“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.