The odyssey of George Faludy. Hungarian poems in English translation reflect the poet's quest

The Selected Poems of George Faludy, edited and translated by Robin Skelton. Athens, Ga.: The University of Georgia Press. 232 pp. $18.95, cloth; $8.95, paper. George Faludy, a cultural hero in his native Hungary, will now be read in English. Thanks to a team of dedicated translators and friends, organized by Robin Skelton, this volume of ``Selected Poems'' not only presents the poems but the man as well.

Born in Budapest in 1910, Faludy studied languages at several European universities and became well known for his adaption of the poems of Fran,cois Villon. Fresh, articulated, solidly crafted, and vulgar, Villon's medieval poetry must have appealed to what would later be termed, by communist authorities, Faludy's anarchism. In any event, his books were burned and he fled to Paris.

Thus began a seven-year exile. He was in France when it fell to the Nazis, but he managed to escape to northern Africa, where he, his wife, and other Hungarian writers and artists wandered from hideout to hideout until President Roosevelt invited them to come to the United States.

The African poems show Faludy gradually losing some of his brashness. His eye was sharpened by the desert air, and by his growing humility. He wrote, ``. . . everything I used to love at home/ is altered here. . . . And what, back there, disgusted me, this/ vicious, barbarous country -- /is more like final truth.''

In the US he served in the Army as a tail gunner and intelligence officer. During this period, he wrote some -- for him -- relaxed poems, including ``A Pilot Speaks,'' which begins, ``Why are you bugging me? I hate to talk.''

A year later he was back in Budapest, working as a translator but failing to stay out of trouble. He was branded antisocial by the communist press. His books were confiscated and pulped, and he was imprisoned.

After all, had he not written, ``I had a dream of a free country,/ but woke to a Soviet colony''? Had he not written a mock ``Hymn to Stalin''?

In prison he wrote poems that show his remarkable powers. Sane, funny, imaginative, they were not so much written as composed in his head to be copied out later on.

Faludy turned reflective in Recsk Prison. Romantic soliloquies and Villon-esque confessions led him to a poem that combines much of what he had hitherto accomplished.

``Western Australia'' was composed in the ``punishment cell, Recsk, 1952.'' It moves from an entirely believable, seemingly inconsequential fact -- a stamp with a swimming swan on it -- to a controlled delirium in which Western Australia becomes a vision of paradise for the prisoner. Remote, underdeveloped, Victorian, the region is visited by a symbolic swan. Then Faludy realizes what he's been doing: ``ashamed that only two short years of this prison,/ some times of terror, some kicking and some beating,/ have sufficed to send me seeking that marvelous swan. . . .''

Released after Stalin's death, Faludy observed the final tragedy of Hungary, the execution of the leader who had tried to establish Hungary as an independent state. ``The Execution of Imre Nagy'' dwells on the last morning of that man's life. The poem proceeds with journalistic insouciance, missing no detail. The last, sentence-long stanza ends with a consoling glint of sunlight off Nagy's lost pince-nez.

While he was in prison, Faludy was divorced by his first wife, who used the grounds that he was a political prisoner. Later he married again and had a son, Andrew. He moved his family to London, where he edited the Hungarian periodical, The Literary Gazette, wrote his autobiography, and lived in a peace he had never known.

That peace was broken by the death of his wife. Memorialized in a sequence of poems, she became to him a muse pointing him toward a future of love. Something had ripened in Faludy. It was like Odysseus coming home. His Penelope would ever-after be an idea of love and life addressed most often in his original sonnets (original in that Hungarian had not been used for sonnets, and original in their expressiveness). The satirist had become a philosopher. This turn of events was signaled by his writing, for consolation after his wife's death, his biography of Erasmus. Like Erasmus, Faludy had a way of smiling in adversity, smiling sanely and with eyes open. Composed mostly in Malta, London, and Toronto, where he moved after the death of his wife and where he lives to this day, the sonnets also include social observations. In one sonnet he contrasts the humanist tradition of books as symbols of a life without prejudice and error, to a life dominated by a ``hunger after TV,'' a poem titled simply ``Petronius.'' (Petronius is the author of the ``Satyricon,'' a prose satyric romance that reflects his first-hand experience of high society during the reign of Nero.)

``Petronius'' recapitulates Faludy's themes: the ability of the imagination to survive in bad circumstances; the way in such a time the rich and famous become silly and the artists seek ``new modes of expression/ with nothing at all novel to express''; and how a man can, like Petronius, look ``over rack and ruination'' with ``clear-eyed complacence'' and even, ``maybe share in the excitement.''

One can't help feeling that Faludy's words on Petronius are really about his own ideal, especially when he writes that Petronius ``only made demands upon himself,/ not on mankind or on the moves of history. . . .''

Faludy's art is the art that conceals art. And the excellence of the poems in this book as English poetry is just another sprig in the laurel crown of George Faludy.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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