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Parkette to honour émigré poet — Hungary's Faludy lived in Toronto until fall of communism

 

George FaludyGeorge Faludy Place - September 21, 2005

He's turning 95 with public celebrations here and in Budapest

 

Judy Stoffman

 

George Faludy, who turns 95 tomorrow, is the greatest Hungarian poet ever to call Toronto home. He lived here in happy exile from 1967 until the fall of communism allowed him to return to Budapest in 1989.

 

He was welcomed back as a national icon and living history book. He had lived through and chronicled in lapidary verse all the horrors that beset Hungary in the 20th century, from the rise of fascism in the 1930s to World War II and the subsequent Communist dictatorship.

 

In a 1986 interview, he told Books in Canada that what he liked about this country was that the politics were boring, instead of being life and death.

 

His birthday is being celebrated in Budapest with a tribute at the National Theatre and in Toronto, with a poetry reading and book launch tonight at 7 p.m. at Metro Reference Library. On Dec. 14, the Canadian Embassy in Budapest will throw a party in his honour.

 

The City of Toronto has approved the naming of a small park opposite the apartment at 25 St. Mary St. where Faludy lived with his lover Eric Johnson during his Toronto years. The park's centrepiece will be an enlarged version of a medallion bearing the poet's image designed by Dora de Pedery Hunt.

 

The park came about through the Toronto Legacy Project, initiated by Dennis Lee when he was the city's first poet laureate.

 

Lee says Faludy had an international reputation in Toronto and "was part of our lives. He was very courtly and for such a wiry little man, larger than life. He wrote some of his best poetry here."

 

A lyric poet, Faludy shot to fame in 1937 after publishing a volume of translations of the sonnets of François Villon that managed to seem as sensual and relevant to the current political situation as if they were composed yesterday instead of the 15th century. In fact, those who went back to the originals found Faludy had taken large liberties.

 

A year later, the Arrow Cross Party, allied with the Nazis, seized power in Hungary and burned Faludy's books. He fled to France, and from there to the United States, leaving his Jewish family to their fate. His sister was shot and thrown into the Danube.

 

He served three years with the U.S. Army, then returned to a war-ravaged Budapest in 1946 to resume work as a journalist. When the Communists came to power in Hungary, they were suspicious of his American ties and interned him in 1949 in the notorious Recsk concentration camp, where he was denied not only decent food and clothing but pen and paper.

 

A polymath with an amazing memory, Faludy provided the equivalent of a university education to fellow inmates, who reciprocated by memorizing the poems he composed daily but could not write down. The poems he composed at Recsk did not appear in print until 1983.

 

After his release from Recsk in 1952, he made his living as a translator until the Hungarian uprising in 1956 was crushed by Soviet tanks. Faludy left for London where he wrote his unforgettable memoir "My Happy Days In Hell" and edited a Hungarian literary journal supported by the CIA.

"One day his American contact came to him and asked him to tone down his constant criticism of the Soviet Union, and he turned in his resignation right away; he knew the Soviets had not changed," recalls Ibi Gabori, whose late husband George Gabori, a Toronto taxi driver, had been a cellmate of Faludy and wrote his own memoir, "When Evils Were Most Free".

 

Friends in Toronto urged Faludy to move here and seek a job at the new faculty of Hungarian Studies at the University of Toronto, but the job did not materialize. Some anti-Semitic elements then active in the Hungarian community considered him an inappropriate candidate, Gabori says.

(He did eventually give a series of lectures on Hungarian literature and history and received a U of T honorary degree.)

 

"He came in 1967 and had nowhere to live so he stayed with us," Gabori recalls. "Every week there were 30 or 40 people sitting in our apartment, on the floor, listening to him. He could talk about everything."

 

Eventually Faludy was able to live on grants and on international royalties from his books. While here, he wrote a history of humanism and a study of the philosopher Erasmus, as well as volumes of verse. that found such able Canadian translators as Robin Skelton, Dennis Lee, George Jonas, Sean Virgo and Robert Bringhurst.

 

His companion Eric Johnson, a dancer who fell in love with Faludy after reading his memoirs and came here from New York to find him, became fluent in Hungarian and also acted as a translator.

Heartbreak lay in store for Johnson after the two moved back to Hungary. The bisexual Faludy met and eventually married a local admirer named Fanny Kovacs. Faludy then shocked Hungarian society by posing without a stitch behind her naked figure for the national version of "Penthouse".

 

Johnson moved to an ashram in India, where he died alone, of cancer.

 

Faludy's poetry books in English are out of print but tonight a new chapbook of his verse will be launched from Fooliar Press, translated by Jonas, Andrea Jarmai and John Robert Colombo.

Judy Stoffman is a Toronto-based literary journalist, born in Budapest.

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