“Truth and Lies in Literature” by Stephen Vizinczey


By Ray Sawhill

In his new collection of essays and reviews, “Truth and Lies in Literature” (Atlantic Monthly), Stephen Vizinczey comes on like a pistol-packing stranger here to root out corruption and remind us of our ideals. He carries the role off with inspired gusto. He writes out of a conviction that art is worth fighting over, and he loves entering the fray — taking sides, making judgments.

He’s at his most eloquent in bursts — one-liners, really. His review of a biography of Dostoevsky begins: “If we want to know how the world hangs together, we must read Pushkin, Kleist, Stendhal, Balzac, Tolstoy; if we want to know how the world falls apart, we must read Dostoevsky, the grand master of frenzy, of vile and senseless passions.” Stendhal, whom Vizinczey adores for his “absolute involvement and absolute detachment,” shows “the continuous tension in our consciousness between our expected and real reactions.” The French writer Gérard de Nerval “slipped in and out of madness, using his saner moments to tell us all about it, and then he hanged himself.” Kleist’s work “glows with the heightened sense of self-awareness most men feel in the presence of death.” Vizinczey despises caution in writers and responds with his own fine extravagance to those who get carried away: “Great writers are not those who tell us we shouldn’t play with fire, but those who make our fingers burn.” His own essays convey the sheer fun of getting worked up about art.

Born in Hungary, Vizinczey fought the Russians during the 1956 revolution and became a refugee. He has written — in English — two novels, “In Praise of Older Women” (1966) and “An Innocent Millionaire” (1985), and is now a Canadian citizen living in London. In his essays, he doesn’t spend much time on analysis, description or developing an argument; instead, he scrapes away misconceptions and lies, states why a work does or doesn’t matter, and then simply stands aside. “What I hope my collection will accomplish is to send people back to the books themselves,” he says.

Vizinczey’s boldness and pugnacity are bracing and can be very funny; they have also left him something of a literary-world lone wolf. “I would love to be accepted,” he says. “But whenever I’m tempted to be one of the boys — and I often am, I hate being an outsider — I ask myself, what was the point of running around the world and learning a new language if I’m just going to become another flatterer?”

© 1986 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“The Doubter’s Companion” by John Ralston Saul


By Ray Sawhill

The Canadian writer John Ralston Saul is an Enlightenment-style provocateur, a cosmopolitan anti-ideologue. Although not a household name in the United States, he’s a considerable figure in Canada and Europe, where his books — “Voltaire’s Bastards” (1992) is his best-known work here — are often best sellers. His new “The Doubter’s Companion” (Free Press) is an eccentric winner — a highly personal dictionary that’s really a compilation of short essays on topics from Air Conditioning to Zealot. He writes with vigor and thunder, firing off epigrams and bons mots. Deconstruction is “a school of light comedy,” orgasm “a workmanlike replacement for a religious experience.”

Readers are most likely to enjoy “The Doubter’s Companion” by opening it at random and following the highlighted connections. The ride almost always yields surprises. In an entry on Neoconservatives, Saul calls them “the Bolsheviks of the right”; in one on Marxists, he writes that “the only disagreement between the Neoconservatives and Marx is over who wins the battle in the end. This is a small detail.” He doesn’t shy from confrontation, either. “There is no convincing evidence,” he maintains in his entry on Voltaire, “that writers can do their job by being nice.”

There’s a fair amount of verbose harrumphing where there ought to be wit. And Saul — like such other freelance lone rangers as Robert Hughes, Paul Fussell, and Camille Paglia — can occasionally seem oblivious to the pleasures of present-day life. But the book is a remarkably thoroughgoing critique of folly, and the spectacle of Saul blasting away at the conventional wisdom of left and right alike has, in intellectual terms, something like the kick of Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo.” Saul delivers the pleasures of a good argument.

© 1994 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

“The Decline of the American Empire,” directed by Denys Arcand


By Ray Sawhill

People may compare “The Decline of the American Empire” to “The Big Chill” and “Hannah and her Sisters”; like them, it’s a comic talkfest that takes place in an atmosphere of hypocrisy and comfort. But this French-Canadian film has an unembarrassed, out-of-the-mainstream feel of its own, and no fake portentousness. The story concerns a group of academics gathering for dinner and talking about sex. These conversations — the locker-room talk of sophisticates — are often raucously funny. We recognize that the theories that get spun are expressions in abstract terms of the characters’ personal concerns; we may come to suspect that the “decline” of the film’s title refers to the older characters’ experience of middle age.

Denys Arcand, who wrote and directed, has conceived his film in thoroughly sexual terms; the camera takes us through the web of words and into the characters. When he flashes back, he shows more than his characters divulge — he takes us into their privacy — and all along, he cuts away to images of natural beauty. The relaxed performances and the cinematography, with its attentiveness to changes of light, give us a feel for the characters’ relationship to their flesh, and a sense of how sex to them isn’t merely an athletic pursuit, it’s an imaginative one.

Arcand’s approach has the result of giving sex — the unforeseen effects it can have and the variety of things it can mean to people — a many-hued splendor. In a sequence that begins on a pier at dusk and moves into the evening, we watch the clouds and the water, we hear one of the men wonder whether, if the Soviets bomb the States, he’ll be able to see the explosions, and we see the couples move (in various states of arousal and misery) into bed. This sequence has the emotionality of a nocturne; Arcand gives us the illusion that sex is spiraling around us.

©1986 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.