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On Being Wrong
by Brian Fawcett

A COUPLE OF YEARS ago, I wrote a very favourable review of George Faludy`s Notes from the Rainforest (1988) for Books in Canada. That I found myself filled with such admiration for the book surprised me more than a little. Over the years rd developed an irritability with the cynical enthusiasm many Eastern European and Soviet writers and other artists sometimes display for the current version of "freedom of expression" as practised within the Western democracies. I`d first been annoyed with Milan Kundera over this, and more recently with Josef Skvorecky, Jan Drabek, and George Jonas; Jonas wrote a book about his fellow Hungarian-Canadian Peter Demeter that contained a naive right-wing quality that literally raised the hackles on my neck. I didn`t recognize that that probably had more to do with Jonas`s association with Barbara Amiel than with his Hungarian background, but that wasn`t the most serious error I made. I went on to talk about how Canada seemed to be particularly overloaded with Eastern Europeans "peering into their underwear;" and then proceeded to shoot myself square in the foot by attacking Stephen Vizinczey`s In Praise of Older Women (1965) as the precursor to this alleged onslaught of naive right-wing nonsense. The truth of the matter is that I hadn`t looked at Vizinczey`s novel since shortly after it was published in the late 1960s, and I didn`t bother to check to see if it was politically naive, right wing, or anything else. I just happened to have a copy of it around the house, didn`t have any of Skvorecky`s books on hand, and the names looked about equally difficult to spell. I`ve got a few flaws in my intellectual method, I guess. About the only thing I can say in my defence is that I was using the others as a setup to demonstrate my pleasure at discovering George Faludy, and the astonishing range of his intelligence in Notes from the Rainforest In the tradition of the best defence being a good offence, I was covering up the rather shameful truth that I`d discovered a man who is arguably the greatest poet ever to grace this country at least 10 years after I should have. But my not knowing Faludy`s work - unforgivable though it is - wasn`t my worst mistake. In my attempt to do justice to an important writer - and to be witty and urbane - I did a terrible disservice to Vizinczey. I`ve since discovered that Stephen Vizinczey is a writer equal in intelligence and skill to Faludy, one who carries with him a story and an intellectual method that is equally, and possibly more, remarkable. About two months ago in Toronto I had the privilege of meeting Stephen Vainczey. We were co-panelists at a Canada/Soviet cultural conference organized by York University, and I got to see him demonstrate his intellectual method with galvanizing effectiveness in front of about 200 semi-comatose conference participants. In the midst of a discussion of culture and communications issues that was going nowhere, he suggested that the purpose of glasnost was to enable Russians, and those in the Soviet controlled republics that have already broken with the Soviet Union or are about to, to reclaim an open cultural heritage from the authoritarian tyrannies of Leninist bureaucracy: and to do so without becoming the defenceless prey of the more subtly tyrannical phalanx of Western consumerism, led by the Disney and McDonald`s corporations, that is disposing of open culture in the West. Part of doing this, he told the delegates, would involve returning to Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and hundreds of other writers, most of them suppressed or disappeared by Stalin and his successors. Over the next several days I heard him say enough similarly interesting things that I introduced myself and arranged a lunch invitation so I could listen some more. I wasn`t disappointed. Since then, I`ve done some rereading, and some new reading, and it has convinced me that I have a public and private duty to eat some crow, and to introduce - or reintroduce - Stephen Vizinczey to Canadian readers who have been as unaware of him as I was. None of his four books are currently available from a Canadian publisher, although the two novels, In Praise of Older Women and An Innocent Millionaire, the latter first published in North America in 1983, are available from the University of Chicago Press. The other two books are The Rules of Chaos (1970) and Truth and Lies in Literature (1985), both volumes of essays. They will be even harder to obtain than the novels, but getting. them will be worth whatever trouble it takes. Vizinczey remains a Canadian citizen, although he now spends most of his time in Great Britain. When he arrived here as a refugee from the 1956 Hungarian uprising, his English vocabulary consisted of roughly 50 words. Remarkably, less than nine years later he published (without the aid of a commercial publisher) In Praise of Older Women. The novel instantly won international praise, becoming one of Canadas very few contributions - and its only Rabelaisian one - to the sexual revolution. It has since been reprinted some 50 times in English, and its first Hungarian translation, in 1990, came out in an edition of 100,000. As might be expected, An Innocent Millionaire is a more mature and ambitious work, an angry and articulate indictment of Western education and legal systems that is more typical of Vizinczey`s epigrammatic intelligence. It is Vizinczey`s intellectual method, and his skill and courage as an essayist, that truly draw me to him. It is difficult to state in simple terms what that method is without making it sound less complicated and demanding than it is. For Canadians living in a period of extraordinary cultural crisis, it provides a way of understanding their situation that could become a beacon and a rallying point. Stephen Vizinczey`s masters - and his contextualizing frame - are Balzac and Stendhal. He writes, in a sense, as if they were his audience and his task were to make them understand this world, but the effect of this is to enable him to think and write in a conceptual world that is as large as the real world. It`s no exaggeration to say that every time he puts pen to paper, he is mindful of the historical responsibilities of being a writer and an artist in ways that North Americans seem to have lost - or have never achieved. Likewise, his reputation in Europe, where he writes and reviews extensively for the London Times and the Observer, has grown, while we`ve ignored him. He`s made enemies because he doesn`t make compromises, and because he seems incapable of making a situationally convenient - or parochial -judgement. A 1968 review that excoriated William Styron`s The Confessions of Nat Turner for confirming virtually every white prejudice against Blacks is typical. While every American critic was fawning over Styron`s literary style and humanist compassion, Vizinczey did some research on Black slave revolts, decided that Styron`s depiction of Nat Turner was a misrepresentation, and said so, calling the book "the Bay of Pigs of the American Literary Establishment." This act of courage, which he admits probably cost him several hundred thousand dollars over the years, is also characteristic of his intellectual method. It`s one thing for a writer to write as if Stendhal and Balzac were as psychically present as Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald. But Vizinczey is also very much on top of the issues of our world, and the systematic filtering of those issues makes for astonishingly lively reading. He`s a true globalist, the kind of writer the Global Village should have produced more of. We should be asking ourselves why it hasn`t. We should also, as Canadians, be asking ourselves why we are ignoring this man and his work. Like George Faludy, he`s among the very best writers we can claim as our own. Unlike Faludy who never wrote in English and has gone home to Hungary, Stephen Vizinczey is still here.

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