In March, readers will be able to reacquaint themselves with the delightfully libidinous hero of In Praise of Older Women, when Stephen Vizinczey's novel is reissued as a Penguin Modern Classic. However, that does not include readers in Canada, the country that gave the novelist new life (and a beloved wife) when he was on the run after the Hungarian revolution more than 50 years ago.
In a twist perfectly fitting for one of the strangest literary histories in Canada, In Praise of Older Women will remain out of print in Vizinczey's adopted country. Why? Well, first you have to understand the man, and the novel that shook Canada to the soles of its sensible shoes when it became a self-published phenomenon in 1965.
First, the man: At 76, he is cantankerous, charming, combative, alarmingly well-read. He's as fierce as mother bear when it comes to protecting the reputation of his two novels, In Praise of Older Women and An Innocent Millionaire, and as cranky as a father bear with a sore paw when it comes to nursing old slights. Twenty years ago, his British publisher told an interviewer, "Some publishers are terrified of him, there's no doubt about it - you either like him very much or you're frightened of him."
"Difficult" is a word that is often used to describe him, but Vizinczey would say he's not difficult; he just cares - a lot. He doesn't seem so fearsome when he's sitting with Gloria, his wife of more than four decades, his rock and staunch defender, in the living room of their flat in London. (A nursery teacher named Lady Diana Spencer used to live below them; to this day, tourists still stop in the street and gaze up at her window.) The walls are lined with books by Dostoevsky and Stendhal, and his own novels in various translations.
Vizinczey, stout and handsome with watchful, hooded eyes, has a memory filled with sales figures (more than five million copies of his books sold) and reviews (from a French-Canadian journalist: "He is of one those rare writers who can inspire enthusiasm and identification in the reader.") Bad reviews, and bad publishers, are also stored in that memory, never far from hand.
For years, he has fought to have In Praise back in print in English. Now that the moment is near, he has the air of someone who has had justice long denied. "The truth does not date," he says, explaining why his most famous novel will always have an audience. "This is what morons who go by fashion do not understand." His pugnacious jaw is set, but he might be softening a bit toward the morons now that his baby is being reborn, swaddled in the luxurious covers of a Penguin Modern Classic.
What a story it's been until now: In Praise of Older Women is the semi-autobiographical story of Andras Vajda, who begins as an 11-year-old "whoremaster" in Budapest, procuring women for the American army, and desperate to trade cigarettes with any woman kind enough to take his virginity. His various erotic adventures take him through Hungary and Europe and finally to Canada, where he seduces a colleague's wife at an academic conference at Lake Couchiching. It is full of erotic interludes that are playful but reverent, funny and touching. It's hardly racy by today's standards, although it displays an emotional sophistication well ahead of its time; it's not surprising that in 1965, this was considered too hot a potato for publishers to touch.
And not just in frigid Canada, either: Vizinczey sent the manuscript to Esquire, publisher of Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, hoping the magazine would print an excerpt, but it was returned with a giant "NO!" scrawled across the title page.
It was the exclamation mark that hurt.
"I really offended them," says Vizinczey, shaking his head. "An English agent told me he wouldn't risk his reputation by sending it to publishers."
"These were all terrible blows," says Gloria, sitting beside him. "We talk about them as sort of amusing incidents, but they were shattering at the time." There is something beautiful in their interplay: Gloria with her loving, sensible Canadian tones; Vizinczey feisty and still remarkably Hungarian. (He once told a friend he was writing a novel called Wishes, and she paused and said, "I'm not sure Vicious is a good title for a novel.")
They were living in Toronto at the time, with Martha and Mary, Gloria's two daughters with her first husband, actor Don Harron; Vizinczey was nominally a producer at the CBC, but one of his radio reports had so offended Ontario Hydro, he claims, that, although he was kept on the payroll, he was shunted off to one side. He quietly worked on his novel, though no one thought it was publishable.
"I was complete nervous breakdown," Vizinczey says in his exuberantly eccentric English. He fled Hungary able to speak only a few dozen words of English, but chose to write in his adopted tongue, emulating Joseph Conrad. When no publisher would touch In Praise, the couple published it themselves out of their house on Sherbourne Street in Toronto. Martha biked copies around to bookstores, although some wouldn't stock it. Mary, now a successful film director, packed the novels to be mailed.
Even when it became a bit of a phenomenon, it was too much for parts of puritan Toronto. A signing at Eaton's was cancelled despite a lineup around the block.
The novel became a succès de scandale, especially as it was championed by Robert Fulford and Earle Birney.
Then things went sour, and litigation - a prominent feature of Vizinczey's life - began. He went to court with Ballantine, his U.S. publisher, over its decision to sell his novel to Simon & Schuster, which published Harold Robbins. This was a cut too far for a serious novelist and a man who had studied under Georg Lukacs. "I was introduced as the poor man's Harold Robbins!" he says now.
That lawsuit gave him much material for An Innocent Millionaire. Later, he would go on to battle producer Robert Lantos over royalties from the 1978 film adaptation of In Praise of Older Women.
Adam Freudenheim, the head of Penguin Classics, is planning to publish the book in March with five pages of blurbs, drawn from reviews through the years: "It's a lovely, charming book. It surprises a lot of people who expect something different based on the title," he says, in an interview from his London office. "It has so many things going for it - Stephen's personal story, the publication history, the novel itself."
Writer George Jonas, Vizinczey's friend for 50 years, says, "He is known as a fine writer by specialists and connoisseurs." Does he get the respect he's due? "Not if you ask me," says Jonas, "but then, he hasn't been part of the 'scene' here for 40 years. He published some outstanding books in the seventies and eighties - [the essay collections] The Rules of Chaos and Truth and Lies in Literature, and An Innocent Millionaire - but his only big-impact book in Canada, In Praise of Older Women, was published in the sixties.
"Stephen was never part of the academic circuit - far too outspoken, not nearly dense and impenetrable enough - and he was never part of any literary clique."
The two writers met in Hungary, in the summer before the 1956 uprising. Vizinczey was a budding playwright, having abandoned hopes of becoming a conductor. He'd written a play for the Hungarian state theatre, only to be summoned by an apparatchik from the culture ministry and told that his work didn't pass political muster. (After Vizinczey arrived in Canada, he had a script rejected at the National Film Board by the very same man, also in exile from Hungary.) Vizinczey fought in the uprising, helping to pull down a statue of Stalin. "I came from the Hungarian revolution," he says now. "I'm a revolutionary writer!"
Originally, he moved to Italy, but before long chose Canada to put down roots. "Canada saved me from ideology, helped me focus on human nature," he says.
Wait, though: It was also a dire move. "I never regretted anything so much as going to Canada. I nearly starved in the first year." He contemplated jumping from the top of an office building.
"But he didn't want to end up in a wheelchair," Gloria interrupts cheerfully.
Canada saved him, gave him Gloria, and, in the end, its public warmed to the European sense and sensuality of his novel. Why then is it not being republished here? Vizinczey sighs. The old slights are clearly still fresh in his mind; after all, he remembers the insultingly small offer Jack McClelland made for In Praise of Older Women ($250, although he later increased the amount, and the two became friends.)
It turns out that Penguin Canada also made an offer for the forthcoming reprint, but the money wasn't sufficient, and he wasn't guaranteed the promotional support he sought. "Let's say they made an offer you had to refuse."
So he's still holding on to the Canadian and American rights, waiting for a proper suitor. How does he feel about not having his book in print again in his adopted country? Vizinczey is uncharacteristically silent for a moment, perhaps searching for a diplomatic turn of phrase.
Finally, he says, "I have to say, I'm quite bitter." Then, quickly, he adds that this is not bitterness toward Canadians in general: "They have always been very generous to me."