Growing up in war-torn Hungary, the narrator András Vajda, discovers that the charms of young girls are lost on him, and seeks out the embraces of older women. From his first disastrous encounter with the formidable Fräulein Mozart at a US army camp to his passion for Maya, a married woman, through to his turbulent affair with a reporter’s wife in Canada, he recounts how his amorous adventures with different middle-aged women have taught him about sex, love and the ways of the world.
'You cannot put it down: witty, moving and it's all about sex' Margaret Drabble
'A masterpiece ... dazzling ... like all great novels, it shows the truth about life' Le Monde
'At the basis of pleasure, of eroticism, Vizinczey places consciousness. His novel consists of scenes which you can see ... Stupefying: it leaves you breathless with excitement. Here, everything is living ardour, inexhaustible fervour' Giorgio Montefoschi, Corriere della Sera.
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To Young Men Without Lovers
In all your amours you should prefer old women to young ones . . .
because they have greater knowledge of the world.
This book is addressed to young men and dedicated to older women – and the connection between the two is my proposition. I’m not an expert on sex, but I was a good student of the women I loved, and I’ll try to recall those happy and unhappy experiences which, I believe, made a man out of me.
I spent my first twenty-three years in Hungary, Austria and Italy and my adventures in growing up differed considerably from the adventures of young men in the New World. Their dreams and opportunities are infl uenced by dissimilar amorous conventions. I am a European, they are Americans; and what makes for an even greater difference, they are young today, I was young a long time ago. Everything has changed, even the guiding myths. Modern culture – American culture – glorifies the young; on the lost continent of old Europe it was the affair of the young man and his older mistress that had the glamour of perfection. Today young men believe in girls of their own age, convinced that they alone have anything worthwhile to offer; we tended to value continuity and tradition and sought to enrich ourselves with the wisdom and sensibility of the past.
And sex was only part of it. We came from large families and were used to getting along with people older than ourselves. When I was a small boy my grandparents, who lived on a farm near Lake Balaton, used to give a lunch party every summer attended by more than two hundred relatives. I remember marvelling how many of us there were, sitting on long benches at long tables in the courtyard, between the house and the plum trees – rows and rows of aunts and uncles, cousins, in-laws, ranging from children to octogenarians. Members of such tribes knew no age barriers. We lived within a hundred miles of each other and we all loved the same songs.
The storm of war swept that courtyard clear. The Vajdas, once so close, now live on four continents. We are losing touch, like everybody else. America wasn’t devastated by foreign armies, but the leafy courtyards are gone just the same. They were paved over for runways. Families fly apart, and each generation seems to belong to a different period of history. The big houses with room for grandparents, aunts and uncles are replaced by teenage hangouts, retirement homes and the
quiet apartments of the middle-aged. Opportunities for young men to mingle with older women have greatly diminished. They don’t have much faith in each other.
As I was lucky enough to grow up in what was still an integrated society, I have the extravagant notion that my recollections may bring about a better understanding of the truth that men and women have a great deal in common even if they were born years apart – and may thereby stimulate a broader intercourse between the generations. As I’m going to describe my own experiences, I ought to re assure the reader that I don’t intend to overwhelm him with my personal history. It is his curiosity about himself that I hope to stimulate. What follows is a highly selective memoir centred not so much on the personality of the narrator as on the universal predicaments of love. Still, to the extent that this book is an autobiography, I am conscious, like Thurber, of Benvenuto Cellini’s stern dictum that a man should be at least forty years old and have accomplished something of excellence before setting down the story of his life. I don’t fulfi l either of these conditions. But, as Thurber says, ‘Nowadays, nobody who has a typewriter pays any attention to the old master’s quaint rules.’
Department of Philosophy
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
When and why did you start working on In Praise of Older Women, your debut novel? How long did it take you to write?
In Montreal in the mid-Fifties I knew a girl who was approaching her 23rd birthday and was miserable because she was growing old. I wrote a short story about her and called it In Praise of Older Women. Seven years later I had the novel in which she didn’t figure at all.
Having published the first edition yourself, how do you feel about its worldwide success?
Success is something you enjoy when it is over. Remembering it is very nice, it encourages you to go on. But while you are in the spotlight – it is just stress and guilt about the number of letters you didn’t reply to – the answers you gave to questions which could have been better, etc.
What is it, do you think, about the novel that connects with so many people?
People connect to books which expresses their own particular truth. All good novels could be summarized by two questions: Do you remember? Did you know? So those readers who remember and those who want to know what a writer is saying are that writer’s audience. Judging by the response of the men and women I heard from, those readers who are comfortable or happy with their sexuality enjoy In Praise of Older Women - some are even enthusiastic about it. This includes also my homosexual friends. Those to whom fate has dealt a bad card, who have had more pain than joy out of sex, tend to hate the novel. I never knew what it was to be loathed until In Praise of Older Women became a “success”. The very reasons why some people love a book are the same reasons why others hate it.
Could you talk about the cross-generational elements in the novel?
The main source of the growing ignorance, misery and brutality around us –the disintegration of society - is the increasing isolation of the generations from each other. Civilized society needs cross-generational contact; without it you lose a sense of continuity and history. A society which practices the segregation of the generations is a disaster – and the youth cult glamorizes it, widening the gap between the generations even further. The youth cult celebrates ignorance and inexperience as the summit of life and happiness from which there is nowhere to go but down – a belief that lays the foundation for lifelong anxiety, frustration, unhappiness and all the evils unhappiness breeds.
It is a fact of life that older women are more attractive and can give greater joy than younger women, but this is not just about when a woman is most desirable and most beautiful, but about the value society puts on experience, on maturity.
Could you talk a bit about the inspiration for the main character?
All the characters are myself - nothing is invented, just rearranged. Every character who comes to life from the printed page has something of the author in him or her. All the characters, including the women, in In Praise of Older Women have some characteristic, some feeling or mood that comes from me. That is universally true of all writers. Laurence Olivier said about acting - answering the question of how he created a character: “From myself, from observation of other people and from technique.” I think the same is true of writers.
Technique is the easiest to explain and the hardest to do - to say only what is relevant and say it with the right words. Mark Twain said that “the difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between a lightning bug and the lightning.” I tend to overwrite and then spend most of my time cutting and changing words and sentences.
Life is too fast, too chaotic and it is difficult for us to understand our own experiences. It happens to everybody: years later you look back at a critical event in your life and you see its significance, its bearing on what followed, but rarely at the time. Our experiences are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. We don’t know much about the background of events and people, we don’t know what effect any experience will have on us – we don’t necessarily understand our own feelings. The novelist is the person who makes a picture from the jigsaw pieces scattered all around us.
How did you write In Praise of Older Women?
How do you write a novel? You LIVE inside the characters; you live inside the experience, the scene. I can write only when I can forget about myself, or rather when I transform into the characters I write about. This is really a hopeless question because there is no way to explain it to people who don’t have the ability to be somebody else how it works. Every time you are asked this question, people hope for an answer which tells them that you do this or that – and there they go, they are writers! Actually not many writers have the ability to be somebody else, which is why there are so few real writers.
How do you react to criticism?
I grew up in the Hungarian National Theatre. Part of my studies at the Hungarian RADA, the state’s theatre and film college, was being an assistant to the great directors of the National Theatre. I was really a coffee-boy and note-taker to the director during rehearsals. We had some great actors, worshipped like demigods – yet they listened even to stagehands. It didn’t matter who said something, anything, to them - you didn’t have to be a somebody to get their attention. Even I could criticise a great actor during a break; he would listen, and if I said something that caught his imagination, he had no hesitation about changing some aspect of his performance. First this was a shocking surprise, but through 5 formative years it got into my blood, so to speak. It doesn’t matter who is right during rehearsals, what matters is the première. So I don’t mind criticism; often it helps me to improve what I’ve written. I am not so much a writer as a re-writer; it is very rarely that I hit on the right word at the first try, or even the fourth try.
You’ve said that your stepdaughters 'made me understand adolescence all over again'. Could you talk about this a bit more?
I was thirty when I married their mother. They were brilliant and tough 11- and 12-year-olds and they brought back memories of my own adolescence. Their savage wit – typical of teenage girls, which I had found most hurtful when I myself was a teenager - reminded me of my own teenage years and later on saved me from taking myself too seriously – a great occupational hazard for writers.
But the most important thing was perhaps their intensity about everything. It was infectious. It revived in me, too, the intensity of my adolescence.
Who are the writers – classical or modern – whom you admire most?
Hungary’s greatest playwright is Shakespeare, translated by the great Hungarian poets in the 19th century. The Hungarian language’s adolescence was the 19th century, very similar to Elizabethan English. While I was growing up in Budapest Shakespeare played in the repertory and there were at least a couple of his plays on every week. “Admire” is nothing, he was one of the masters who formed me. Stendhal and Balzac have been my gods since my early teens, together with Zsigmond Móricz, one of giants of the 20th century. Unfortunately for world literature, he wrote in Hungarian. In my study I have 2 blown-up pictures: a lithograph of Stendhal and a portrait of Balzac. I often look at them to gain courage. I also had a lithograph of Kleist (whom I discovered only in my 30s), but it was a poster on thin paper from my German publisher and it eventually wore off. Later I learned and read more of the giants - Laclos, the forerunner of Stendhal, and of course, Swift, Defoe, Sterne, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, and Mark Twain, the greatest American writer (and I don’t mean Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer). The Brazilian writer Machado de Assis and the short novels of Lazarillo de Tormes profoundly influenced me, as did Italo Svevo. Of my recent discoveries, I liked best the Ukrainian-Jewish-French novelist, Irène Némirovsky, who was murdered in Auschwitz but whose books survive her. (I guess I have a particular affinity for writers who belong to many places.)