The Washington Post

Hungarian-born author Stephen Vizinczey wrote the 1965 novel “In Praise of Older Women.”

- BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@washpost.com

Stephen Vizinczey, who drew on his war-torn youth in Hungary in writing an internatio­nal bestseller chroniclin­g a young man’s romantic experience­s with older women, which he wrote in English a decade after fleeing his homeland, died Aug. 18 at his home in London. He was 88.

The cause was heart and kidney ailments, said his stepdaught­er, Mary Harron.

Mr. Vizinczey (pronounced Viss-in-say) was 2 when his father, a village schoolmast­er, was stabbed to death by a knife-wielding Nazi.

He was taught by Benedictin­e monks early in his life and spent much of his youth in the company of his widowed mother’s friends and relatives, and women. By the time he was 12, young Stephen — then Istvan — was helping to procure female companions for U.S. soldiers in Europe and was embarking on the first steps of an erotic education that formed the background of his 1965 novel, “In Praise of Older Women.” He published the book on his own while living in Canada, and it has appeared in multiple editions and translatio­ns over the years, selling at least 5 million copies.

Before his surprising literary success in an adopted language, Mr. Vizinczey wrote several plays and was part of the Hungarian Revolution of the 1950s, when a student-led uprising nearly toppled the country’s communist regime. Ultimately, the Soviet Union sent troops and tanks to crush the rebellion, and Mr. Vizinczey barely escaped with his life.

He ended up in Canada knowing only a few words of English.

“I couldn’t read a newspaper headline,” he recalled to Toronto’s Globe and Mail. Hired as a bookkeeper, he proved to be incompeten­t at the job and later said he became so desperate that he contemplat­ed suicide.

“I was afraid to jump,” he told Newsday, “so I thought starving might be the best way to go. To pass the time while starving, I thought I might as well learn English.”

He found work with Canada’s national film board and later for the Canadian Broadcasti­ng Corp.

(CBC). In 1960 he edited a shortlived literary magazine that published the poetry of his Montreal neighbor, singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.

Mr. Vizinczey began to weave the experience­s of his early years into a novel focused on what he — or rather a literary alter ego named Andras Vajda — had learned about life and love from women.

“Modern culture — American culture — glorifies the young,” Mr. Vizinczey wrote. “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.”

The central character of the short novel is a Hungarian-born philosophy professor. The book touches on the terror of the Nazi years and the repression of imposed by communism, all filtered through a sense of longing for a sensuous and irretrieva­ble past.

The book describes how young Andras learns about literature, music and the arts of love from a series of women, ranging in age from roughly 35 to 50. He has his first sexual experience­s at 12, then at about 15 begins a romance with a married woman named Maya.

“One of my chief irritation­s at the time was the blankness of the faces of my young girlfriend­s,” Mr. Vizinczey wrote in the novel. “But Maya’s face, with the fine lines of her 40 some years, expressed all the shades of her thoughts and emotions.”

The novel’s subject matter and its frank treatment of sex proved too explosive for mainstream publishers. When he received a top bid of $250 for his book, Mr. Vizinczey decided to publish it on his own.

“I borrowed the money,” he told the Toronto Star in 2004, “quit my job at the CBC and worked for three months on the launching, driving around in my car delivering the books. Everyone said I was crazy.”

The novel’s picaresque hero was likened to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, and each of the 17 chapters had an instructiv­e title reminiscen­t of 18th-century literature: “On War and Prostituti­on,” “On Becoming a Lover,” “On Don Juan’s Secret.”

The scenes were more suggestive than explicit, yet some readers condemned “In Praise of Older Women” as pornograph­y. Other reviewers found literary merit in the tale, including the London Sunday Telegraph’s Isabel Quigly, who wrote that it was the rare “novel which is funny — as well as touching about sex . . . elegant, exact, and melodious.”

The book instantly became a bestseller in Canada and Europe, but Mr. Vizinczey turned down an offer from the U.S. publisher Random House, which he came to regret. He went with a smaller publishing firm, which sold the rights to a cheap paperback publisher of potboilers. The novel received little attention in the United States until it was republishe­d in the 1980s.

“In Praise of Older Women” has been filmed twice, including a 1978 adaptation starring Tom Berenger and Karen Black and a 1997 Spanish-language version featuring Faye Dunaway.

Contentiou­s and protective of his work, Mr. Vizinczey battled with agents, publishers and filmmakers and filed at least two lawsuits over unpaid royalties. His suit against publisher Ian Ballantine dragged on for years.

“My father was killed by a Nazi,” Mr. Vizinczey said in 1985. “I was once in danger of arrest and torture by Communists. But I never personally knew evil men until I got involved with New York attorneys.”

Istvan Viziniczei was born May 12, 1933, in Kaloz, Hungary. His father, a teacher and opponent of fascism, was stabbed to death at his desk in 1935. His mother later became an office worker.

Mr. Vizinczey studied philosophy, literature and music in Budapest at a university and at what was then the Academy of Drama and Film. His first two plays were banned by the Ministry of Culture for “anti-socialist tendencies.” He had sold the film rights to a third play, about a family’s internal disagreeme­nts, which was broadcast on radio and was scheduled to open at Budapest’s National Theater in 1956 when it was shut down by the authoritie­s.

“I was tasting fame and glory, and I had more money than I knew what to do with,” Mr. Vizinczey later told the reference work Contempora­ry Authors. “The only thing missing was a free country to write in, so I fought in the revolution. A month later I was a refugee without a country and a writer without a language.”

Mr. Vizinczey, who changed the spelling of his name after arriving in Canada, became a prolific critic and reviewer and published two collection­s of essays. His second novel, “An Innocent Millionair­e” (1983), about a young man who finds a sunken treasure only to encounter modern-day pirates in courtrooms and the antiquitie­s business, was praised by novelists Graham Greene and Anthony Burgess. A final novel, “If Only,” was published in 2016.

Mr. Vizinczey had an early marriage in Hungary that ended in divorce. In 1963, he and a CBC colleague, Gloria Fisher Harron, were married. (He sometimes noted that she was more than six years older.)

“She was my editor, critic and researcher,” Mr. Vizinczey wrote in a blog post after her death last year. A stepdaught­er, Martha Harron, died in May.

Survivors include another stepdaught­er, filmmaker Mary Harron; a daughter, Marianne Edwards, from a relationsh­ip with British author Angela Lambert; and two grandchild­ren.

By 2010, the early shock of Mr. Vizinczey’s first novel had subsided, and it was published anew as part of the Penguin Classics series of major works of literature.

“I wonder what kind of life I would have had if it hadn’t been for my mother’s tea-and-cookie parties?” Mr. Vizinczey wrote in “In Praise of Older Women.” “Perhaps it’s because of them that I’ve never thought of women as my enemies, as territorie­s I have to conquer, but always as allies and friends — which I believe is the reason they were friendly to me in turn.”

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 ?? JONES/DAILY EXPRESS/GETTY IMAGES ?? Author Stephen Vizinczey, seen in London in 1971, published his best-selling novel in 1965, after escaping from his home country after the Hungarian Revolution of the 1950s and learning English.
JONES/DAILY EXPRESS/GETTY IMAGES Author Stephen Vizinczey, seen in London in 1971, published his best-selling novel in 1965, after escaping from his home country after the Hungarian Revolution of the 1950s and learning English.

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