Books, Literature, Memoir, Must Reads, Poetry, Review

George Faludy: Hungarian Poet and Hero for Our Times

Had the poet George Faludy not written in his native Hungarian—arguably the most impenetrable of European languages—he would, as many have argued, be world famous. He died aged 95 in 2006, his life spanning the First and Second World Wars, the Russian revolution, and the Nazi and communist takeovers of his country.

Having achieved literary fame at 20, he would be imprisoned by both regimes and spend much of his life as an exile in France, Morocco, America (where he was a tail-gunner for the U.S. Airforce), and Canada, where he fled communism, only to find his lectures picketed and disrupted by campus leftists to whom his experience was an inconvenient truth. A ladies’ man all his life, he surprised the world by suddenly entering a gay relationship with Eric, a Russian ballet dancer, who’d fallen in love with Faludy in print and then rushed across the globe to find him. In his 90s, after communism fell and Faludy, returning to Budapest, achieved living legend status, he married a poetess 70 years his junior with whom he produced his verses right up to his death. Faludy ignored the rulebook, spurred on by the knowledge that a man like himself would never exist again. He was right.

But it was his battles with communism that really brought his life into relief, for the two were deadly opponents. There’s a telling story in his autobiography, My Happy Days in Hell (1962)—Nineteen Eighty Four, rewritten by the bastard offspring of Socrates, Oscar Wilde and the devil—in which he remembers an encounter with the Hungarian revolutionary László Rajk in a Budapest bar. Rajk, full of intensity, is preaching to Faludy about the shining communist future. There are two paths, Rajk says, that are open to man in future: the path of the proletariat and the path of the bourgeoisie. He who doesn’t follow the first automatically chooses the second and is to be treated as a traitor. Faludy, staring at two fiercely beautiful women across the bar, jokes to Rajk that there are probably hundreds of paths any man can take, but at this moment he intends to follow the path of these two women. For this flippancy, and his instinctive refusal to kiss the communist ring, Faludy was hated by Rajk thereafter. The feeling was mutual.

Fast forward several years and Faludy has returned from America to Hungary, drawn by the need not to miss out on his country’s descent into communism: “If I did not return home now, I should disown myself… I had one duty and only one: to be on the scene from the beginning of the battle…”  A new regime is in charge, old enemies are being hunted down, and Hungary’s intellectuals are divided into those in prison and those waiting to be arrested. Portraits of dictator Mátyás Rákosi, the new sheriff in town, share wall space with those of Josif Stalin, the real Big Boss. People’s past words and actions are scrutinised for thought crimes, the range of discussable topics seems to shrink every day, and most Hungarians choose to remain silent rather than risk personal attack. No one is safe: László Rajk, now propelled by his belief to high office, is about to pay the price: arrest by his comrades, trumped-up charges of spying, and death on the scaffold. Faludy himself, refusing to collaborate with the regime, is hounded by them and sentenced to decades in Recsk prison camp. Most are unsympathetic. One of his interrogators is cynically open-mouthed: “You came back from America for this?”

So much, so routine: there are hundreds of “I Saw Communism” memoirs, and each has something to say about the madness of crowds and the “woke” contagions of the present day. What sets My Happy Days in Hell above them is the character of Faludy himself. Steeped in classical learning, full of irony and with a strange “inability to suffer,” his response to totalitarianism is to treat it as dull, lacking in style and completely beneath his notice. “I regarded the communist ideology as I regarded any other ideology,” he wrote, “as a yoke, a thumb-screw which, even though imposed on millions and apparently greatly enjoyed by a few, still remained a yoke and a thumb screw.”

An air of dry comedy—espresso black—hangs over events. Many writers under communism, faced with arrest and interrogation on ludicrous charges, have written about their feelings of disorientation and panic; only Faludy gives us his boredom and distaste, his irritation with the  posturing numbskulls who threaten him and take him away from his poetry, his exasperation with the sheer mindlessness of an environment in which talk of sunsets is subversive and Plato is “a hireling of the Athenian bourgeoisie.” Sentenced to death, he spends his last night with the verses tumbling out of him, resulting in poems anthologized to this day. Later, worked to a skeleton and sharing a cell with others nearly broken by hard labour, he gives a course of lectures on literature and civilisation, delivered each week from a bunk-bed. One of them, characteristically, is titled “Women characters in literature with whom I’ve been in love.”

Faludy’s greatest weapon—what really allows him to swat away the mosquitoes of passing ideologies—is his delight in sensual pleasures. Schooled by the interwar tradition of Budapest café life—in which wit was paramount, morals were lax and every prayer was for another writer’s ruin—he was able to break off from his accounts of torture and imprisonment to write about what was so much more important to him: food, sex, nature, classical literature. There’s a Rabelaisian quality to the writing, a Dobos Torte richness that sees a brothel-madam go on for pages about the different kinds of women’s aureolae, and Faludy wax lyrical about the perfect wine to serve with spare ribs or the vital importance of how you stew a plate of beans. Accounts of the state destruction of the Hungarian landscape are preceded by haunting descriptions of it, full of ghosts reaching back to antiquity. Look, he says, how varied life can be, away from ideologies! What have we done to ourselves? And to what end?

Faludy stood out against his own time; he stands against ours. What would he make of Twitter persecutions, “offence archaeology,” the destruction of earned reputations and, to quote Stephen Spender, “the crowing of inferior talents”? How would he view the seeping of “woke” ideology into shaving and air-travel ad campaigns, the weaponization of the word “phobic,” the way social engineering seems increasingly to trump standards in education or the arts? He might have referenced Thucydides’ accounts of corruption, or written of Romulus Augustulus, the last Emperor of Rome. But in the main he would be unfazed, paying them the contempt of utter boredom, of glazed eyes and a yawn. The same old, same old: nothing new under the sun.

At one point in the book, Faludy lists all the ways in which he is hateful to the regime: he is well-travelled, and “therefore suspect,” he has a classical education which makes him “unreliable,” and he’s unable even to fulfil the “very modest” requirement of shutting up and pretending to go along with it. Besides, he adds, extending generosity to two members of the establishment eager to recruit him, “all three of us are fundamentally honest men; that is, men who must be wiped out.”

One can only imagine what the modern age would make of George Faludy: his virtues might count for nothing, while his vices would give his enemies a feast. “Problematic”? Elitist? Predator? Perve? Say what you like—Faludy took far worse in his day from the same kind of enemy and remained, in one contemporary’s words, the man all other men would like to be. His life, whatever its shortcomings, is a textbook example of how living well is the best revenge, how you can laugh away human absurdity even in the torture chamber, how you can survive and do daily private battle with—in that phrase of Orwell’s tailor-made for our times—“the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”


Robin Ashenden is former editor and founder of the Central and Eastern European London Review.

13 Comments

  1. Z from OZ says

    Thanks very much for this beautiful piece on Faludy. He was a great character, a wonderful poet and a translator of many great poets (Francois Villon is more or less known in Hungarian through his masterful, and playful, translations). He so much enjoyed the attention he received by his fellow Hungarians in those hopeful years right after the Wall came down…happy appearing naked, together with his twenty-something wife, on the pages of the tabloids. It is perhaps better he did not live to see how his country has changed…he has pretty much been erased from the canon, mostly for being a free spirit, who was his own master, and also for the rather inconvenient fact for the present regime that he was of Jewish origin…Let’s remember him with one of his poems…

    “Learn by heart this poem of mine.
    Soon books will vanish and you’ll find
    there won’t be any poets or verse
    or gas for car or bus – or hearse –
    no beer to cheer you till you’re crocked,
    the liquor stores torn down or locked…”

    But no one learns poems by heart these days…

  2. dirk says

    I wonder, why not mention that other great George, living same time and having had a similar history, George Konrad? His Kerti Malatsag (what can this be? no similarities to anything existing in the other european languages, but translated as The Garden Party) was a great hit in the 1990s in Western Europe, just after the fall of the wall.

    As is the case with that strange Hungarian language (not fitting in with any of the surrounding languages, traveling there one is happy in Romania to be able again to decipher signboards, billboards and menucarts),people visiting Hungary now, aren’t able to judge or valuate the strange sort of lifestyle and after-sovjet style there, the Western Europeans (politicians and ordinary people) don’t know very well how to react on Orban and his folk!! (To say the least). This the middle of the two worlds, the middle of nowhere??

    • Z from OZ says

      Konrad is a generation younger than Faludy, he is still around…His life story is very different from Faludy’s (with the exception of both being Jewish and losing most of their family in ’44-’45), and certainly a very different personality. I agree Konrad would be worthy of discussion on these pages, for his work as a writer, a public intellectual and a human being with a backbone. “Kerti Mulatsag” (The Garden Party…it is in fact an almost verbatim translation) and many of his books before and after are great reads and documents of an era…Konrad as a writer is way more philosophical and brooding than Kundera, which may have contributed to the fact that the “Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Kundera was a great international hit, made into a movie, while The Garden Party, even when translated remained a niche interest. About the issue of Orban, you raised in the end of your comment, not wanting to elaborate more, let’s just cite what Konrad said of him reflecting on the young Orban’s famous speech in 1989 demanding that the Russian troops should leave immediately (despite agreeing the night before not to include this demand in protection of people living in the other Eastern European dictatorships, as the situation was still fragile and uncertain): “He was irresponsible because he wanted to be unforgettable.”

  3. Stephanie says

    Thanks for the interesting article. I don’t know anything about this man except what was presented here, but I don’t think he ought to be called a “hero.” It’s certainly admirable he went back to Hungary to witness the communist takeover, but he seems like a run-of-the-mill hedonist and materialist. Call me old-fashioned, but heros should see women as more than objects of sexual attention (which is all a woman 70 years his junior is), and life as more than the pursuit of selfish pleasures. Surely there is someone of his age cohort that is more worthy of post-humorous praise.

    • Z from OZ says

      A “hedonist” perhaps. “Run-of-the-mill” he certainly wasn’t. He was 82 when married a 26 years old poet, they lived together until his death at the age of 90…even with the great advances in modern medicine and pharmacology it could have been “attention” but hardly a lot more…they wrote and published poetry together until Faludy’s death. She is a talented and highly intelligent young women. An interesting side. Back then some people raised eyebrows not because he married her but because she sought his attention (near prospect of royalties, a large apartment in one of the greates spots in Budapest – given to Faludy by the then liberal Hungarian government), although, either way, it’s nobody’s business.

      • Stephanie says

        Anyone with sufficient prestige and assets can attract a beautiful, young, intelligent woman to wait for him to die. If that’s the standard for heroism I guess we ought to proclaim Hugh Hefner God-King.

        • In fairness, Hugh Hefner did come to appreciate women of his own age when he reached 84 and shacked-up with three 28-year-olds…

      • dirk says

        @ Z; Because I suspect you to be an Hungarian (or knowledgeable), a question here that has nothing to do with Faludy or Konrad, but yes with Hungarian literature. Some 5 yrs ago, I had a discussion on Szegediner gulash with a Dutch cook, we could not agree. I went to Szeged to find out, nobody there, and I went to about 5 restaurants, knew about that gulash. lateron, I heard, it was not Szegediner gulash, but Szekely gulash (and little bit Germanised in the Habsburg period), named after a famous Hungarian poet. Maybe you can tell me more about that, after so many years and discussions??? Would appreciate very much to hear more about it, it’s haunting me for years now.

        • Z from OZ says

          @dirk; there are a few misnomers here…goulash in Hungary means a certain beef soup, with red paprika and vegetables; what is goulash abroad is in fact a beef stew (never called goulash in Hungary)….Szekely goulash is quite something else, if we are talking about the same thing. It is also called szekely cabbage as it is made of sauerkraut and pork, instead of the usual beef what you find in the goulash, served with sour cream on top. Very different from what one would call “goulash” but the meat base in it is preparfed as a usual Hungarian stew. The naming of it is interesting. I always thought it is named after the Szekely (Seklar), an ethnic Hungarian people in Transylvania. In fact, it is named after a gentleman called Jozsef (Joseph) Szekely, himself a chief librarian, who was a close friend of one of the greatest Hungarian poets, Sandor Petofi, the hero of the Hungarian revolution against the Habsburgs in 1848 (and died on the battlefield at a young age protecting Hungarian freedom). So here is the literature connection! I would never have thought I will discuss Hungarian cousine where free thought lives…but hey, as one can see these things are all connected!

          • dirk says

            Thanks a lot Z, gives me apetite to go back and visit that Seklar region. I also dived in my culinary bookshelf again, and found this in a booklet bought in Vienna, called -Oestereichische Spezialitaeten-: Szegediner Gulasch, made with pork and sauerkraut, paprika onions, saure Sahne, and….. Kuemmel of course. I added with pencil in the booklet (after checking Google): = the Szekely Gulyas of culinary author Gundel. Furtheron in that booklet; “Rindsgulyas” with beef, Schmalz and Kuemmel, and Fiaker Gulasch (with a fried egg and a small sausage), famous in Vienna restaurants. Of course, what they made and make in Vienna has his origin in Hungary and the Habsburg dynasty, but has developed into local specials. Also, it’s no longer made on the typical tripod, I still saw being used in the Szeged Fishsoup festival (forgot the name). If in Austria in the mountains, I live almost completely on Gulasch Suppe, from a Bila package, fortified with potatoes and sausages.

    • Sasha says

      I have never heard of this poet so good to hear this story and currently after a wealth of reading ahead of me on a number of issue I hope to get to his life.

      I wonder what the feminist view is on old women having young men as their beaus? Personally its very difficult for me to imagine a life devoted to thinking that intrudes on other peoples relationships no matter who they are but cest la vie!

  4. dirk says

    I don’t know details about the affair of the senior Faludy with some much younger lady. But I know one thing: in the modern West (and only there by the way) this is not appreciated, why? Ageism? Jealousy? You can’t make this? Keep to your own age? I wouldn’t know, but anybody in love with someone differing more than 10 years can expect a lot of questions. Sometimes I imagine, in case it was me, would I respond? or just ignore and laugh?? I think, even where they are the same age, a lot of questions, or even more, can be asked, without ever being answered.

  5. Monica Porter says

    What a fascinating man and how timely to be reminded of him and his admirable life in these dire days of PC tyranny. I’m proud to call Faludy a compatriot! An excellent piece.

Comments are closed.