When I was growing up there was a paperback copy of Stephen Vizinczey's In Praise of Older Women about the house, a hangover from its brief notoriety in the mid-Sixties. Naturally, I had a go at reading it; I think the word "erotic" appeared somewhere on the cover, which would have been enough of a bait. I didn't get far, and, on reading the book properly, I can see that it doesn't contain enough sex to appeal to the adolescent mind, or at any rate not the right kind of sex - it assumes too much experience on the part of the reader, not so much of the physical aspects as of how fraught the whole business is with possibilities of rejection, frustration and boredom.
In the intervening 30-odd years, In Praise of Older Women has had an interesting career. It slipped into oblivion, or at least out of print,
in the anglophone world; but in 2001 it was translated for the first time into French and became a sensation, spending more than a year on the bestseller lists in France. The craze spread across Europe.
Penguin has armed this new edition with effusions from French, German, Italian and Spanish newspapers, as well as from British and American reviewers, affirming its wisdom and its status as an erotic classic. The publishers have also dug up an oddly Richard and Judy blurb from Margaret Drabble: "You cannot put it down: witty, moving and it's all about sex."
Sex is certainly the book's nominal subject. The subtitle is The Amorous Recollections of András Vajda, and the flyleaf states, "This book is addressed to young men and dedicated to older women - and the connection between the two is my proposition." András's recollections begin with his boyhood in pre-war Hungary, precociously fascinated by his aunt's breasts, then skip to the end of the Second World War. Aged 11, a refugee in Austria, he works as a go-between for GIs and local prostitutes, spending months in a fever of unsatisfied and not fully comprehended lust. Back in Hungary, living with his mother, he is at last initiated by an attractive and (as advertised) considerably older woman, who tries to instil in him a certain realism about sex, insisting above all on the feasibility of loving more than one person at a time.
The relationship tails off and there follows an episodic narrative of affairs and near-affairs with older women - an unconsummated passion for the fiancée of one of his university professors, a stormy interlude with a working-class woman whose husband is a brute, and a long and tense courtship of a supposedly frigid Italian divorcee, together with a sprinkling of less satisfactory encounters with girls his own age.
András writes from the vantage point of an associate professorship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor: he joins the ranks of those fictional Europeans one encounters in Henry James, Edith Wharton and Vladimir Nabokov, whose sophisticated, objective attitude to sex and morality contrasts with New World romanticism, prudery and faddishness. András is nonetheless sentimental - it's just that his sentimentality attaches to abstractions such as youth, passion and experience, rather than to romantic love. I don't find his view of sex seductive; moreover, the same themes are treated with far more clarity and originality in (to take two near-contemporary novels) Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and John Updike's Rabbit Redux.
In any case, sex is, pace Drabble, only superficially what the book is all about. As one reads it now, what penetrates is the background against which András's sexual career is played out - one of war, totalitarianism and, after 1956, exile. His CV is filled with larger traumas; although these are often skimmed over or dismissed, they are more intriguing than the Don Juanism carrying on in the foreground. By far the most gripping passages are the ones in which András considers Hungarian national identity and Soviet "colonial" oppression. His sexual adventurism seems to be in part an act of protest, against the flattening demands made by both the state and history, and his inability to settle for any one woman is an expression of fractured identity; there is at least a generic resemblance here to early Kundera. These themes never feel properly consummated, however; the book as a whole is frustratingly slight and evasive.
This is less a modern classic than an intriguing period piece. All the same, I'm glad to have finished it, finally.
In Praise of Older Women
Penguin, 256pp, £9.99