In the mid-1960s, readers with a furtive interest in literary sex weren't exactly spoilt for choice. Lady Chatterley's Lover had been available in Penguin paperback since 1960, more than 30 years after it was first published and banned; it was worth hacking through the jungle of Lawrence's prose to find the rude dialogue and the daisies-in-the-pubic-hair scene. Lolita had been around since 1959, making us swoon with its sensuous inspections of flesh and the American landscape, though it was frustratingly metaphorical and imprecise about sexual mechanics. Then in 1966, a new star appeared in the heavens: In Praise of Older Women by Stephen Vizinczey hit the shelves.
Once we'd established that it wasn't some pervy encomium about grandmothers, it quickly became a favourite in school locker-rooms: copies were passed from hand to hand, pored and sniggered over, heads were shaken about the "amorous recollections of Andras Vajda". The pages were full of unclasped housecoats and fumblings in pants, hot kisses and hard nipples, a countess in a shower, a virgin in a white chiffon dress, a fat prostitute called Fraulein Mozart on a picnic blanket. There was a poem about masturbation. And to our head-spinning envy, the priapic Andras started his Don Juan career when he was our age. There it was, in black and white, on page 22: the little beast discovering oral sex at 12, from a soldier's wife in her 40s.
Many people found it unputdownable. It sold five million copies in 21 countries and was filmed twice, once in Canada with Tom Berenger, once in Spain with Faye Dunaway, neither time with much distinction. And now, after lying fallow for a few years, tomorrow it joins the ranks of Penguin Classics, along with Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.
I went to meet the author, to see how he felt about his canonisation. Vizinczey lives in a posh apartment near Earl's Court. Still handsome at 76, he's a short, self-possessed man with bright brown eyes, exiguous white hair and the look of a Russian sailor. He insists visitors remove their shoes to save his new carpet, while his Canadian wife, Gloria, brings tea in a wonderfully old-fashioned silver pot.
"The worldwide success was a nightmare," he says gloomily. "I spent three months self-publishing the book in Canada. It was no joke, borrowing money, doing accounts, arranging distribution. Everyone said I would fail. Then I became, in 10 days, the No 1 bestseller and everyone said, 'Stephen, you really know what you're doing.' And that's when you fuck up. I should have been locked in a padded cell for three months, but everyone said I knew what I was doing, and I went to a crooked publisher." Vizinczey sold world rights to the book and saw not a penny for two years. "I was starving in Montreal, all the money went to New York. Seeing headlines in the paper about being a worldwide bestseller when you're having to borrow money to eat, that's a soul-destroying experience." It left him so bruised – and exhausted after a seven-year court case, finally settled by the personal intervention of Harold Macmillan – that it was 18 years before he published his second novel, An Innocent Millionaire.
The genesis of In Praise was a young girlfriend of the author's who wept on his shoulder, at 21, because she was growing old. "So I wrote in a short story about what a stupid thing this was. And then, because you come from another culture, you put in some of your background."
Rereading the book now, it's striking how much it deals in Hungarian history and the shadowy presence of Communist secret police, who called the young Vizinczey an "unreliable element." His father was assassinated by the Nazis when he was two, his uncle killed by Communists 20 years later. He fought in the Hungarian revolution of 1956 before fleeing to the West – and it's the eidetic memories of the world he left behind that fuelled his first novel: the bosomy perfumed aunties, his time as a pre-teen whoremaster to US troops billeted in post-war Austria, his developing obsession with grown-up flesh.
How much difference was there between Stephen Vizinczey and Andras Vajda? "Unlike Andras, I wasn't an only child," he says. "The book isn't a memoir. It's autobiographical in the background," says the author firmly. "The novel is in the little movements of the soul."
The little movements of Andras Vajda's fingers over Maya, Klari, Ilona, Zsuzsu, Bobi, Margit, Agi, Mici and several other mature ladies left a generation of boys aching with jealousy. Had they all been fictions? "They're compounds of different people," he says. "Most people don't understand that, for a character to live on the page, it must be more than one person. Otherwise they won't have enough qualities to convince the reader they're real. The model for Paola, for example, wasn't Italian, but I needed her for the scene. And I did have my own experience to draw on. I was very lucky, at 14, to have a girlfriend, a neglected wife in her 30s. I learned a great deal from her about English poetry." His voice takes on a dreamy quality. "One thing I share with Andras is that I always wanted to learn. I hate men who want to rule women. I never did."
The convergence of an intense young man and a wise-but-bored older woman is more than a sex thing to Vizinczey and his hero. "It's the ideal relationship. It's the essence of European civilisation to a degree. The only trouble with it, for a young man, is that when you've something wonderful, you don't always appreciate it."
What, I ask, does he make of the new phenomenon of "cougars" – ladies of mature years who make no bones about acquiring very young boyfriends. Iris Robinson and her 19-year-old lover, whom she helped financially. Sam Taylor-Wood and her leading-man fiancé, half her age. Madonna with her own personal Jesus ... Does he think 2010 is a good time for Older Women? "No no, that's very different," he says dismissively. He wouldn't praise them? "I don't praise or dispraise, but these are not the women I was writing about. My book comes from a different civilisation."
What was the difference?
"This ... snogging," he says disgustedly. "This idea that you just fuck somebody and move on. They call them all-night stands, or one-night stands, just recreational sex." Snogging? I say. Do you mean shagging?
"Shagging, yes. In the world I grew up in, sex was never just sex. 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."
Has time changed his attitude to younger women? Does he find 25-year-olds attractive? "I'm sure they're very attractive. But I'd say to them, 'If you are 25 and intelligent, you'll be a more intelligent and worthwhile person, at 40 or 50.' I'm not against youth. But I think I'm a wiser and better person than at 25." But are you sexier? He laughs. "You know what Mark Twain said? A man after 50 isn't much to talk about, but his grandmother could still put a dozen men out of action and keep going." He laughs heartily.
He met Gloria, six years his senior, when they both worked at Canadian Broadcasting Co in Toronto. "We worked across the corridor from each other. We were the only ones working there on Christmas Eve." ("My children were with their father," puts in Gloria by way of explanation.) "And it's true," concedes Vizinczey dreamily, "that I proposed to go to bed with her right away in the café."
Aha, I say. After all your faux-fastidiousness, you propositioned her the first time you spoke? I bet you said: "Fancy a shag, darling? After all it is Christmas Eve ... "
"NO! NO! I never would," Vizinczey shouts. "I'm an old-style European gentleman! I would never start a conversation in this way. We used to meet in the corridor. Every time we met, her eyes lit up. It went on for months but we never talked until Christmas Eve."
They make a very sweet couple, the pugnacious literary man (he dislikes Joyce, Nabokov and Flaubert, but reveres Stendhal and Kleist) and his doll-like wife of 47 years, with her merry eyes and her habit of talking across him. He absent-mindedly strokes her grey, page-boy bob. They resemble an afternoon-TV commercial for a happy retirement home. After the legal and personal storms he's endured because of his timeless tribute to ladies d'un certain age, Vizinczey and his Older Woman deserve it.
In Praise of Older Women is published by Penguin Classics. To order a copy for £9.99 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit Independentbooksdirect.co.ukReuse content