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Abstinence or Sex: Twilight vs. In Praise of Older Women

In Praise of Older Women is the anti-Twilight, telling the story of a young man’s sexual education in the arms of older women.

• Stephen Vizinczey believes one reason his novel In Praise of Older Women isn’t in print in the U.S. is because it doesn’t fit into America’s “puritanical or macho traditions.”

Editorial by Lewis Manalo

When I was in seventh grade, during an assembly in the school cafeteria, a pudgy man in a pink shirt told our class to wait to have sex until marriage, adding that if we ignored his advice and had premarital sex, we’d all get AIDS and die. With his overhead projector he showed us scientific proof that premarital sex would kill us, even if we used a condom.

He did not dissuade many of us from continuing to try our best to not abstain. Little did we know that ideas about abstinence like Mr. Pudgy’s would take hold of public school sex education programs across America. And no one then imagined that an abstinence fantasy would take over mainstream culture in the form of The Twilight Saga.

In a nation that encourages its adolescents to embrace ignorance when it comes to what matters, it’s no surprise that while the rest of the world has made Stephen Vizinczey’s In Praise of Older Women a bestseller and calls it a modern classic, I didn’t hear of the novel until my thirties.

In Praise of Older Women is about a young man in Post-War Hungary receiving his sexual education in the arms of older women. András Vajda, the young hero of the story, loves women, and he learns that they’re a much better use of his time than girls, saying:

“I had affairs with a few girls of my own age, and they taught me that no girl, however intelligent and warm-hearted, can possibly know or feel half as much at twenty as she will at thirty-five.”

Vizinczey’s novel has been reissued in over twenty countries.  This year, Penguin UK reissued the book for its forty-fifth anniversary, but here in the U.S. the novel has been out of print for more than a decade. Over email, Vizinczey cited some legal issues that contributed to the book’s irregular release in the United States, but he also admits that In Praise of Older Women doesn’t fit into America’s “puritanical or macho tradition[s].”

I’d have gladly relinquished my Vanilla Ice CDs to have been able to read this book when I was thirteen. Despite the prurient nature of the storyline, In Praise of Older Women is not concerned with the simple mechanics of sex. From András’ time as a thirteen-year-old whoremonger for a clientele of American soldiers, through his affairs in Communist Budapest, and on to the cold response he receives as an émigré in Canada, every affair that he recounts is another insight into the obscure nature of love. His first lover is a woman in an open marriage who still loves her husband. One chapter’s title is: “On Being Promiscuous and Lonely.” Elsewhere, a prostitute named Fräulein Mozart teaches András that “[w]hatever else sex was, it was obviously teamwork….”  These would have been good things to learn at thirteen years old.

There is so much more to be learned about love in In Praise of Older Women than in Stephanie Meyer’s 2,000-odd pages of “will he bite her or won’t he?” With an objectified heroine, there’s little real emotional interaction in Twilight.  There’s only the ebb and flow of desire. But Vizinczey’s novel gives the reader a peek into what actual emotional entanglements look and feel like.

It’s too bad that America failed to embrace an honest portrayal of sexuality in favor of the ignorance that accompanies an abstinence-only sex-ed curriculum. If we’d read Vizinczey’s novel in middle school, my classmates and I might’ve saved ourselves time wasted in ignorant confusion. And with Twilight’s commercial success, a new generation will waste its time with idealized ignorance, fooling itself with the notion that, “Though it’s not sex, at least it’s sexy.”

DISCUSS: Romance vs. Sexy Literary Fiction: What’s the Distinction?

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2 Comments

  1. Scott
    Posted August 4, 2010 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    Brilliant phrase: “In a nation that encourages its adolescents to embrace ignorance when it comes to what matters”. Too bad it applies to much more than just sex.

  2. annelouise
    Posted May 14, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    very good review – I also had never heard of this book. Sad statement when we tell kids to sign up for war, but keep your pants up for love….something sure is screwy.

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