AT HOME WITH HOMELESSNESS
by Rory Winston
“An author I know claimed he works so intensely, that not even the sound of a woman screaming for help or a baby crying can stir him from his desk… and to tell you the truth, when I read his books I believed him… Each book is: cold, detached, and interested in literary style alone. Me…? – I’m particularly proud of my inability (sic) to concentrate fully while writing”, Gyorgy Faludy said. He smiled beneath a mane of frosted hair as he steadied a bottle of white wine, preparing to pour me another glass.
Huddled in the small kitchen of Faludy’s Budapest apartment, I sat listening to anecdote upon anecdote from early evening till dawn, every weekend for two years. The renowned Hungarian Jewish poet seemed to have an endless supply of observations, energy and wine. Faludy died Sept. 2 at the age of 95. Born in 1910, he left behind over 30 volumes of poetry, several collections of essays, an autobiography, and many like me who have been forever changed by knowing him.
As a part time student and a full time pseudo-intellectual, I left my New York home making my way to my parent’s homeland, Hungary, armed with Endre Ady’s poetry, a few books on the holocaust, and an English translation of Jacques Derrida’s Glas. It was good to have some books that were incomprehensible even in one’s own language. Unfortunately, pretending to read them in cafés never quite helped me win girls over. This is how I first met Faludy. He saw me reading in the corner of a café and gently shrugged his shoulders saying, “That tactic never works”. We were friends. Faludy was already in his 80’s at the time.
Faludy first earned a reputation as a poet translating Francois Villon. The translation is still considered one of the finest, although it has little to do with the French originals. Fleeing from the rise of Nazism, Faludy wound up in the US where he joined the military during WWII, serving in the Pacific Theater. In 1945, while returning to Hungary, he wrote “I’m curious to see a democracy without any democrats”. No one in his family had survived the holocaust. Ironically, by 1950 Faludy was considered an enemy by the new communist regime of Hungary. When pressed for naming his American co-conspirators, he gave up two contacts: Walt Whitman and Captain Edgar A. Poe. Not much for humor, his inquisitors imprisoned him in Hungary’s notorious Recsk labor camp, where he wrote 2 poems in blood on toilet paper with a straw pulled from a broom.
Once free, Faludy participated in the 1956 uprising. He had to flee the country once again when Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the rebellion. After arriving safely in London, he wrote his famous novel My Happy Days In Hell – a title that eerily, if ironically, echoes Hungarian Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz while referring to happiness recalled in the most dire of circumstances. By 1967, Faludy moved to Canada where he taught at the University of Toronto while visiting New York to lecture at Columbia University. Returning once again to Hungary in 1988, he was awarded Hungary’s most prestigious literary honors: the Kossuth Prize, the Pulitzer Memorial Prize, and the Golden Pen. This October 3rd (the anniversary for Hungary’s 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union) the Canadian government is inaugurating a park in Toronto to honor Faludy’s memory as an out- standing cultural figure.
Persecuted by Nazis and communists alike, Faludy spent a lifetime fighting oppression and never quite felt at home anywhere. In Canada, he felt like a Hungarian, in Hungary, he felt like a Jew, while in a synagogue, he felt like an atheist. For these very reasons, he made me – a person equally uncertain of what culture to identify with – feel very much at home. “There’s a big difference between Bartok and me”, he said, “although he left Hungary because of Nazism and hated communism too, he died broke in Queens New York. With me it’s very different. I returned to Hungary so I can die broke right here. Oh, certainly both the Communists and the Nazis still hate me –and why not, in Hungary they’re the same people after a quick change of clothing – but at least they won’t have to go through the charade of exhuming my corpse to bring me back home once I’m gone”.