09. 07. 2006. 14:07

Larger than life

György Faludy (1910-2006): My Happy Days in Hell

Faludy’s description of his Arabic ideal is actually true of himself and most of his characters – to wit, they spend the greater part of their days making love, doing nothing or philosophising. – György Faludy has died at the age of 96.

As to just how great a poet György Faludy was, there are varying opinions afoot. It is indubitable, however, that the grey-haired Master is noted as one of the cult figures of 20th century Hungarian literature. His Villon paraphrases, published in 1937, were a synonym for literature in the eyes of several generations. During the decades he spent in exile (i.e. during World War II and between 1956 and 1989), his works were preserved and circulated in this country in hand-written copies. In recent years, he even managed to draw the attention of the tabloids with his bare feet, unruly mane of hair and avid love-life, while admirers of his poetry continued to stand in endless queues at the autograph desk of the annual Book Week.
My Happy Days in Hell was originally published in English (London, 1962), as the author’s first book of prose. It is an autobiographic work, as indeed are all later prose volumes and essays by Faludy. Autobiography inevitably implies a selection of memories, omitting some and augmenting others. Faludy’s autobiography, however, also contains a good deal of fibs. Beautiful fibs, we must add. Faludy’s life, as the cliché has it, is a novel in itself; and indeed, this period of less than two decades, from 1938 to 1950, was abundant in dramatic turns, hetero- and homoerotic romances, adventures and love affairs, hours of mortal danger and of heavenly pleasure, poetry and wisdom.
Emigration, which first turns into desperate flight and then into a grandiose picaresque journey, begins in 1938. Driven by his Jewish faith and his political views, the author leaves Budapest; then, immersed in war preparations, he departs for Paris. At the beginning of the book, we find a few pages of recollections regarding the Hungary of the 1910’s through the eyes of a small child. He recalls a country thriving even amidst its corruption, the ceaseless and vulgar partying, Gypsy music and the idiotic narrow-mindedness of ethnic tensions. The book is divided into five parts, showing, if you like, five chambers of Hell: France, starvation in a cheap hotel among café dropouts; the flight from the Germans to Morocco, where love of man for man brought cultural differences to a common platform; next, to America; and finally, after the war, it is Hungary again, more precisely No 60 Andrássy Street* and the internment camps at Kistarcsa and Recsk.

The distinctive mark of great prose writers is that they each have a unique brushstroke which allows one to recognise their text after only a few lines. Faludy is no different. His characters speak the same highly wrought, witty language laden with cultural references as he himself. The figures on Faludy’s stage are all on familiar terms with ancient authors and generals, renaissance humanists and courtesans, just as much as each of them is also somewhat reminiscent of a baroque courtier. They may be gallant or wicked; they may be villains or geniuses, but certainly no ordinary mortals. Their conversations are invariably speckled with references to the Persian mystical authors or the Church Fathers. (They learn ancient Greek amid the quarries of Recsk; they organise a clandestine night-study circle and whistle entire operas to entertain their fellow-prisoners.) In terms of looks, each of the characters seems to remind the author of one of the saints, ancient sculptures or classical poets. They are all excellent – or at least, enthusiastic – lovers, first-rate gourmands, and connoisseurs of poetry and antiques. Faludy’s description of his Arabic ideal is actually true of himself and most of his characters – to wit, they spend the greater part of their days making love, doing nothing or philosophising. Moreover, you cannot throw a stone in Faludy’s world without hitting at least one famous person. In several of his books, he plays the game of working out how many handshakes divide him, through his friends and relations, from people like Bach or János Arany. He is oozing with anecdotes and wisdom left to him personally by these epoch-making geniuses, who are sure to reciprocate his respect. He is positioned in the mainstream of events in world history, makes his appearance at the venues of all the most important political and natural events, wars and solar eclipses; although with his hedonism and fear of death, he would be best off tucked away in a luxury home in the depth of the Sahara desert.

The second part of My Happy Days in Hell, published a few years ago, treats of the poet’s life in the period after 1956. Although Faludy’s intention was to conquer Pantheon with the sonnets he wrote late in life, who knows? It is more than possible that he will be salvaged for immortality by his biography: the life he lived.

* No 60 Andrássy Street was the headquarters and torture chamber of the fascist Arrow Cross Party during WW II. After the war, it was the headquarters and torture chamber of the AVO, the communist secret police. Today it is a museum called The House of Terror.

György Faludy: My Happy Days in Hell
Translated by Kathleen Szász
Pilisszentiván: Forever, 2003 (6th edition)

Sándor Hites

Tags: György Faludy