I ran out of something to read last week and so plucked an old book from the bookcase. The book was In Praise of Older Women, by Stephen Vizinczey.
I reckon I first read this book when I was about 16. My grandfather was a great book reader. He was a quiet, studious man, softly spoken and an old-fashioned gentleman. He was a great reader, and in their home in Strathmore my grandparents had a whole wall of shelves jammed tight with books on every subject.
I had my larrikin attributes growing up, but I was always a great reader (family lore has it that I read The Shaggy Dog when I was about 4 – I actually remember reading it). I loved books and reading, and a visit to my grandparents was always a delight for that reason. I’d have read dozens of his books over the years, and somewhere along the way claimed 20-30 as my share of the inheritance.
This book is a slim paperback purchased in the 1960’s. The pages are yellowed on the edges, and I hold it wondering what my grandfather made of it when he bought it that long ago day, and indeed, what sort of world it was then. In that very elementary day books are time machines.
Of course they’re time machines in more substantial ways too. A book like this references a time far distant to this – the war years extending into the early sixties, as well as places a long way from where I sit. What doesn’t change much is the way people think and express themselves. There are trends and cultural idiosyncrasies’, but not much is different really.
As a teenager reading this book I was probably pretty impressed by the racy possibilities of it. As a kid looking towards my entry into the wider world I was likely pretty excited to think that sometime soon I might get among older women and younger women too.
In actual fact the book is pretty tame. The protagonist has a bit of fun, but he’s discreet in his descriptions. In fact it’s more of a wise reminiscence, beautifully written throughout. Regardless, it was likely sufficient to ignite my imagination.
I would have read it some time after that in my twenties, but not since then. Reading it now is different from before. It’s demonstration of how you can’t step into the same river twice. The book’s the same, but I’ve changed.
Reading it I’m reminded of another book I read way back when, but have returned to regularly since. The similarity is that they’re both set around the same time and place – middle Europe around WW2 – and both have a distinctly European sensibility.
Memoirs of an Anti-Semite is another of those precociously written books. The voice is of the wearily wise man of the world, confident and splendidly articulate, and sensitive – if only in retrospect – to the complexities, subtleties and contradictions of 20th century life. Gregor von Rezzori wrote that, and there are sections of the book that had a big impact on me when I first read it in my early twenties.
They’re books written in another time – who remembers these authors today? – about an era even before that. It seems far away now, but not so much when I was a boy.