FALUDY RE-LIGHTS THE FLAME OF FREEDOM IN EASTERN
37 Vers/37 Poems
György Faludy (trans. Peter Zollman)
Maecenas Press, Budapest, 2010
208pp., 2,490 Forints (or about £7)
My Happy Days in Hell
György Faludy (trans. Kathleen Szasz)
Penguin Modern Classics, London, 2010
From THOMAS LAND, in Budapest
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 (1910-2006) wanted a quiet life in his native Hungary, 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
Yet the Hungarian literary establishment has still managed to keep his name out
of the schoolbooks, despite the two decades since the advent of democratic rule.
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
Maecenas Press of Budapest has just issued a Faludy
collection in English translation (37 Vers/37 Poems, trans. Peter Zollman,
2010, 208pp., ISBN: 9789632032252, 2,490 Forints or
about £7). Penguin Modern Classics of London has also just released Faludy’s
autobiography (My Happy Days in Hell, trans. Kathleen Szász, 2010,
522pp., ISBN 9780141193205, £12.99p), a book first published in English in 1962,
anticipating Alexander Solzhenitsin's Gulag Archipelago by more than a
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 was my teacher for most of my life and my close friend towards the end of
his. I have discussed the autobiography with two of its principal characters,
also close associates of the author, who were impressed with the veracity of
Faludy’s recollection. Many of the events of My Happy Days in Hell are
also described in Faludy’s poetry, written during or shortly after their
occurrence. Many of the autobiographical poems appear in Zollman’s remarkably
accurate translation. These contemporaneous records confirm the accuracy of the
Faludy was relentlessly pursued all his life by the hostility of the agents of
repression as well as the love of a devoted public. He burst on 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 (part of the poem Despised
and Welcomed, rendered in my own English adaptation) describe Faludy’s life
as well as the romantic character of Faludy’s Villon, now a familiar figure of
...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 saw through our rulers' 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 illustrated by the Maecenas collection 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 a
Faludy poem lampooning his pro-Nazi voting record. The poet thought this was his
greatest literary achievement.
In Paris, Faludy courted, wrote and starved a lot and met 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. Soon he 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 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.
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
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.
He 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.
Many English translations of Faludy’s poetry have been collected also 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. And perhaps he was too successful at flouting social conventions and
egging on his detractors to embarrass themselves.
The literary elite tore into Faludy’s reputation after his death by questioning
the value of his poetry and even 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 -- the heirs of the
murderous war-time Arrow-Cross -- 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 Eastern Europe 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
THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes
from London and his native Budapest. His last book was CHRISTMAS IN
AUSCHWITZ: Holocaust Poetry Translated from the Hungarian of András Mezei
(Smokestack Press, England, 2010).