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A classic revived

The 1965 erotic novel In Praise of Older Women is a book with many admirers, not least its author, Stephen Vizinczey, who believes modesty is for the "mediocre".

Stephen Vizinczey once published A Writer's Ten Commandments, of which the seventh was: "Thou shalt not let a day pass without rereading something great." The day I contact him to talk about his erotic novel In Praise of Older Women attaining Penguin Modern Classic status, the "great" he is rereading is Honoré de Balzac's Lost Illusions. "It gives the thrill, the joy, I have listening to a great symphony that I know well."

Vizinczey, 77, has a picture of Balzac on a wall of his study in London, along with ones of Stendahl, Heinrich von Kleist and two writers from his native Hungary, poet Attila József and novelist Zsigmond Móricz.

"There are also a few others that I similarly admire - Jonathan Swift, for one. My ambition has always been to join their ranks, to be worthy of their company."

Later, he says: "I have had this idea ever since childhood that I want to be immortal. I want to write immortal books, books which people can look at in a hundred years from now."

Immoderate? Vizinczey is certainly that. He's a man with exacting expectations - of himself and of literature ("I'm very much against this notion that literature is entertainment ... The point of eating is not enjoyment of the food but nourishment, and that's the same with art: it nourishes the soul, the consciousness and the bonds with our fellow human beings").

He's immodest, too - unapologetically so, modesty being "a mania with mediocre people", he once wrote.

When I tell him I've never seen so many reviews cited at the beginning of a book as the more than 30 quoted in the new edition of In Praise, suggesting he is not a writer who ignores his reviews, he replies without a hint of embarrassment: "I have a huge room full of reviews. And my wife, who is a linguistic genius, translates them."

As for his own verdict on In Praise, first published in 1965: "I think I wrote a classic. I knew it right away."

Ditto his 1983 second novel, An Innocent Millionaire, which is set to become a Penguin Modern Classic next year: "You might think I am very conceited - but the fact I throw away 95% of the things I write shows that I'm quite critical of myself - but I think both books are master­pieces. I agree with those critics who say they are masterpieces."

They could well be right about In Praise (An Innocent Millionaire is another matter). But one can imagine how Vizinczey's strident self-belief went down with the English when he arrived in London in 1966 from Canada, where he'd spent most of the previous decade, having fled Hungary after fighting in the 1956 revolution.

"When I came here originally and said In Praise of Older Women was a masterpiece, they took it as if I said, 'You are all idiots.' I didn't mean that. I didn't mean they didn't write masterpieces. I just wanted to say my book was a masterpiece. But, of course, I am telling you that but I should be more careful. I mustn't say anything like that. But I think it is really true."

Telling the truth - and being true to himself - has been Vizinczey's credo throughout his career, in his fiction and in his reviews and essays about other writers: whether it's his depiction of sex in In Praise or writing about Goethe being "a great poet but a piece of shit as a human being"; whether exposing the lies of the Victorians ("the Victorians lied about sex, about ambition, about social mobility, about women - denigrating them. So, of course, the Victorian novelists are boring") or savaging William Styron's 1968 Pulitzer Prize winner The Confessions of Nat Turner in an essay called "Anatomy of Serious Rubbish or the Bay of Pigs of the American Literary Establishment".

That essay was "the most harmful thing I did to myself", he says. "I must say if I had foreseen the consequences I may not have had the courage to write it ... all because I quoted all the important critics who praised that piece of shit to the skies ... I am still paying for it, actually. I will never be forgiven for it."

Maybe, maybe not: slowly, gently spoken in heavily accented broken English, Vizinczey is good company and generous with his time and interest; but with his history of "nightmare" lawsuits and other grievances, one wonders whether his air of being embattled isn't in some respects self-fulfilling.

Whatever the case with "Anatomy", he wasn't exactly cowed as a reviewer afterward, given the trenchant criticism in his 1986 collection titled - naturally - Truth and Lies in Literature. ("Anatomy" will be added when Truth and Lies is ­reissued next year, too - a year that will also bring a long-time-coming third novel, Wishes.)

"My resolution is always to be sensible, but then they give me the book and I just get going!" says Vizinczey.

To do anything else, he says, would make a mockery of the hardships he endured escaping the communist world, exchanging countries and languages "in order to speak my mind ... if I wanted to lie and flatter then I could have stayed in Hungary".

The exchange of languages may have left Vizinczey speaking broken English, but from a starting point of only 50 words he joined, as one of those more than 30 reviews quoted in the new edition of In Praise has it, "the masters of plain English prose".

In Praise is subtitled The Amorous Recollections of András Vajda and is a semi-autobiographical account of Vajda's encounters with a succession of older women, beginning in Hungary when he is an 11-year-old procuring prostitutes for American soldiers at the close of World War II and ending when he is a philosophy professor in Canada "not quite ready yet to sit down and grow old". (The same was true of Vizinczey, who has been married to wife Gloria for half a century but had an affair, and a daughter, with writer Angela Lambert in the early 1970s, of which he says: "Well, I can't claim to have been a faithful husband, but fidelity is vital only when it is the main thing which holds people together.")

The novel has provided a literary introduction to sex for many a young man in the past 45 years (and young women in equal numbers, according to Vizinczey), as reflected in the male journalists of a certain age writing nostalgically about the new edition.

I own up to being in the same camp, having first read the novel in my late teens after a television screening of the 1978 movie version starring Tom Berenger. I doubt the movie would stand up to renewed acquaintance ("It was a kind of childish male fantasy film which has almost nothing to do with the novel," says Vizinczey), but viewed from my mid-40s the novel's intellect and respectful delight in its older women are evident in a way that didn't register first time around, when my attention was more basely inclined.

"The hero of the novel is not András, but the women - András is the mirror who reflects them," says ­Vizinczey.

He makes a pretty good role model for a young man, I suggest, a counter to the sexual crudities of today. "Yes, I would have that book in high schools. For two reasons: one is what you said and the other is to make them like reading."

As it was, when Vizinczey first self-published the novel in Canada, there were those who didn't want it in the country, let alone in its high schools.

"I was abused on television and radio, and many shops refused to sell my book. Department stores where I was supposed to sign copies of the novel cancelled the signing an hour before I was supposed to appear, leaving hundreds of people lined up all around the block.

"I became famous by being abused - or made fun of - on radio and television, which was coupled with rave reviews by Canada's literary greats."

So much for the permissive 60s. "There were permissive rock festivals, raves, drugs and sex parties - but books have always been a separate issue. It is never a permissive time for books when it comes to sex, because to most people it is a touchy subject."

The novel was "too dirty for literature and not dirty enough for the hoi polloi", he says.

Fortunately, the rave reviews and the people lining up around the block won out, and In Praise went on to be an international bestseller, both at the time and in later years. It has sold some five million copies, with numerous translations and ­reissues, including a long run on the French bestseller list in the early 2000s.

"Intelligent people without hormonal deficiencies or hang-ups loved the book - and I think for many it was a first," says Vizinczey. "The first objective portrayal of happy sexual experiences - without self-justification, special pleading or wanting to settle old scores.

"Before In Praise, there was Thomas Mann's Confessions of Felix Krull, and before that there was Balzac's Droll Stories. I cannot think of any other book which mirrors sexual fulfilment truthfully, without exaggeration or timidity.

"And, of course, it works because sex doesn't stand by itself. As one reviewer noted, in the novel life is not about sex, sex is about life. This is what you notice when you are rereading it with a cooler head and more experience."

IN PRAISE OF OLDER WOMEN, by Stephen Vizinczey (Penguin Modern Classics, $31).