Review – 22nd July, 2010

György Faludy's Happy Days in Hell

Review–22nd July, 2010


Penguin Modern Classics has just released Faludy’s autobiography My Happy Days in Hell, an elegant tale celebrating the triumph of the human spirit. The book was first published in English in London in 1962, anticipating Alexander Solzhenitsin's Gulag Archipelago by more than a decade. It covers a morally confusing period when many otherwise decent souls were driven into the arms of Communism by their outrage at the initial triumph of murderous Nazi tyranny.

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 passage of two decades since the establishment of democratic rule. Entirely in vain. 

Penguin Modern 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 London in 1962, anticipating Alexander Solzhenitsin's Gulag Archipelago by more than a decade. It covers a morally confusing period when many otherwise decent souls were driven into the arms of Communism by their outrage at the initial triumph of murderous Nazi tyranny.  Faludy is a natural teacher and spellbinding raconteur. 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 Yates.

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 won fame 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 recently 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 who later influenced European history. Here is the author’s mocking and prophetic response (in my English translation) 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:

    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.

    In Recsk, a notoriously sadistic prison camp known as “The Hungarian Gulag”, Faludy found himself among the country’s intellectual elite. 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.

    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 has 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.

    (For those who do not know his work, I include below a late great Faludy poem in my English translation about aging and the environment.)



I HAVE been drawn to this place from the start.

And here I dwelt, beside a glass of brandy,

back in my self-important student days

when I could always buy another fine

but now and then could not afford a meal.

And I thought I was made of fireworks.

Picasso sat here with his Spanish woman,

his back against the back wall of the room;

we nodded and I tried to write a poem

though it refused to gel. A homely place,

this modest, red Parisian one-room café,

its tiny glass-cage winter garden set

upon the boulevard. Full of arrogance,

young people entered (they were hissing rockets

just like myself) and some slid up the steep

dark stairs, some sat alone, some joined my table

-- Starker, Mehring, Sinkó, Forgács, Havas,

Hevesi, Ney, Remenyik, Faragó --

and thus we chatted or talked politics

or simply sat in silence; but whatever

we did, we watched the quick revolving door

disgorging new arrivals, reinforcements,

the vanguard of the future from beyond

the realm of meagre present -- and young women!

Girl students from as far as Burma, Thailand --

they'd come to choose new lovers but they seemed

to muse behind their long eyelashes over

the negative eight virtues of Gautama;

and energetic English girls in green,

displaying friendly freckles wrought in copper

and with proportions of a Roman goddess

but marred by clumsy movements -- they often carried

enormous handbags used as barricades

against this world which they would never fathom

with either mind or body; and the girls

from Eastern Europe, lost in loud debate

with their escorts about the world's affairs --

and under catchwords like materialism

they sought the spirit; and the girls of Paris!

slim, graceful and perhaps a trifle ugly,

they had learned all about life in the womb

and they were ready for life and against life,

these girls who had their taste and knew their fashion,      

who wholly merged a tenderness and toughness

like well baked bread (and not like layered cake) --

each of them seemed complete and separate,

a planet bound by her own course and purpose

and full of self-awareness, will and pride.

I marvelled at these girls, as did the others.

OUR ELDERS also gathered here of an evening

-- Julien Benda, Hatvani, Bréton

Werfel and once Roger Martin du Gard --

and after they had talked enough together

they called us to their table for a chat.

We learned from them and held them in esteem,

made mock of them behind their backs -- they threw us

their guarded looks while whispering about us,

we turned away while whispering about them

for we had different manners having joined

the earthly table after the nineteenth century.

They knew that we were wet-nosed idiots,

confused and rash and unreliable;

they knew the fragrance of our perspiration

and knew that we kicked up our heels too high

and that we smiled and panted at the same time

and that our smiles would freeze and break in time --

they envied us our smiles as yet unfrozen,

and winced at our trampling underfoot the polished

blue marble slabs between the colonnades

without a backward glance, they thought we would

not notice if the structure should collapse

behind us and its fall might even please us.

They envied us for we would take possession,

excluding them, that we might shape the future

and lightly cast their names aside at will

and even purge our skulls of memories

connected with them as you suppress a headache

without a pill. Together or alone

we sat, and they too watched the door revolving

admitting life's parade in intermittent

and single file. And they begrudged us in silence.

They envied us the ocean's sandy beaches,

our hundred future barefoot runs along

the shores avoiding the knives of cockle shells

until we'd stop to watch the breakers rear up,

white mares caressed by salty winds and sunshine,

to fall upon their knees before our feet;

they envied us our quiet walks in winter

along the fields of freshly fallen snow

or in the depths of early evenings when

the light's uncertain in the squalid lanes

of determination; and they envied us

the very fruits of trees and fields and sky,

the orange of the sun, the moon-banana,

our one-room attic homes with creaking floors;

they envied us the oil-lamps of love

with burning wicks that never can turn backwards,

the flames that burn but cannot ever scorch,

the force that will escape from all enforcement;

they envied us the angel growing wings

upon our shoulder blades, the one who had

abandoned their lives if he had ever been there;

they envied us our solitary evenings

absorbed in books, the honey scented winds

of thirty gold acacia openings,

our perfect, uncorroded blade of youth.

HOW OFTEN did I sit here with two wives,

three mistresses and with my many friends!

A purple mist spreads over St. Germain:

no autumn fog -- polluted summer air.

Une fine, Armand! Today I am alone.

I watch the door, the fresh parade of youths,

the new arrivals. Perhaps I should be envious.

Their furnaces of love are still ablaze,

the foaming chargers of the ocean breakers

are still to rear for them for many years --

for me, the waves and beaches come to rest.

Technology rains merchandise each season

and moulds foam rubber pillows for their comfort

beneath their shapes; perhaps I should be envious:

but I remember the feel of attic rooms,

the flavour of water and unpolluted wine,

our very struggle for necessities

that no superfluity could substitute;

and while I still can saunter anywhere

they have run out of space to park their cars.

I pity them as I have pitied no-one,

not even fellow prisoners kicked to death,

a murdered sister, a small boy ill with cancer --

they hesitate at the door with a fleeting smile

in the corner of their mouths; their rebellion will last

a year or two; they will admire with passion

the foreign totem poles and try to hold

the collapsing sky with badges, flags and slogans

or they will gallop into nothingness

on the steeds of drugs... while remaining unable

to help themselves, let alone the wretched world;

and they will tire and learn to live with revulsion;

their smiles will stiffen into permanent bulges

of muscle and each morning they will pause

before their garages (like primeval man

with club in hand before his cave) and wonder

which way to turn in search of petrol to quench

their thirst, in search of room to build new roads

between the heaps of ash and hills of rubbish

and where the factory chimneys' smoking forests

are still not dense enough -- or where to run

and how to find a spot of land still free

with tranquil waters by the edge of lakes

not fouled by stinking carcasses of fish

or where to seek a place within the bowels

of their great cities choked by their own wastes,

a place of cleanliness and sanity

while all around the very earth is dying.

UNE FINE, Armand! I am about to leave.


     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 2010.

Thomas Ország-Land

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