Gyorgy Faludy Comes Home
From Thomas Land, in Budapest
BOOK after translated book, a soft-spoken poet who spent a long life writing in an awkward, minority language is taking his rightful place among the giants of world literature — even in his homeland.
György Faludy was born in Budapest a century ago this September. He was a Jew who wanted desperately to be a Hungarian, but had to spend some of his best writing years in exile or in prison. His poetry, circulated at home illegally during the grim years of Nazi and subsequent Soviet occupation, kept alive the flame of freedom and decency for generations of his adoring public.
Despite two decades since the advent of democratic rule in Hungary its literary establishment has managed to keep Faludy’s name out of the schoolbooks. Entirely in vain, for his poetry has now become a potent force in the struggle of post-Communist Europe to liberate itself from the lingering spirit of its bygone tyrannies.
Penguin Modern Classics has just released Faludy’s autobiography My Happy Days in Hell , an elegant tale celebrating the triumph of the human spirit. First published in English in 1962, the book anticipated Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago by more than a decade.
A natural teacher and spellbinding raconteur, Faludy leads his reader across a blood-drenched landscape, sharing his enjoyment and surprise at morality, friendship, loyalty and sheer physical as well as aesthetic pleasure that have somehow overcome the carnage. His autobiography is an essential literary document of the 20th century, the testimony of a writer whose stature is comparable to that of his beloved Auden, Lorca, Rilke and Yeats.
Faludy, who died in 2006, was my teacher for most of my life and my close friend towards the end of his. I have discussed the book with two of its principal characters, also close associates of the author, who were impressed with the veracity of Faludy’s recollections. Many of the events of My Happy Days in Hell are also described in Faludy’s poetry, written during or shortly after their occurrence. These contemporaneous testimonies confirm the accuracy of the later work.
All his life, Faludy was relentlessly pursued by the hostile agents of repression while being well loved by a devoted public. He burst onto the literary stage of Budapest just before the rise of Nazi oppression with a collection of ballads exuding the love of freedom, adapted from the mediaeval French of Francois Villon. The following lines from the book (rendered in my translation) describe Faludy’s own life as well as the romantic character of Faludy’s Villon, now a familiar figure in Hungarian literature.
… Triumphant stars erect their vast cathedral
above me and dew calms my feet below
as I pursue my god (and he’s retreating)
and feel my world through every loving pore.
I’ve rested on the peaks of many mountains
and wondered at the sweating quarry-slaves
but whistling bypassed all the stately towers
for I knew well our ruler’s fancy games.
And thus I have received but scorn and kisses,
and thus I’ve learned to find an equal rest
in squalor and beneath the whitest pillars,
a man despised and welcomed everywhere.
The Penguin autobiography covers a lively and horrendous 15-year period from Faludy’s first exile to his release from prison in 1953. The book opens with a description of the country of his youth, a semi-feudal backwater locked in bitter resentment then as now over Hungary’s territorial losses suffered after the First World War. The author fled to Paris after a Hungarian parliamentary deputy had suffered a heart attack on reading one of his poems, lampooning the politician’s pro-Nazi voting record. The poet thought this was his greatest literary achievement.
In Paris, Faludy wrote and starved a lot, and met many people who later influenced European history. As the Nazis advanced, he retreated first to French North Africa and then to the United States where he served the Free Hungary Movement as its honorary secretary. He later enlisted in the US Air Force to fight the war in the Far East theatre against Japan. He astonished his hosts afterwards by declining their offer of American citizenship and returning to his war-torn homeland at the first opportunity. He soon found himself in prison on trumped-up charges.
The poet endured torture in the dungeons of the Communist state security organization AVO, which had been used earlier for the same purpose by the Hungarian Nazi movement, the Arrow-Cross. Eventually he “confessed” to being a CIA spy, but laid a trap for the planners of a prospective show trial by identifying his alleged American minders as Captain Edgar Allan Poe and Major Walt Whitman. He spent his final night in that building — now a museum open to the public called The House of Terror — awaiting his promised execution at dawn before being dispatched instead to serve a 25-year forced labour sentence handed down without a trial.
He saved many of his poems composed in captivity by entrusting them to memory. He was assisted in this by his fellow prisoners — including my two informants whom I eventually interviewed in Toronto — who memorized and recited Faludy’s poems during work. On their release from prison in the confusion following Stalin’s death in 1953, the same comrades helped Faludy to compile the poems for publication.
Faludy chose exile again after the collapse of the 1956 Hungarian revolution against Soviet rule, edited a literary journal in London, taught at Columbia University in New York and received a Pulitzer Prize as well as an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto. He was nominated for a literary Nobel Prize.
Faludy returned to his homeland yet again at the age of 78, together with his lover Eric Johnson, an American classicist poet, to witness the implosion of Communism and the birth of democracy. He was greeted by a tumultuous welcome and more literary prizes. More than a decade later, he married Fanny Kovács, a poet then aged 28. This was his fourth marriage, in which he spent his final, extraordinarily creative years.
English translations of Faludy’s poetry have been collected in East and West (1978) and Learn This Poem of Mine by Heart (1983), both ed. John Robert Colombo, and Selected Poems (1985), trans. Robin Skelton. Faludy’s irreverent Hungarian adaptation of the Villon ballads has been adapted further in my own English Free Women (1991).
His poetry is rich in unforgettable, romantic or flippant turns of phrase that unfailingly draw their power from keen perception. The poems are often composed in delicate, chanson-like tones that can unexpectedly give way to heart-chilling horror, without ever compromising the highest standards of literature.
Yet Faludy has remained an irritant to many Hungarian teachers, critics and editors. I think this is because of his irrepressible voice in praise of freedom, an anathema to the very nature of the literary establishment here that has evolved through the long decades of rigid regulation under successive tyrannies. Perhaps he flouted social conventions too often, sometimes by provoking his detractors to embarrass themselves.
The literary elite tore into Faludy’s reputation after his death by questioning the veracity of My Happy Days in Hell. While the world mourned the passing of a brilliant mind, a minor Hungarian writer opined in an obituary published by The Guardian newspaper of London that the book contained “picaresque adventures and saucy anecdotes… even if it is uncertain how much of it is based on fact”. He also asserted that Faludy’s verse was “rarely faultless”.
Another writer stated on an establishment literary website, without citing evidence, that the book was full of “fibs”. And even before his funeral, which turned into a spontaneous demonstration of national grief, the mass circulation Népszabadság newspaper of Budapest categorically ruled that “the Hungarian literary canon does not recognize Faludy”.
Perhaps the silliest and most revealing criticism was voiced during the recent election campaign by a leader of the far-Right Jobbik party expressing outrage over the recital of a Faludy poem at a public event. Faludy was a “well known Zionist enemy of the Hungarian nation,” the speaker declared (also in the absence of evidence) and proposed that in future all poems chosen for public performance should be routinely vetted by the authorities.
But all this will pass into irrelevance. The city of Toronto has already adopted Faludy as its own poet and named after him a small park beneath the apartment where he had spent 14 years of his exile. As Hungary passes through its awkward present transition away from authoritarian rule, Faludy may yet teach its administrators of culture how to trust their own public, and even their own hearts.
THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes on Eastern Europe. His last book was Christmas in Auschwitzch: Holocaust Poetry Translated from the Hungarian of András Mezei .