August, 1966

by Brigid Brophy, London Magazine


IN PRAISE OF OLDER WOMEN by Stephen Vizinczey. (Barrie & Rockliff: 215.)

Stephen Vizinczey has created a modern, Hungarian Cherubino. By a superb incongruity (but not an unprecedented one, since da Ponte eventually reached the same continent), the author and his Cherubino have alike fetched up in Canada.

In Praise of Older Women is a novel in the form of a document by its hero, Andras Vajda. The fictitious András is now 'Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Saskatchewan Saskatoo, a formula he appends, no doubt in Nabokovian fascination with the barbaric syllables, after signing his preface to his book. Canada opens and (the last chapter brings the hero up to date) closes the text; and the narrator's Canadian present pierces, for ironic moments, through the very texture, setting off and distancing the whole to admirably baroque effect.

Ostensibly András is writing a treatise to help-or at least comfort - his Canadian students: 'I seem to spend most of my time between lectures listening to male students complaining about their misadventures with female students. I tell them that girls are just as maddening in sexy old Europe as they are in Saskatoon.' This purpose provides a yoke in which the reflective and the recollective can run side by side. The book's title promises a discourse, its sub.. title ('the amorous recollections of András Vajda) a narrative; and András's autobiographical account of his life in sexy old Europe proceeds br chapters named like Ciceronian essays-.'On Courage and Seeking Advice', 'On Virgins', 'On' (András has reached Canada) 'Grown Women As Teenage Girls'.

A Cherubino from the start, András can scarcely remember the time when ogni donna didn't make him palpitar. In 1945, he is at a military school in Hungary; he is swept with the general flight into Austria, where, 'going through blacked-out Vienna in the middle of the night, I lost the other cadets'; he is eventually adopted by the American Army and, quickly picking up enough American to interpret between the soldiers and Hungarian women refugees, becomes, at the age of eleven, a 'virgin pimp'. And already 'I was so inflamed by all the talk and caresses, that I was in a state of permanent erection.'

András shares, too, Cherubino's wise reaction to 1a gloria militar 'ever since those weeks of shock, hunger arid exhaustion, the only forms self indulgence I recoil from are hatred and violence. It was then that I must have acquired the sensibilities of a libertine: when one sees too many corpses one is likely to lose one's inhibitions about living bodies'.

In a plain, linear, very stylish American, András continues with his return to Hungary -on which country he occasionally reflects with a touch of Nabokov's academic un- guist's irony: the small daughter of one of his mistresses has only to remark 'He always walks away. . . It's a mania with him', and András footnotes the dialogue 'Mania is one of the most common Hungarian words, for obvious reasons'. That it Is a Communist Hungary to which he returns András indicates by elegant, economical methods-barely more than the casual mention that, as an undergraduate, he tries to seduce a girl who is known to him 'only from the Marxism-Leninism classes . With the same feathery strokes (but it's a finn, a wrought-iron feather), he puts in, almost as though they were the weather in the background of his adventures, the atmospheres of political oppression and suspicion and, finally, the 1956 Revolution, when he leaves Hungary.

In a page or two Mr Vizinczey conveys, through András, the entire agony of the exile-the nauseous weightlessness which overtakes a person suddenly released from the determining pressures of accidental circumstance. At the border, the refugees are met by a choice of bus, each marked with its ultimate destination. 'I happened', writes András, 'to be standing beside the yellow letters "Sweden". If I stepped on that bus, I would meet women in Stockholm and we'd fall in love-but if I moved on to the next vehicle, we'd never even learn of each other's existence.' An unknown girl gets on to the Brazil bus, and András notices she has a broken tooth: 'If it hadn't been for that tooth, I might be writing these recollections in Portuguese.' András gets on to the bus for Italy.

His progress (which ends by a transplantation from Italy to Canada) is touched in by the unemphasized changes in how he is addressed in the dialogue: András; Andrea; Andy. All the way, the people who thus address him are girls he would like to make love to and older women whom he does-which is the burden of his message to the young men of Canada. (He writes, of his adolescence, what hundreds of people could, with the geography transposed, write of theirs:
'The sensation in Budapest at the time was Claude Autant-Lara s film Devil in the Flesh, which I went to see at least a dozen times.') András's fiascos with girls are wildly funny, and yet they, and the advice they occasion, are saved from the merely funny - for - ten - minutes facetiousness of the Sunday papers funny columns by resting on an intellectual emotional structure. András is rarities: a genuinely educated man., and a man who genuinely likes women. 'I thought you Europeans were supposed o be heroes in the war of the sexes! a Canadian woman says to him and he replies 'I'm a pacifist'. The Department of Philosophy, University of Saskatchewan, would as a matter of fact be lucky to get András.

One of his antithetically turned paragraphs ('Since we no longer reproach ourselves for failing to conform to absolute ethical precepts, we beat ourselves with the stick of psychological insight. . . We're too understanding to condemn our actions; we condemn our motives instead') contains more thought than a volume by Simone de Beauvoir. And he knows where to put the punctuation.

This Cherubino couldn't, as Kierkegaard suspected the original one might, grow into Don Giovanni. András is so td speak entitled to his cogency of observation (well-born Hungarian ladies assuming the manner of martyrs on going out to prostitute themselves; a frigid woman who behaves, as she receives András into her body, 'more like a considerate hostess than a lover ), because his love, though inconstant to its objects, is constant in genuinely being love. His sensuousness justifies itself, like the extravagance of champagne, by its own effervescence; it's not only a symptom of András's pleasure, but a pleasing entity, of whose existence one is glad; it even collects about itself the nimbus, the holiness, which consecrates the inconstancies of Cherubino and of Helen of Troy.
'And though I'm an atheist now', András remarks in writing about his early boyhood, when he served as an acolyte; ' I can still . . . cherish that feeling of elation, the four candles in the huge marbled silence. . . . The Franciscan fathers would, I hope, forgive me for saying that I would never have been able to understand and enjoy women as much as I do if the Church.. hadn't taught me to experience elation and awe.'

Indeed, this Cherubino becomes not Don Giovanni but middle-aged-at the moment, on the last page of the book, when a Canadian woman he has lusted after but proved impotent to take consoles him Oh, well . . . one orgasm more or less doesn't really matter, does it?'. But long before that he's perceived the sadness in eroticism-when he sees the failure of eroticism to attach one person to another for ever as the failure of the life instinct to attach any person to living for ever: 'No argument can till the void of a dead feeling- that reminder of the ultimate void, our final inconstancy. We're untrue even to life.'