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The Schmooze

György Faludy’s ‘Happy Days in Hell’

Penguin Modern Classics has recently reissued “My Happy Days in Hell,” an autobiographical novel by Hungarian Jewish writer György Faludy, to mark the centenary of the author’s birth on September 22.

First published in 1962, “My Happy Days in Hell” is an essential document of the 20th century by a writer whose stature is comparable to poets such as W.H. Auden, Federico García Lorca, Rainer Maria Rilke and William Butler Yeats.

Born in Budapest, Faludy traveled to Paris in 1938, and then to the United States, where he served in the American Armed Forces while more than half a million other Hungarian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. In his poem, “Refugee, 1940,” Faludy proffered a prophetic response to the cynical treatment meted out by the French to Jewish refugees during the early years of the war (translations are my own):

Like our hosts, we thought the French army
was the mightiest under the sun.
And what did it show to the German Nazis?
Beaten backsides on the run.

The French distrust and despise us aliens
for fleeing to their land for salvation.
It was their own deceit, not ours,
that callously brought down this nation.

They boast: defeat will bring them peace
(too bad for the Jews). Oh, hunky-dory…
Few of them know that it’s only the start
and very far from the end of the story.

The Nazis will settle into their homes.
They’ll drink their cellars dry, abuse
their women and, should they object,
treat their hosts as they treat the Jews.

Faludy returned home after the war only to be imprisoned by the Communists in 1949 on trumped up charges. He fled the country again after the collapse of the 1956 Hungarian revolution against Soviet rule, going on to edit a literary journal in London (where he also wrote “My Happy Days in Hell”) and teach at Columbia University in New York City. He eventually won the Pulitzer Prize, was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto.

At the age of 78 Faludy again returned to Hungary together with his lover Eric Johnson, an American classicist poet, to witness the birth of democracy after the fall of the Soviet Union. Ever inflammatory, he got married for the fourth time more than a decade later, at the age of 92, to Fanny Kovács, a poet then aged 28.

Unsurprisingly, many Hungarians who had barely tolerated Faludy’s long-standing homosexual relationship could not now accept the old man marrying a young woman. He outraged the country further by permitting Penthouse magazine to photograph himself and his wife wearing little more than their wedding rings for a feature that also included love poetry. The coy Hungarian public was so shocked it purchased 70,000 copies of the magazine within days — this in a country of fewer than 10 million souls.

Before his death in 2006, Faludy published his final great “Love Poem,” dedicated to Kovács:

She was far from the first. We lay there naked
and, with one arm, I lightly caressed her body.
I hoped it should be quite agreeable
with just a touch of customary boredom.

It turned out to be more. I leaned above
her small left nipple musing what to compare
it with: a speck of coral? or a wild strawberry?
a tiny tulip still in bud perhaps?

Only an instant had passed and I entered a different
reality. Had I fainted or just awoken?
Around us stillness prevailed and blue, insane
wildflowers began to whirl behind my forehead.

It was the taste and fragrance of your skin,
not your perfume, that utterly triumphed. They thrust
away my troubles, cares and fears and sorrows,
my past and memories, leaving only this love.

Packed into one another, we two alone
inhabit the earth, our shoulders spliced in stages.
We lose our way in one another’s hair.
We meditate on one another’s navel.

You can go away but will remain with me holding
between my teeth a single strand of your hair.
I use your body’s shadow for my cover.
Say not a word, for all our secrets are shared.

Many people are never touched by such passion
and many would never dare to risk it, even
though this is all that I recognize as love:
soaring all the way from our bedsheets to heaven.

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