Last week I mentioned Simon Winder whom I knew to be a book editor as well as author of the well-researched and literate Germania and Danubia books. I had not, however, realised that he is the genius behind the Central European Classics series of books issued by Penguin
I’m rereading one of them - György Faludy's autobiography My Happy Days in Hell, first published in 1962 - and finding it one of the most powerful bits of writing I've ever encountered. Far better than Gregor von Rezori's slightly surrealist evocation of an earlier generation - The Ermine in Czernopol - which I had been trying to read earlier in the week, its picaresque descriptions and musings occasionally give me glimpses of Voltaire's Candide.....
Faludy's 2006 obituary gave this vignette
Faludy's 2006 obituary gave this vignette
This is the Hungarian-Jewish poet's story of his flight to France and Africa in the late 1930s, his years fighting as a volunteer in the US air force, and his return after the war to Hungary, where, after refusing to write a celebratory poem for Stalin's birthday, he was interned, emerging three years later as one of a very small number who survived. Often at risk of death, even flirting with it in his encounters with Nazis and communists, Faludy revelled in the sheer sensation of being alive. Born in 1910, Faludy spent most of his highly productive later life in Canada and died in 2006 in Budapest where he returned in the late 1989. An exultant sensuous verve jumps from the pages of this sometimes bleak, never deceived and yet always life-affirming book.
The book is a supreme example of a "poetic" book - with detailed and insightful observations scattered on every page, whether about the day he departed America (after 5 years there); or arriving back to the nightmare of 1945 Budapest before the 3 years he languished in prison there. This interview some 25 years ago catches catches his waspish tone
Well, look. I am 77 years old. When I was growing up there was still such a thing as Western Civilization, something I love almost as much as life itself. In any form in which one could recognize it, it's largely gone now. Or rather is transmuted into the bizarre society one finds now everywhere from Sâo Paulo to Singapore, with far too many people, a general subliteracy and, at the top, the hierarchy of technocrats, most of them — except for their technical specialties — as uneducated as the proles working for them at minimum wage, or less
Two Hungarian literary sites give a very good summary of this incredible man’s life - here and here I just missed the anniversary of his birth - September 22 (1910 ).
Hungarians are attracting a lot of critical press at the moment – but we should celebrate the amazing contribution they have made to intellectual life in the 20th century. Here is one of the best tributes to Faludy
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 in September 1910. 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 Penguin autobiography covers a lively and horrendous 15-year period from Faludy’s first exile to his release from prison in 1953. But the camp never left him. It reappeared, for example, in a poem of 1983.
Learn by heart this poem of mine,
Books only last a little time,
And this one will be borrowed, scarred,
Burned by Hungarian border guards,
Lost by the library, broken-backed,
Its paper dried up, crisped and cracked,
Worm-eaten, crumbling into dust,
Or slowly brown and self-combust,
When climbing Fahrenheit has got
To 451, for that's how hot
it will be when your town burns down.
Learn by heart this poem of mineHe had opted for poetry early, seduced by Budapest's cafés and literary life, but his scientist father would have none of it. Budapest already had 20,000 poets, he said, none of whom could support themselves. The young Faludy was packed off to Vienna to study chemical engineering. He remained unknown to his professors, publishing instead the translations of François Villon, a rebellious 15th-century French poet, that launched his literary career. He also wrote a poem against Hitler that would have earned him 14 years in prison, but he was tipped off and escaped. He fled Hungary in 1938 for France and, when war broke out, took a boat to Morocco, finding eventual sanctuary in the United States and enlisting in the American army. 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”.