FICTION: Thanks to their unfading freshness, readers can now enjoy two great works of Stephen Vizinczey, rediscovered by RBA.
The Master of Active Passions
by Carles Barba
La Vanguardia (Barcelona)
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Stendhal said that setting out to write an ambitious literary work was like buying a lottery ticket for posterity. We don’t know whether Stephen Vizinczey (Káloz, Hungary, 1933), who has written two of them, will be read in 2050 or 2100, but it is certain that both In Praise of Older Women (1965) and An Innocent Millionaire (1983), just republished by RBA, can still be enjoyed as two novels of unfading freshness. In the last forty years this author has published only three works of fiction (The Man with the Magic Touch completes the trio); his fourth novel, Wishes, has been announced for the coming year.
A good way of introducing Vizinczey could be to define him as a man born and raised in Hungary who was formed intellectually by the French and Russian novelists of the 19th century and forged as a writer when he was exiled from his country by the revolution of 1956 and set foot in Canada, where he adopted the English language. Apart from that, two apparently contradictory features profile his character: an unshakeable individualism and an instinctive need to seek masters. This double contradiction can be seen in the two principal protagonists of his two great novels: both András Vajda of In Praise of Older Women and Mark Niven of An Innocent Millionaire go their own way, are only faithful to themselves and their own utopias, and at the same time long to find mentors who will help them to clear their way along the road of existence. The young Vizinczey in his native Hungary was a disciple of the Marxist philosopher György Lukács, but he was to find his true masters in his reading. In fact, Stendhal and Balzac (to whom he devotes enthusiastic essays in his collection of critical texts, Truth and Lies in Literature) soon became his formative models, and both permeate his own biography as well as that of his two alter egos, Vajda and Niven.
Beylisme, for example, holds that women are the great masters of life. In his Life of Henry Brulard, Stendhal affirms that his life story can be summed up in the initials of eleven women and the follies they have induced him to commit. The same moral underlies In Praise of Older Women, in which András Vajda becomes a man through his adventures with a dozen women in their forties. Stendhalien too (and also Balzacian, it would seem) is the chasse au bonheur of Vizinczey’s Vajda and Niven, their determination and audacity which drive them to attain the objectives which they set for themselves (conquering women or finding a sunken treasure).
The passion for liberty, the passion for love, the passion to become
somebody, mark this author’s singularity at every moment,
and in this too he shows himself the disciple of his masters. Stendhal
always saw himself in Napoleon; Balzac wanted to be the Cuvier of
the novel; as a little boy Vizinczey wanted to be the first Hungarian
Pope. This desire for a super-identity was to show itself in a particularly
striking way in 1957, when he left his country invaded by the Russians
and settled in Canada, where he had to start again from zero. Convinced
that he had the makings of a writer, the unknown refugee spent eight
years crossing the desert, learning English and devoting himself
to writing the fictional memoirs of one András Vajda, in
which Vajda recounts his amorous experiences in post-war Budapest.
In 1964, when Vizinczey had his novel ready for publication, he
gave it to several publishers without managing to get a contract.
He ended by publishing it at his own expense, staking all to win
all, with the faith in himself of a Julien Sorel or a Lucien de
Rubempré. His wager paid off: the poet Earle Birney and the
critic Northrop Frye read the book, were enthusiastic about it and
aroused the interest of an established Englishman, Graham Greene,
who joined in the applause. From that point the novel followed a
triumphant course, translated into twenty-two languages and two
film adaptations. Today it enjoys the aura of a modern classic.
Fortunately Vizinczey did not allow himself to be intoxicated by success, and eighteen years had to pass before he delivered his second work of fiction, An Innocent Millionaire. In this long and complex novel, its author demonstrates greater mastery, moves over a broad spectrum of locales (Paris, Rome, Toledo, Chicago, the Caribbean…) and again shows himself the disciple of his beloved Stendhal and Balzac. Mark Niven, a semi-failed actor’s son who suddenly decides to get rich by finding a treasure at the bottom of the sea, has all the charm, ingenuity and audacity of a Fabrizio del Dongo. And his creator has also paired him with an older woman at his side, his Sanseverina who enchants him with her autumnal feminine attractions but who cannot divert him from his idée fixe, the recovery of seventeen thousand gold lingots from an old Spanish treasure ship.
Here is the great theme which will set Vizinczey apart (and which he takes from Balzac, whose characters always swarm under the slogan
enrichissez-vous): the power of money, the fascination with riches, the seductive halo of millions which buy and corrupt everything. The inexperienced Mark Niven tells his father at the beginning, "I will get rich without bothering anybody but the fish". But his progenitor, a wiser man, warns him that in general "people get rich by eating other people alive", and the following five hundred pages of the novel demonstrate implacably the reality underlying this paternal wisdom. Anyone who has read Eugénie Grandet or César Birotteau will recall the sadistic joy with which Balzac shows how those who are avid for money or power always triumph over the pure in heart. Vizinczey has made this lesson his own, and after finally allowing Niven to find his treasure, puts him at the mercy of unscrupulous magnates and criminal lawyers who quickly teach him with seamless rapacity the habitual and brutal way in which fortunes are amassed. The company of scoundrels which fills the second part of the novel is truly memorable. The swindler and art dealer John Vallantine seems to have escaped from the Comédie humaine, and the astuteness with which he takes apart his young client would undoubtedly have drawn from Balzac an irrepressible "bravo!".
The republication of In Praise of Older Women and An Innocent Millionaire gives us the welcome opportunity to re-read a great contemporary writer. The two books are novels of apprenticeship, two coming-of-age stories in which András and Mark face up to the cruelty of the world by reaffirming themselves in their own personal rebelliousness. And they both experience in their own flesh the truth of Laclos’s words which Vizinczey never tires of citing: "Believe me, Madame, cold tranquility, the soul’s sleep, the imitation of death, does not bring happiness; only the active passions can lead to it."
© La Vanguardia 2007