György Faludy’s Happy Days in Hell

by Thomas Ország-Land (August 2010)

Book after translated book, a soft-spoken poet who spent a long life writing in an awkward minority language unrelated to most others 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 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. 
Yet the Hungarian literary establishment has still managed to keep his name out of the schoolbooks, despite the two decades since the establishment of democratic rule. Entirely in vain.
Penguin Classics has just released Faludy’s autobiography My Happy Days in Hell (trans. Kathleen Szasz, London, ISBN 9780141193205, £12.99p, 522pp), an elegant tale celebrating the triumph of the human spirit. The book was first published in English in 1962, anticipating Alexander Solzhenitsin's Gulag Archipelago by more than a decade. It covers a morally confusing period. 
It was not that long ago that many otherwise decent souls betrayed their own deeply felt values when, outraged by the initial triumph of murderous Nazi tyranny, they allowed themselves to become the instruments of Communist murder as apologists, spies and even torturers. 
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 those 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 been privileged to discuss the events of the book with two of its principal characters, also close friends of the author. Both were impressed with the veracity of Faludy’s recollection and moved by his power of detailed recall.
The poet was relentlessly pursued all his life by the hostility of the agents of repression as well as the love of a devoted public. He attended several West European universities taking courses in the arts and history without ever sitting an exam. He burst on the literary stage of Budapest as a young man just before the rise of Nazi oppression with a collection of ballads exuding the love of freedom, translated and adapted from the mediaeval French of Francois Villon. The 45th printing of that book has just been sold out.  
His books were seized, burnt and banned by both the Nazis and the Communists. He left Hungary in time to fight the Second World War with the American Air Force while members of his family and more than half a million other Hungarian Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. He returned home immediately after the war to be imprisoned by the Communists in 1949 on trumped up charges. This is the main theme of the Penguin autobiography covering a lively and horrendous 15-year period from his first exile to his release from prison in 1953.
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 records confirm the accuracy of the later work. 
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 chose to leave for Paris, eventually reaching French North Africa after an anti-Semite Hungarian parliamentary deputy had suffered a heart attack on reading a Faludy poem mercilessly lampooning his voting record. The poet thought this was one of his greatest literary achievements.
In Paris, Faludy courted, wrote and starved a lot and met people — such as Picasso and Roger Martin du Gard — who later influenced European history. Here is the author’s mocking and prophetic response to the shamefully cynical treatment meted out by the French to the desperate flood of mostly East European Jewish refugees fleeing the racist wrath of Nazi Germany during the early years of the war. (Both Faludy poems included in this review are rendered in my translation).

     REFUGEE, 1940

Like our hosts, we thought the French army
was the mightiest under the sun.
And what did it show to the German Nazis?
Beaten backsides on the run.

The French distrust and despise us aliens  
for fleeing to their land for salvation.
It was their own deceit, not ours,
that callously brought down this nation.

They boast: defeat will bring them peace
(too bad for the Jews). Oh, hunky-dory…
Few of them know that it’s only the start
and very far from the end of the story.

The Nazis will settle into their homes.
They’ll drink their cellars dry, abuse
their women and, should they object,
treat their hosts as they treat the Jews.

Faludy found asylum in the United States at the invitation of President Roosevelt, obtained through the efforts of leaders of the Hungarian anti-Nazi resistance. In America, he served the Free Hungary Movement as its honorary secretary, published and lectured widely and enlisted early 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. Soon he found himself in prison.
He 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 called The House of Terror, open to the public — awaiting his promised execution at dawn before being dispatched, instead, to serve a 25-year forced labour sentence handed down without a trial.

Faludy’s fellow captives at Recsk, a notoriously sadistic prison camp known as “The Hungarian Gulag,” included the elite of intellectual society. Its members supported each other by lengthy group conversations at night, each treating the rest to lectures on his specialized field of knowledge. Many of them perished from exhaustion on starvation rations, usually those, Faludy noted, who chose “to sleep more and think less.” The survivors came to believe that their discussions on Plato’s philosophy and Keats’ poetry had the power to sustain them.

He saved many of his poems composed in captivity by entrusting them to his memory. He was assisted in this by his fellow prisoners — including my two informants whom I eventually interviewed in Toronto — who memorized and recited them during work. On their release from prison in the confusion following Stalin’s death in 1953, the same comrades helped Faludy to reassemble the poems for publication.

Faludy fled the country 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. Then he returned to Hungary 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 lots of 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. But those years were clouded by the pique of the Hungarian literary establishment who could not stomach Faludy’s enduring popularity: he was as the only Hungarian poet to make a decent living by poetry alone.

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 prose available in English translation includes City of Splintered Gods (1966), a novel; Erasmus of Rotterdam (1970), a biography; and Notes from the Rainforest (1988), a collection of essays and correspondence.

Four years after his death, Faludy still seems to be present in public life, his name and odd lines of verse persistently quoted even at political rallies. Many of his expressions have been adopted in common parlance. He also still attracts vindictive personal criticism from the Hungarian literary establishment because, some explain, he made too many allowances to popular culture. Yet the contrary is true.

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. The many voices and attitudes quoted or adapted in his enormous oeuvre sometimes give expression to colloquial language and repellent manners and attitudes observed in a very wide range of social and educational strata, 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. And perhaps he was too successful at flouting social conventions and egging on his detractors to embarrass themselves. 

That was easy game in this deeply conservative society. Consider his last wedding, at the age of 92. A lot of Hungarians, who had learned with great difficulty to tolerate their favourite poet sharing his life with his same-sex “secretary,” simply could not accept the old man changing the rules of conventional morality yet again by marrying a young woman. 

To make matters worse, the bride had been unwise enough before she met Faludy to place on the Internet a website displaying her literary efforts accompanied by some amateurish nude photographs of herself. Friends reminded her after the wedding, and she removed the website at once. But Faludy, who had no personal Internet access, was informed of its content by a gloating article published in the gutter press.

He responded by allowing the Hungarian edition of Penthouse magazine to photograph both of them wearing little more than their wedding rings for a feature spread including several epigrams about love. The coy Hungarian public was so shocked that it rushed to purchase 70,000 copies of the magazine within days — this in a country of less than ten million souls. 

He also published his following, final great love poem. It is almost certainly the only description by Age of physical love with Beauty in all of Western literature.

        LOVE POEM

            (To F. K.)

She was far from the first. We lay there naked
and, with one arm, I lightly caressed her body.
I hoped it should be quite agreeable
with just a touch of customary boredom.

It turned out to be more. I leaned above
her small left nipple musing what to compare
it with: a speck of coral? or a wild strawberry?
a tiny tulip still in bud perhaps?    

Only an instant had passed and I entered a different
reality. Had I fainted or just awoken?
Around us stillness prevailed and blue, insane
wildflowers began to whirl behind my forehead.    

It was the taste and fragrance of your skin,
not your perfume, that utterly triumphed. They thrust
away my troubles, cares and fears and sorrows,
my past and memories, leaving only this love.

Packed into one another, we two alone
inhabit the earth, our shoulders spliced in stages.
We lose our way in one another’s hair.
We meditate on one another’s navel.

You can go away but will remain with me holding
between my teeth a single strand of your hair.
I use your body’s shadow for my cover.
Say not a word, for all our secrets are shared.

Many people are never touched by such passion
and many would never dare to risk it, even
though this is all that I recognize as love:
soaring all the way from our bedsheets to heaven. 

The literary establishment 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 sounded 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, again 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 AUSCHWITZ: Holocaust Poetry Translated from the Hungarian of András Mezei (Smokestack, England) published in June.


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