Gyorgy Faludy: The Passions of Hungary's Controversial Poet

Article excerpt

LOOKING ACROSS the vast river from Gyorgy Faludy's balcony in old Pest, a distraught young woman scowls into the setting sun beyond the dramatic Buda hills. To the left, a reflection of the eclectic House of Parliament shimmers in the Danube. People gawk at her. Some of them point their fingers.

Faludy is probably the best and certainly the best loved contemporary Hungarian poet, some people call him the greatest living poet in Europe. He has just published a collection called Turbulent Century, an instant literary as well as commercial success. He is a great survivor now aged 93 years, who returned to Hungary around 1990 after decades of self-imposed exile in Britain, the United States and Canada to receive a tumultuous welcome and lots of big literary prizes.

He also received from the adoring nation a magnificent flat on the Danube with supposedly secure tenancy rights, where he lived until now with a male lover; but he recently took a wife, the poet Fanny Kovacs who not long ago celebrated her 28th birthday. She is loving, intelligent and an amazingly capable business manager. The lady on the balcony.

Faludy's book--Viharos Evszazad (in Hungarian), Forever Press, Budapest 2002, 83 pages, 1,980 forints ([pounds sterling]5.42/$8.67)--is the first definitive poetic review of the twentieth century. It will be hard to surpass. It includes a description by Age of physical love with Beauty, probably the only such poem in Western literature. (See Love Poem, the only piece in the following selection which has been taken from this book.) The couple would like a baby, preferably two.

Apart from the odd epigram and a major reflection on dying, the book includes 52 new poems composed in as many days. They are written largely in subtly rhyming iambic pentameter, the most versatile and widely used metre in the Hungarian as well as the English language. This is the five-footed line of the sonnet and the blank verse that effortlessly lends itself, depending on the mood of the writer, both to the easy stroll of leisurely description and the projection of pulsating pain and passion.

Faludy, a deeply erudite natural teacher, leads his reader across a blood-drenched landscape. He modestly describes his personal experiences, sharing his enjoyment and surprise at decency, friendship, loyalty and sheer physical as well as aesthetic pleasure which have somehow overcome the carnage.

The book covers a morally confusing period. It was not that long ago that many otherwise decent souls betrayed their own deeply felt values when, outraged by the initial triumph of murderous Nazi tyranny, they allowed themselves to become the instruments of Communist murder as apologists, spies and even torturers. Just think of Britain's Kim Philby, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.

Faludy burst on the literary stage of Budapest as a young man just before the rise of Nazi power with a collection of ballads exuding the love of freedom, adapted from the mediaeval French of Francois Villon. The 45th printing of that book is in the process of being sold out now. He left Hungary in time to fight the Second World War with the American Air Force, returned home to be imprisoned by the Communists on trumped up charges, and went into his second exile after the collapse of the 1956 rebellion against Soviet rule. He edited a literary journal in London, taught at Columbia University and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto for services to literature.

His highly readable, pithy, autobiographical novel My Happy Days in Hell anticipating Alexander Solzhenitsin's Gulag Archipelago by a decade has been published in many languages. A new English-language edition has just gone to the printers.

English translations of his poetry have been collected in East and West, ed. John Robert Colombo (1978) and Selected Poems, trans. Robin Skelton (1985). Faludy's irreverent Hungarian adaptation of the Villon ballads has been adapted further in my own English Free Women (1991). …