In Praise of Older Women: Part One

Last Saturday, The Globe and Mail carried a story about Stephen Vizinczey, the author of In Praise of Older Women. He first published the novel himself in 1965, after its rejection by conventional publishers. It is now being re-issued as a Penguin Classic but will not yet be distributed in Canada and the United States. A couple of years ago Vizinczey allowed me to use one of the chapters as the basis of this short story. Here is the first of two parts.

The narrator is Andrew Moyne, a public-spirited young Torontonian.

Every August I listened to the Couchiching Conference on the CBC radio network for one week, from eight to nine in the evening. I knew that the debates on public questions, national and international, conducted at the YMCA’s Geneva Park was an annual ritual for the radio audience, which included many politicians in Ottawa, and for the three hundred ordinary people who attended, paying eighty dollars a person for the week’s room, board and the pleasures of consorting with each other and with celebrity thinkers. But I had always been averse to going myself. I knew that Geneva Park was a singularly beautiful spot on the banks of Lake Couchiching eighty miles north of Toronto, but if I wanted to breathe the purifying air of the Canadian north I preferred to do it in silence. I felt no urge to participate.

But this time, the summer of 1958, when the subject was CRISIS ’58, I overcame my scruples and went.

The speaker who delivered the keynote address in Copeland Hall on Saturday, August 9, which opened the week’s conference, was Lester B. Pearson, the Leader of the Opposition. As Canada’s foreign minister, and as president of the U.N.’s General Assembly in 1952/3, he had played a major role in dozens of international crises culminating in the Suez affair last October, a role for which in December he received the Nobel Peace Prize. And four weeks ago there had been a coup by army officers in Iraq which overthrew the monarchy. Who knows where that would lead?

But that was not his main subject. His focus was the confrontation between the USA and the USSR, which was now a “nuclear, stratospheric and supersonic” power. This would be serious enough if the relationship was reasonably friendly instead of very unfriendly. In the final paragraph of his keynote address Pearson said it was time “we began to think anew and act anew to rise to the challenge of the new situation. If we don’t we will be fortunate if next near at Couchiching we are in a position to discuss anything at all.”

During the question-and-answer period a handsome young man, probably a student, wearing a black turtleneck sweater and looking like an exotic Lord Byron went to the microphone and asked a question in a strange foreign accent. The moderator, the barrister J.S. Midanik, had to ask him to repeat it.

“My name is Andras Vajda,” the young man said. “I am one of a quarter million refugees from Hungary who left because the Soviets marched in while you, sir, were dealing with the Suez Canal. Please, sir, why did you not mention the Hungarian crisis in your address?”

“Oh,” Mr. Pearson replied with his slight lisp, shaking his youthful lock of hair from his middle-aged forehead. “I do apologize. I certainly should have mentioned it. The speaker is quite right to point out, at least by implication, that we should have acted more vigorously to counter the brutal Soviet repression in Hungary. We did consider various steps but could not come to a decision. He is quite right. We were too pre-occupied with the events in the Middle East. And of course everyone was terrified that one false step might lead to World War Three. I am grateful to him for raising this painful subject.”

After the session, a number of young girls in very short skirts, probably students, flocked to the alluring Hungarian on the lawn outside Copeland Hall. It was a warm night and the moon was shining over the sparkling lake. The girls were too young for me, but perhaps not for him.

“Come to the Wigwam and have a drink with us,” the boldest of them, the one with the shortest skirt, said. The Wigwam was the largest of the cottages, near the boathouse. “What would you like? Rye and ginger ale?”

“Oh no, no, no, thank you.” Andras Vajda shook his head. “Not tonight. So sorry.”

To soften this harsh rejection he suggested a positive alternative even if perhaps it wasn’t entirely consonant with the ethos of the YMCA.

“But perhaps one of you would like to come to bed with me? But I only do it with one at a time.”

The girls opened their mouths in horror. Even the bold one. They could not even say, “No thank you. Not tonight.”

“Too bad,” Andras shrugged cheerfully and went home across the parking lot to the students’ barracks. I learned later that young girls left him cold and that he was not a student at all but a recently hired lecturer in European studies at the University of Saskatchewan. He had been sent all the way to Couchiching by the imaginative dean to become acquainted “with the way educated Canadians think.”

The next morning I made a point of introducing myself at one of the breakfast tables, after we had been served at the buffet with lumpy porridge, semi-hard-boiled eggs, greasy bacon and moist toast. The YMCA had many virtues but preparing edible food was not one of them. The topic for the evening’s discussion was “Disengagement: Solution in Europe?” and the speakers were Fritz Erler, Deputy Floor Leader of the Social Democratic Party in Bonn, and Robert Bowie, former Assistant Secretary of State, and now the Director of International Affairs at Harvard. Putting a European versus an American with a Canadian moderator in the middle was a specialty of the Couchiching conference planners. On this occasion the moderator was the Canadian journalist-academic Robert McKenzie, on the faculty of the London School of Economics.

Fritz Erler sat at our table. The others were two pleasant-looking lady-librarians from Windsor, Ontario, and a silver-haired economist from Ottawa. Andras had heard that Erler had been incarcerated in various penitentiaries during the war, but he knew none of the details and asked him about it.

“It saved my life,” Erler said. He had an oval face, wore horn-rimmed glasses and spoke remarkably good English. “I was convicted in 1939 for preparing high treason. Only preparing it, that was all. I was lucky. Had they considered my crime actual high treason I would have been executed right away. I was also lucky that I was not sent to a concentration camp. There my chances of survival would have been minimal. I only spent a short period in two small camps, the rest in some of Germany’s most luxurious penitentiaries. My one great adventure was escaping from a prisoners’ transport in April 1945. I just jumped out of the truck and nobody noticed.”

Andras was fascinated.

“Oh, I know about those army trucks,” he said. “I was on many of them myself. But mine were American.”

“How is that possible?” Erler asked. “How old were you at the end of the war?

“Twelve,” Andras answered. “Nearly thirteen. We were refugees in Salzburg. I had been to a Hungarian cadet school – it was horrible – and suddenly I found myself in an American camp, with lots and lots to eat, making myself useful to the Americans in many, many interesting ways. And got paid for it. Using those trucks.”

“In what interesting ways?” one of the pleasant librarians asked.

“I found women for the American soldiers. Only a few of the women were prostitutes. The one I liked best was a beautiful and elegant countess who had a castle and a count and four little countesses to feed. The women were rewarded with food and cigarettes, and often with some nice things from the PX stores.”

“Tell us again – how old did you say you were, twelve?” the pleasant librarian asked. “And did you know what all this was about?”

“What do you mean?” Andreas asked indignantly. “I was not five, I was twelve! Do you mean did I sleep with the countess myself? The answer is no. Though I was old enough to want to. And I was certainly capable of it.”

“You were?”

“Yes, I was. But I was too shy to ask.”

Fritz Erler thought it was wise to change the subject.

“It must be very hard for people on this side of the ocean,” he said, putting his hand on Andras’s sleeve, “to imagine what things were like in Europe at the end of the war. I hope to talk about this tonight. And perhaps you can come up with another nice question,” he added with a smile.

“I will try and think of something.”

Neither Andras nor I attended the church service in Copeland Hall at eleven. Instead, the two of us went for a walk, along the cottages, past the tennis courts where we sat down on a bench, next to a couple of teenage boys with rackets in their hands waiting to play themselves, to watch a game between Gordon Hawkins, the associate director of the Canadian Association for Adult Education, and an attractive woman, a blooming blond lavender beauty who reminded me of the ads for Yardley soap. I had noticed her last evening and hoped to find a way to encounter her soon. She was probably around thirty-five.

“Now, Andras, there’s a woman I would like to meet,” I said.

“That’s my mum.” One of the boys had overheard me. “I’ll introduce you, if you like.”

“Oh please.”

A few minutes later the game was over. The lady had beaten Gordon Hawkins six to four and was in high spirits. The boy duly introduced his mother.

“Oh, it is pleasure it is to meet you,” she said to me. Then she turned to Andras. “I admired your courage in asking Pearson that question last night.”

“Courage? I did not need any courage for that,” Andras replied. “I need courage to ask you to go to the beach with me this afternoon.”

The lady burst into laughter.

“Do I need courage to say I would be delighted?”

“You are very charming, madame,” Andras smiled.

“And you are very.…” She was looking for the right word. “Foreign.”

I knew in the game of love Andras would beat me six to one.

Andras and I continued our walk.

“I suppose this lady is not used to be invited to go to the beach with a young man she does not know,” he said. “After all, at the beach one is nearly naked. She would be quite accustomed to be invited by a stranger to a drink of ‘rye and ginger’ in any of the rooms. But not to go with him to the beach. Is that not true?”

“Probably.”

“I was warned about this by the taxi-driver who drove me to town when I arrived at the airport in April. He turned out to be a nice fat Austrian who gave me a useful lecture about Canadians. He said Canadians love money first, which he thought was perfectly alright. Then comes liquor, then TV, then food. Sex is way down the list. At home it is at the top of the list where it belongs. Where is it on your list, Mr. Moyne?”

“I think it is somewhere in the middle.” I was pleased to be asked about a subject close to my heart. “But I am ahead of most others. We Canadians will soon catch up. We are still very puritanical.”

“So I have learned,” Andras said. “My taxi-driver was right. Here they drink instead of having sex. In Canada puritans are drunkards, not lovers. Especially here, at the YMCA.”

Part 2 will follow tomorrow.

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