mean by attention and respect when discussing fictional characters? Clearly what he is trying to do is define realism within his own terms of fair play and honour, as a means of justifying his literary pantheon. That is reasonable enough and springs from a heartfelt desire that literature should be about something, and that it should acknowledge the inconclusiveness and complexity of life. But, in his rhetorical rush, the details become blurred and occasionally silly. Perhaps the worst example comes in The Rules of Chaos: ‘The Cartesian “I think, therefore I am” is a very limited insight.’ Well, yes ... Nevertheless ‘Truth and Lies’, the essay, stands as an admirable and typically intense attempt to entwine morality and literature and to make sure nobody will try to disentangle them again. For less convinced souls, who might perhaps glimpse ancient heresies being thus resurrected, the answer from Vizinczey is that the Sainte-Beuves of this world have allowed literature to be neutralised. They have tainted the tradition with their trimming and that, finally, may be what is to blame for the anxieties and retreats – from realism and from the barricades – of the 20th century.

But Vizinczey is fond of saying – and demonstrating in his fiction – that when you know a man’s opinions you know precisely nothing of the man. And the best of Truth and Lies in Literature are those passages where he ceases to be a critic and becomes a writer. Here the prose cools off and takes on the calm clarity of the novels. Not, it should be said, that the intensity is left behind: ‘I knew a man who was hanged. Or rather, I walked beside him for a while on Rakoczi Avenue in Budapest in the spring of 1956.’ The man was Imre Nagy, who had tried to steer Hungary peacefully out of the Soviet orbit and died for his pains. Vinzinczey goes on to discuss George Faludy’s poem about Nagy’s execution – a discussion grounded in bitter personal experience. So potent is his brief history of Hungarian resistance to invaders that he inserts it, almost word for word, in his revised version of In Praise of Older Women – a change that suggests a growing awareness in exile of the national background that gave birth to that strange novel. The essay on Faludy’s poem brings the narrative gift refreshingly to the surface. Vizinczey’s contributions to newspapers should have been reportage, leavened with anguished comment, rather than reviews:

At a time and place unknown, at a secret trial conducted by anonymous judges and prosecutors, Nagy and three of his associates were condemned to death. The world learned of the trial, the verdict and the executions from one brief announcement on 17 June 1958. No bodies were handed over to relatives; there are no graves.

    Is there a nation that could forgive such crimes against its leaders?

And, like any good journalist, he brings the tale up to date by saying that the one lesson of the Hungarian uprising is that there will be another. He does not know when – but it will certainly not be on either 15 March or 23 October. The first date marks the anniversary of the 1848 rising against the Austrians and the second the outbreak of the 1956 rebellion. Soviet troops are on full alert on both those days.

With such writing Vizinczey’s thought processes seem to come closer to their appropriate form. Detail and incident fill out the raw paradoxes and polemic of his reviews and it becomes evident that what he is so angry about is not a single debating point, but derives from the need to perceive things clearly, to see them through. What he despises in literature is any special pleading, any suggestion that it does not share these responsibilities. So, in a postscript to In Praise of Older Women in The Rules of Chaos, he writes: ‘In contemporary literature there is Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel which sets out to be unsettling and thought-provoking but degenerates into a simple rejection of the issues that it raises; clearly, what went on between Humbert and his nymphet is relevant to us only if we wish to die in the electric chair.’

There are similarities between the two writers: their insolent establishment of a private literary pantheon in opposition to the prevailing taste, their tendency towards a kind of inward rhapsodic form and their glorification of the imagination. But Nabokov is the more intelligent and sophisticated figure. His prose is hard and shiny, a classical style in comparison with Vizinczey’s – admittedly qualified – romanticism. Vizinczey sees in Nabokov’s subtlety a moral danger – a perilous blunting of literature’s liberating powers – for the sake of something that hardly seems like content at all. Nabokov’s novel was inspired by the story of a gorilla which, after much training, finally produced a recognisable drawing – of the bars of its own cage. Where Nabokov wanted to explore the act of drawing, Vizinczey is in the business of rattling the bars.

So what his erotic novel is about is the nature of freedom in a dislocated world. ‘Sex,’ he writes in the postscript, ‘is the bad news that we have no supernatural powers,’ and his hero slithers from encounter to encounter, gaily proving his thesis that older women make better mistresses and unthinkingly enslaved by his own promiscuity. But there is no simple moral dimension – rather an oscillation between the sense of freedom and the sense of slavery. Thus the narrative proceeds from woman to woman, from paradox to paradox, and finally simply breaks off when Professor Andras Vajda thinks he has reached middle age.

The ‘realism’ perhaps stems from the fact that the sex is nothing else – it is simply sex – and the book is a series of tales on a subject which was topical in 1965 at the time of its first publication. So it begins with a rather banal debate about permissiveness, the sort of newspaper issue which Vizinczey always seems inclined to take very seriously. The effect is to give the book a demonstrative, 19th-century air. Incidents seem selected, edited and juxtaposed around a theme. But they are not enhanced, and they are not given self-conscious substance by any 20th-century trickery.

It works well. The narrative skims along with an extraordinary lightness, thanks partly to a swift editing and pointing of the significant matter but also to Vizinczey’s impatience with clutter. He has little interest in the appearance of rooms, furniture, or indeed in people as three-dimensional things: instead he leaps straight to the moral and dramatic balance of each scene, establishes that, and races on. It seems to be his high-wire act at work again, but in fiction he is not tempted to stumble into banality or error since the terms of the argument need never be stated. Nevertheless, with this new edition, he has managed to insert one pratfall. He has added a chapter entitled ‘On the deadly Sin of Sloth’, the prime function of which is to include a dreadful poem of his on the shortcomings of masturbation and an anecdote on the perils of pursuing that habit in university libraries.

With An Innocent Millionaire – published in 1983 – Vizinczey extended his fictional range. He abandoned the episodic mode but retained the style of the pointed fable. The result at times seemed desperately thin, inviting some nasty comparisons with Harold Robbins, as scenes burbled on unreasonably. Yet he never actually fell. His issues and imagery blended with his mild irony and delicately thrillerish construction to keep him aloft.

With all these four books together, it is possible to see Vizinczey more clearly and to make more sense of his means of becoming a writer. For one thing, it is clear that his range of interests is narrow and, once something has been impressed on his mind, it tends to stay there. So the Mafia character in An Innocent Millionaire is derived directly from a book he read and reviewed for the Sunday Telegraph and from the research he did for an impassioned J’accuse-type article for the same newspaper. There are many other examples where ideas – frequently expressed in virtually the same words – flit from book to book as if looking for a home.

The best home tends to be the fiction, where these ideas can be presented without the odd and often wrong-headed pirouettes he feels the need to perform in an attempt to codify his own taste. But it is also to be found – as Truth and Lies reveals – in a sort of spare and angry journalism. This is clear enough in the essays on Nagy and the Mafia, but it also emerges in a purely literary context in his essay on Kleist, written for the Times in 1977 and entitled ‘The Genius Whose Time has Come’. This is full of knockabout in-fighting at the expense of Goethe and any other of Kleist’s critics on whom Vizinczey can lay his hands. But it also has the sort of narrative meat which seems to allow his prose to leave the bumpy airstrip behind and find its natural medium: ‘The two guests spent most of the night writing letters in their adjoining rooms, and in the morning dressed with care and went for a walk; in the afternoon they asked to have coffee served to them by the lake, and the workman who carried the table and two chairs down to the lakeshore later testified that when the gentleman asked him to fetch another tot of rum ... Frau Vogel objected ... Possibly Frau Vogel, who had been told that she had cancer of the womb, was afraid that if Kleist got tipsy he would fail to kill her promptly and painlessly. There were two pistols, which she carried in a basket over her arm, covered with a white cloth, and Kleist charged both with just enough gunpowder to kill but not disfigure.’

Vizinczey’s writing is at its best when he is describing activity. It is then that he seems to find his poise. He needs both to be saying nothing in terms of argument and yet to be saying a great deal. The heart of his work seems to be an elaboration of Kleist’s dumbstruck reaction to Kant: ‘We cannot decide whether what we call truth is really truth, or whether it only seems so to us ...’ From that Kleist derived the view that we are helpless beings, fated to construct our world on the model of nothing more substantial than our feelings.

The mainspring of the plot of An Innocent Millionaire is the hero’s inability to see through a confidence trickster who masquerades as a kindly old man. His lawyer later explains the difference between what such a man says and his personality. It is a simple enough situation, but Vizinczey allows it to expand and vibrate. If it occasionally sounds like Robbins, this is perhaps only because he has chosen similarly exotic and mythic settings as well as the same big ideas – greed, crime, the search for treasure, sexual and financial. But, for Vizinczey, these things are real: not being able to see through a con-man is a bitter reminder of how little we can ever know. So in In Praise of Older Women the pursuit of sex only reveals our loneliness, our lack of purpose. In his postscript he comments: ‘What interested me in all this was the desolating sense of abruptness of modern life and the individual’s emotional adaptation to the age of discontinuity: a way of feeling and perceiving that feeds on multiplying rather than deepening experience and which I would call episodic sensibility.’