Stephen Vizinczey, ‘In Praise of Older Women’ Author, Dies at 88
Stephen Vizinczey, whose novel “In Praise of Older Women,” about a man’s sexual education by paramours not in his age bracket, caused a stir in …
Stephen Vizinczey, whose novel “In Praise of Older Women,” about a man’s sexual education by paramours not in his age bracket, caused a stir in the mid-1960s and became a cultural reference point, died on Aug. 18 at his home in London. He was 88.
His stepdaughter, the filmmaker Mary Harron, said the cause was kidney and heart failure.
The full title of Mr. Vizinczey’s best-known book was “In Praise of Older Women: The Amorous Recollections of Andras Vajda.” Its title character was a philosophy instructor who reminisces about finding his way to maturity through his relationships with a series of older lovers. The character’s definition of “older” — and Mr. Vizinczey’s — may seem odd today; a woman in her mid-30s qualified. But the point, Mr. Vizinczey said at the time, was to provide an alternative to the prevailing view of sex.
“The North American myth that youth is wonderful, that the perfect ‘woman’ is 18 years old, is simply a lot of hogwash,” he told The Gazette of Montreal in 1965, when the book was first published in Canada.
Mr. Vizinczey, Hungarian by birth, was living in Canada at the time and took the unusual step of forming his own company, Contemporary Canada Press, to publish the novel, which he marketed himself. His faith in his own work paid off. News accounts at the time said his book knocked the James A. Michener blockbuster “The Source” out of the top spot on the best-seller list in Toronto.
The feat was particularly remarkable in that, when he had arrived in Canada in 1957, he spoke almost no English. Tony Emery, writing about the book in The Victoria Daily Times in 1965, noted the achievement.
“The writing has an economy, a simplicity and directness,” he said, “which puts to shame the involved fake-political utterances of many writers for whom English is the native tongue.”
The book, heavy with autobiographical elements and frank about sex, was such a hit that it was published in the United States by Trident the next year. Some reviewers found it to be too much.
“Mr. Vizinczey has written a grammatically constructed book of pornography,” Candy Kaughten wrote in The Miami News. “At least so I judge by the first two chapters. I was not able to finish more. The author is to be commended for his passion for research, but common sense leads me to believe that it would be physically impossible for him to have done all the research personally.”
But Eliot Fremont-Smith, writing in The New York Times, found merit in the work.
“If ‘In Praise of Older Women’ goes not much of anywhere as a novel,” he wrote, “as an essay on erotics it is refreshing.”
The book inspired two films: a Hollywood version in 1978 whose stars included Tom Berenger and Karen Black, and a Spanish movie in 1997 with Juan Diego Botto as the central character and Faye Dunaway as one of the love interests. Its title became something of a cultural catchphrase, and by the time Penguin Classics republished it in 2010, it was said to have sold five million copies in 21 countries.
The Penguin edition came out when much was being written about the cougar-and-boy-toy phenomenon — older women, including some A-list celebrities, who were romantically involved with much younger men. In interviews at the time, Mr. Vizinczey rejected the idea that his novel was a forerunner of that trend; those relationships seemed merely physical, he said, whereas the ones he wrote about were something more.
“In the world I grew up in, sex was never just sex,” he told The Independent Extra of Britain in 2010. “It started with some kind of connection. The older women wanted to give something — not money, not a loan — to give something of themselves. You were friends, you had some point of unity. Intelligence was very important.”
Stephen Vizinczei — he later changed the spelling — was born on May 12, 1933, in Kaloz, Hungary, southwest of Budapest. When he was 2 his father, a Roman Catholic schoolteacher and antifascist, was murdered by the Nazis, who were ascendant in Hungary at the time.
As a young man he wrote plays, some of which displeased the Soviet-backed government that had taken control of the country after World War II. By the time of the 1956 uprising against that government, he was 23 and in the thick of the revolt; he was part of a group that pulled down a statue of Stalin in Budapest that October.
“We had no technical knowledge and hoped to pull down the colossal bronze statue with steel cables tied to the tractors,” he wrote in 2006 in a remembrance published in The National Post of Canada. “We were surprised that the cables snapped. But eventually someone with a blow torch came around and cut off Stalin’s feet at the boots.”
In the aftermath of that failed revolution he fled the country, moving to Italy for a time before settling in Canada. There he met Gloria Fisher Harron; they married in 1963.
“My mother believed passionately in his work,” Mary Harron said by email, “and she was enormously important to him as editor, researcher and critic — everything he wrote passed under her eyes for review. Before computers she typed out everything he wrote in longhand, and I remember huge stormy arguments over the placement of a comma.”
Mr. Vizinczey’s second novel, “An Innocent Millionaire,” published in Canada in 1983 and later in the United States, was about an idealistic man in a world dominated by greed. Sam Tanenhaus, reviewing it in The Times in 1985, called it “a delicious entertainment that towers above most commercial fiction.”
Mr. Vizinczey’s wife died last year. In addition to Ms. Harron, he is survived by a daughter, Marianne Edwards, and two granddaughters.
In a book of essays, “Truth and Lies in Literature: A Writer’s Ten Commandments” (1986), Mr. Vizinczey discussed his approach to writing fiction.
“I never sit down in front of a bare page to invent something,” he wrote. “I daydream about my characters, their lives and their struggles, and when a scene has played out in my imagination and I think I know what my characters felt, said and did, I take pen and paper and try to report what I’ve witnessed.”