Thursday, October 16, 2014

Truth and Lies in Literature by Stephen Vizinczey

I don't usually review older books in this space, but I decided to make an exception for this classic book of reviews and essays by Stephen Vizinczey. Vizinczey is so vital in his expression that one forgets this book was compiled from his work in the 1970's and 80's and that many of his literary heroes wrote a century before him. This is classic, and is about classics, for those who care for such things.

Truth And Lies In Literature: Essays And Reviews This is the way to write book reviews: funny, clever, opinionated, knowledgeable, and often more interesting than the books he writes about. Stephen Vizinczey is a novelist who also taught the art of writing. His essays and reviews are arguably his best work. Selected and introduced by his editor, Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson at the Atlantic Monthly Press, these essays include "A Writer’s Ten Commandments" as well as essays on Vizinczey’s literary heroes ("at least once a year I reread almost everything by Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Balzac. To my mind [Heinrich von] Kleist and these 19th-century French and Russian novelists were the greatest masters of prose, a constellation of unsurpassed geniuses such as we find in music from Bach to Beethoven…").

A section of the book is devoted to Russian writers: Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Vizinczey's beloved Gogol. Every essay brings to light something unique about their writing and something in the authors’ lives which brought this uniqueness to fruition, or how the raw material becomes the art.

Reviewing the book Gogol: The Biography Of A Divided Soul by Henri Troyat and translated by Nanci Amphoux, Vizinczey starts out:
There is hardly a page of this book on which there isn’t something that I find deeply offensive. Henri Troyat’s subject is Gogol, but what this biography is really about is that warm, cosy sense of superiority that mediocre people feel when confronted by genius.
Vizinczey then goes on to discuss Gogol for a page or two, pointing out moments of great comic genius, only to return to M. Troyat and point out ways he missed his mark completely.

In his titular essay commissioned by Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper’s, Vizinczey produced two versions, the one not published in the magazine beginning:
I read Billy Budd, Sailor some fifteen years ago but the passage of time has not softened its impact: I am still overcome by nausea whenever some admiring reference reminds me of it. Melville’s story fleshes out the grossest, meanest lie in all literature, the lie that a man can love his executioner…In Melville’s last book Authority does not ill-treat its subjects out of indifference, venality, incompetence, callousness, but for the common good. However arbitrary and cruel it may seem in its actions, it is always benign at heart… What disabling misconceptions about human nature, and society are inspired by such lies!
Later in the same essay, Vizinczey turns to speak how readers influence the idea of literature:
There are two basic kinds of literature. One helps you to understand, the other helps you to forget; the first helps you to be a free persona and a free citizen, the other helps people to manipulate you. One is like astronomy, the other is like astrology…Orwell said that most people cannot see artistic merit in novels which contradict their views, and this is the beginning of all aesthetics…Reading is a creative act, a continuous exercise of the imagination which gives flesh, feeling, colour, to the dead words on the page; we have to draw on the experience of all our senses to create a world in our mind, and we cannot do this without involving our subconscious and baring our ego. In short, we are extremely vulnerable when we read and are only happy with authors who share our inclinations, concerns, prejudices, illusions, pretentions, dreams, and who have the same values, the same attitudes to sex, politics, death, etc.
Vizinczey goes on to speak of Dickens, Stendhal, Proust, Balzac, but in a way that is so full of life and argument, full of recognition and the thrill of discovery, that one can see what Vizinczey is saying about truth and lies by his pairing of these writers.

Vizinczey is piquant, daring, vociferous on the subject of his literary heroes. In the section on German writers is reprinted his essay on the German writer Heinrich von Kleist commissioned by The Times. Vizinczey compares Kleist favorably with Shakespeare and tells us a time is due in which Kleist will get the approbation he yearned for. Vizinczey is so passionate and persuasive that we forget that Kleist wrote in the early 19th century. “If Stendhal tells us how people become lovers, Kleist tells us how people become murderers. It is hardly ever for a good reason.” He is describing Kleist’s very first play "The Schroffenstein Family" (1802) which
has one of the most potent love scenes ever conceived…Kleist’s Romeo undresses his Juliet and exchanges clothes with her while describing how he will undress her on their wedding night….the boy, knowing that his father is coming to kill the girl, talks her into exchanging clothes with him to save her life…they are murdered by their fathers—each killing his own child, thinking it’s the other. It’s hatred that kills, not love….We cannot understand anything profoundly unless it moves or shocks us so deeply that it touches our subconscious; great writers are not those who tell us we shouldn’t play with fire, but those who make our fingers burn.
Kleist committed suicide at the age of 34. Impecunious and starved of critical attention, he despaired of being able to earn enough money to live. When a young woman of his acquaintance recently diagnosed with uterine cancer mentioned she would like to die but not alone, Kleist agreed that such a thing was better in company and obliged. Vizinczey uses letters, essays, and Kleist’s body of work to compile his history:
No writer can create a single character or a single scene beyond his emotional range. Kleist, whose works are charged with suddenly swelling passions, had an abnormal capacity for extreme emotions—for extreme joy as well extreme despair, extreme love as well as extreme hate. He lived, in the words an army friend, ‘exposed to the storms of his inner self’…Happiness, he now saw, was to ‘till a field, to plant a tree, to father a child’. He soon renounced these simple ambitions, but he felt them so deeply that they survive everywhere in his work, and all the ‘fiendish business’ of his stories and plays is set against the soundest longings of the heart for love, a home and family.

Vizinczy, born in Hungary in 1933, did not begin to learn English until the age of twenty-four. He writes in English, having learned his craft while working with The National Film Board of Canada. His editor compares his nuance in English to Conrad and Nabokov before him. He is a remarkable writer of enormous personality and skill as this book of essays, and his own classic novel, In Praise of Older Women: The Amorous Recollections of AndrĂ¡s Vajda, attests. Writers will thrill to read his enabling and energizing “Ten Commandments,” and reviewers would gain much from his own loosely-styled criticism so distant and so distinct from what we often read by professional reviewers. These are reviews for the ages.

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  1. This is one of the best comments on my book. I should say every time the book was translated I added new pieces which I had written since 1988. So curiously, though I write in English, the translated versions of the book are more substantial than the earlier English versions.To the list of astrologers reviewed I added, among others, "Genius as a Toady" (about Goethe) and added Mark Twain to the list of great truth tellers - my foreword to the French edition of his Autobiography.I concentarted on his later works. I show how the Connecticut Yankee is really the slave society of the South; and highlight his anti-religious writing, which could be published only years after his death, such as Letters from the Earth. It is like a prosecutor's speech against God at a war crimes trial. Except of course it is very funny. (The flood waters were rising Noah was already at sea, when God orders him back to Ararat because "he left behind the house fly that carries the bubonic plage".) I also write about his Mysterious Stranger. Of the several drafs complied after his death, the most authentic and fullest is the Dover edition. It clearly has the stap of genius... . Anyway, once an English edition of the full Truth and Lies appears | will send 2 copies to the Bpwed Bookshelf by way of thanks Vizinczey

    1. So pleased to hear from you, Mr, V. And I am delighted that another version of your book is due out again. I noted that it had been republished several times--I hope it stays in print a very long time. It is a wonderful, refreshing read. And of course I would be pleased to have a new copy to giveaway. Many thanks!