Stephen Vizinczey’s 1965 novel In Praise of Older Women, reprinted now as part of Penguin’s estimable Modern Classics collection, seems to be at once both remarkably timely, and yet also somehow a little dated. This may seem like exactly the kind of maddeningly contradictory opening statement critics are wont to open reviews with, but let me explain.
Timely because, above all else, Vizinczey’s novel was – and remains – a startlingly assured and impressive debut, a feat that never goes out of style. It is a daring, clever book, whose story is a little like a polar opposite of Lolita. Andras Vajda – born in the same year as Hitler’s ascension to power– is a sort of pre-adolescent Casanova figure. By the age of twelve, he is working as a pimp in Austria on an American army base, and when he leaves, he finds that girls is own age are of no interest – they are just that, girls, and he is interested in women – and he embarks upon a series of carnal encounters which take him across Europe and eventually to Canada, as an exile from Hungary after its uprising in 1956.
And timely also because, for a work whose principle inspiration appears to be the sexual revolution of the 1960s (the momentous political events unfolding provide little more than background scenery, a conceit that works surprisingly well), In Praise of Older Women feels an awful lot more forward-thinking than much of the last decade’s worth of literary erotica. The most grievous sin committed in the name of the genre in recent years was 2005’s Memories of Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a novella grotesquely obsessed with virginal nubility, whose only redeeming feature was its relative brevity, and whereas that work trampled over every piece of enlightened gender politics with the pervy male gaze of an over-the-hill Nobel laureate, Vizinczey’s novel gloriously and unabashedly revels in the complexities of its titular heroines: older women.
Nonetheless, there is a sense that pervades throughout a modern reading of this novel that, in the intervening 45 years, everything contained within has been said again – rarely better, but occasionally in a style which sits more comfortably with contemporary sexual attitudes. Of course, this is by no means necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that Vizinczey’s book now seems confined to the status of period piece – a dangerous thing for a work whose power lies in its perceptive abilities.
Still, there is no place with room for more eternal truths than the amorous liaison and the romantic novel. If it were written today, Vizinczey would probably have to call his masterpiece ‘In Praise of Women of a Certain Age’, but as a monument to another era, it stands tall.