EASTERN EUROPEAN writers, particularly those living in exile, seem irritatingly prone to fiddling with their cultural underwear in public. They do it constantly, obsessively and at times skilfully enough that North Americans - who generally don't even own cultural underwear -have taken to it as a minor spectator sport. Sometimes it can be interesting; for example, when major writers like Czeslaw Milosz and Alexander Solzhenitsyn get their fingers and their minds stuck in sophisticated political discourse. More often, unfortunately, it is little more than dandified exotica and frequently it is simple-mindedly right wing - or at least politically woefully naive about democracy as practised in the West.
Canada seems particularly overloaded with Eastern Europeans peering into their underwear. It began years ago with the success of Stephen Vizinczey's In Praise of Older Women, a slightly off-colour tome that I suppose was really about wanting to fiddle with women's underwear. Since then, George Jonas and Josef
Skvorecky - the poor man's Milan Kundera -' have been praised beyond their minor talents for the same kind of self-indulgence. Now we've been treated to a volume of George Faludy poking around in the same general area.
On the surface, Faludy's little volume has almost nothing to recommend it. As a book it is indifferently designed and executed -the translator is not clearly named, the text is full of typographical errors, and the scenario Faludy presents is a recipe for mental chilblains an elderly European poet going off to spend a couple of months sitting in a borrowed cabin on the West Coast reading books, discovering how dull Emily Carr's sources of inspiration can be, and jotting down his cross-cultural wisdoms. Ugh...
Well, the man just happens to be marvellous, and the book is an absolute delight. Faludy is both literate and lucid, and his political and, cultural judgements somehow manage to be, modest, astute, and generous at the same time - a combination that I thought only Milosz, among the Eastern European writers, possessed. Let me give you some of the gems:
On politics and plenty: "In the presence of plenty, any real and remediable human misery constitutes an emergency, and the neglect of it on grounds of naturalness or inevitability just won't do."
On the 1960s: "Those kids in the '60s were rediscovering very little and rejecting even less. They didn't really turn their backs on the rubbish their parents had accumulated, they just hauled it off to the wilderness where they watched television in geodesic domes built of plastic and discarded car parts."
On the Seven Deadly Sins. the chief point about moral philosophy's Seven Deadly Sins is that they are moral attitudes that remain wrong under any circumstance."
I excerpt those passages from just four pages of the book. Almost any other four pages could deliver insights of the same penetrating quality. George Faludy, for all my misgiviags, is first rate. I can think of no example of belles lettres that has captured me so utterly since Cyril Connolly's The Unquiet Grave, published more than 40 years ago now. On the subject of this man, all my initabilities about Eastern Europeans get tossed out the window. I stand corrected, edified, and gratefully humbled.