09. 12. 2006. 14:03

On the death of György Faludy

Faludy was the hero of the age but not in an ascetical sense - he was a man whose ecstatic love of life still spared him from resorting to opportunism and one whose passions were as powerful as his moral consistency.

"To learn to play the bagpipe
You must first go to hell…"
(a Hungarian folk song)

No matter whom you mention from 20th century Hungarian literature, it is almost impossible to talk of them purely as actors in literary history. In the case of these writers and poets, their "historical biography" becomes a note so loud and resonant that it defines the narrative with its episodes, influences, myths of origin, choices and changes, or even simple dates; so that before you notice, you are writing history. György Faludy is definitely no exception.

Let us just look at the facts first, provided there are facts at all. He was born into a Budapest upper-middle class family in 1910. He attended university in Vienna, Berlin, and Graz. His deservedly famous Villon paraphrases started coming out in 1934 (in the daily Magyar Hírlap). The complete volume was published in 1937, to be followed a year later by a book of his own poetry entitled A pompeji strázsán (The Guard at Pompeii). In 1938, he left Hungary and went to live in Paris, where he remained until that city became occupied by the Germans. Then he fled to Morocco; from there, he found his way to the US and to American army service. He returned to Hungary in 1946, and worked for Népszava, a paper of a basically social democratic creed, until 1950. In 1946, he was convicted under false accusations and was sent to the forced labor camp at Recsk (in northeastern Hungary) for three years. In 1956, he fled to the West and settled in London, where from 1957 onwards he edited the London-based journal Irodalmi Újság (Literary Journal). This is where he wrote his memoir My Merry Days in Hell (see our review). He was banned from publishing in his own country until 1988. He moved back home that year, received a number of national awards, including the prestigious Kossuth Prize, and eventually died in Budapest, the beloved city of his birth.

If we were to decode even this narrow kaleidoscope of facts in its every detail and particle, or start unfolding it by connecting the informal orientation points within this outline of a life, we would end up with a multi-volume historical novel, a 20th century epic, saga, picaresque, or what you will, which would go beyond the present-day scope of our imagination and perception. Naturally, to relate the course of a life is always a form of fiction - the totality can never be captured precisely because of obsolescence and omissions. Faludy’s life was simultaneously unique and typical in its very wealth of experience.

Naturally, we have not said much by saying this - after all, this is half the secret of the romantic dramaturgy of Eastern European narratives. The other half of the secret is that they repeatedly expose the question how someone can stay upright in extreme situations which present an ultimate human, moral testing ground and demand of humans the superhuman. In a certain sense, we are talking about the witnesses of the last tragic age when we talk about these parables of moral stature and courage. The oeuvre of these archaic heroes often consists in their deeds, more precisely: the grandeur and burden of their deeds become gigantic and outweigh the grandeur of their works. This is the angle from which we may best grasp Faludy’s greatness: if we see in him the hero of the age - not in an ascetical sense, not as a figure overflowing with a sense of his own pathos, but a person true to the values he represents without flaunting, a man whose ecstatic love of life still spared him from resorting to opportunism, and one whose passions were as powerful as his moral consistency.

If we decipher the above outline of events in the historical sense, the solution is that Faludy remained constant to his anti-totalitarian views and found in social democracy their most authentic manifestation. In the interwar period, he held fast to his left-wing convictions, but at the same time he refused to flirt with the communists who alternately treated social democrats as reactionaries (for tactical reasons), and as partners (for yet further tactical reasons). His career as a poet is also inseparably tied in with his political "career", insofar as his Villon paraphrases went against both the popular and the political taste of his times. Faludy’s paraphrases of Villon, however, defied his intentions and became cultic and unique creations within Hungarian literature. There are few authors who became indispensable to Hungarian literature in the same sense and the same way as Faludy’s Villon. He is simultaneously French and Hungarian. In the ballads Faludy surpassed Villon, in Faludy’s reception Villon surpassed Faludy.

Faludy worked under conditions of relative freedom of press until the anti-Jewish laws were passed in the 1930’s, but after the Soviet occupation, he was arrested. This did not stop his Villon translations from being read in pre-war editions. Having left the country in 1956, he was not forgotten by his country and its literary consciousness. His Villon poems were circulated in samizdat. In the late 1970’s and early 80’s the concerts of the Hobo Blues Band became cultural events of unique significance, partly because the band played and sang Faludy’s Villon. Only much later, after the poet’s homecoming did his image change and the proportions become modified.

This shift was largely due to the effect of My Merry Days in Hell, published earlier in samizdat, which offers an astoundingly elegant, detailed, and witty rendering of the time the poet spent in the forced labor camp at Recsk. If the 20th century has any Odysseys to speak of, and indeed it does, Faludy’s story and book must certainly be ranked under this heading. The members of the AVO, the Hungarian communist secret police, worked very hard not to fall behind the methods of the KGB. If anyone is interested in the kind of methods used by the communist regime to try to break almost every stratum of Hungarian society, they must read Faludy’s novel. He enumerates countless examples of the type of courage described above. He also testifies to the power of words and culture in the episodes where he describes how prisoners took turns to offer each other symposia about Plato, antiquity, and the Renaissance, or how they memorized the poems which Faludy wrote mentally, turning them into "popular" poetry in the strictest sense of the term.

There is no doubt that if somebody today opens the complete edition of Faludy’s poems, they are going to encounter a truly great poet, a poet who knows all about poetry - i.e. all about the totality of the European tradition - as well as one who at the white hot moments of his life lets us in on moments of such love as is only the privilege of the greatest. Yet throughout the reader will never be able to forget about the man who stood up for Hungarian independence, human dignity, solidarity, and the integrity of personality; a historical and spiritual contemporary of Attila József's and Arthur Koestler's, and the last man to represent a passionate love of life.

Lajos Jánossy

Translated by Orsolya Frank

Tags: George Faludy