Tuesday, December 26, 2006

George Faludy's Happy Days in Hell

This is a review (5000 words or so!) to be submitted to The Blanket, the republican on-line West Belfast site's project, so it was written assuming it might meet some readers less than sympathetic. Strange how so many on the left insist still on forgiving the Reds when they never will the Nazis when both killed millions in the name of a perverse ideal. As Mark Rudd said in the documentary on The Weather Underground Layne and I watched last night: when you come to regard ordinary human life as disposable, expendable in the name of the cause, you have reached the same immoral level as the Stalins, Hitlers, Pol Pots, and suicide bombers have. When the Weathermen took their campaign to the streets and treated all Americans as if they were the enemy-- at least the white ones-- and justified their radical grassroots terrorism in the name of protesting state-sponsored terrorism in Vietnam, they lost the ethical defense that perhaps a few generous souls might have still granted them. If more people read such accounts as Faludy's, perhaps fewer among us would be so naive.

George Faludy died at 95 on the first of last September. He wrote a classic, now nearly forgotten in the West, account of his early life under first fascist and then communist tyranny, My Happy Days in Hell. Since childhood, when I had met at my parish families and clergy who– alongside 200,000 of their ten million compatriots– had fled the defeat of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, my imagination was taken by their dramatic escapes. Faludy fled with them, but he had earlier chosen in 1946 to return to his native land from American refuge. He never shirked a challenge.

In his memoir, he notes that he, like his professorial father, preferred to live outside of Hungary even as he longed for his homeland. Too restrictive for dreamers and idealists, Hungary, with its extraordinarily complicated language and its ethnic distinction from the Slavic and Germanic peoples who surround its great plains, after WWI lost half of its homeland. Isolated in the center of Europe by terrain and language, it sits between East and West, an Asian people who have endured over a millennium at the continental center. This nation commanded Faludy’s loyalty yet chafed his cosmopolitan intellect and inquisitive nature. He faced fourteen years in prison for an anti-Hitler poem. He had fled, after its fascist Horthy regime had drafted him in November 1938 into its army, allied with the Nazis. In his late twenties, Faludy was already an acclaimed poet, best known for his translations of another jailbird rascal, the medieval balladeer François Villon.

His obituary revealed his later life to be as exciting as the period, from 1938 to 1953, described in Happy Days. More about this afterlife later. Reminding myself I had always meant to read his autobiography, I hunted down a dog-eared and spine-slanted library copy, the only one in my vast city. The large volume, over 450 small-type pages, showed, at least a few decades ago after its English-language translation (rare from Hungarian in that Kathleen Szasz’s 1962 rendering counters sinuously the often jarring transfer from this native language into English; many books from Hungarian flop about like dying fish in their clumsy anglicised gasps), that many readers had preceded me in their journey through the fifteen years that Faludy narrates. It took me a few weeks on and off to finish it. Now, I only wish its sequel published in 2000 was translated.

For readers of The Blanket, Faludy’s experiences remind us of how most of us choose to survive oppression. Perhaps flight lacks the glamour of rebellion, but those who flee live to fight on another day, as the cliché goes. Chapter one opens as he recalls a dinner party given for a British MP in the wake of Munich and appeasement. Faced with the fact that the West would let Hitler do as he pleased, the guests in Budapest lamented their fate. One Catholic poet fervently vows that he will stand up to the Nazis, ‘even if he had to give his life for Christianity, for social justice and for Hungary’s independence.’ (11) The MP responds sadly that when Hitler marched in, their heroic poses would accomplish nothing but their arrests and hangings– in secret so as to discourage martyrs. He urges them all to flee. ‘After the war, however, we could return and serve the ideals for which, today, we would sacrifice ourselves in vain.’ (12) The folks at the party, mostly young, ignore the MP; they merely vent and rant against Chamberlain. Two months later, all but the Catholic poet had left Hungary, many for America or England.

Supporting his poetic practice with his work as a left-wing journalist, Faludy provoked the fascist Arrow Cross. Briefly jailed, refusing to continue to fight in its militia, Faludy escapes to France, where however the Germans conquer and divide that country next. Trapped in Marseilles, he and thousands of refugees seek asylum.He boards a ship. But, spooked, he then disembarks with his first wife. The next day, that ship sinks, blown up by a mine. Along with a colourfully drawn assortment of flim-flam men and women of easy virtue. Faludy seeks asylum in North Africa. The vagaries of diplomatic sovereignty in French and Spanish territories there manage to, as will be dramatised in the film Casablanca a couple of years later, keep Faludy sporadically secure. His limbo allows him excursions amidst the Berber tribesmen. He describes their customs, brutality, and grace through elegantly rendered vignettes. His powers of recall, which appear unbelievable at this stage of his tale-telling, gain credence later when he tells us how in prison he memorised poems he created in his mind– his only way of recording them– and recalled them daily. Incrementally, he added to his retentive storehouse with verse, anecdote, and witness for years on end. His ability to retreat into his intellectual and artistic mnemonics allowed him the chance to endure within himself. There he cultivated the fortitude to survive the slow starvation, of a less than a thousand calories a day, inflicted upon him and his fellow prisoners left in the open, under communist hard labour, sixteen or even twenty hours a day.

Years prior to this fate, he does keep notebooks. Space here prevents me from sharing details of this African stint, but his impromptu vacations liberate him from his European confinement, erotically, ideologically, and practically. Through the intervention of FDR from abroad and briberies in Morocco, he reaches America. His time there is only summarised, perhaps for security reasons I suspect, but he serves in the U.S. Army and as secretary-general of the Free Hungary Movement. Yet the dazzling States cannot quench his longing to return to Hungary.

Faludy, although no idealist, cannot rest abroad while his motherland seeks guidance. He offers his social-democratic convictions to help heal his nation. A ‘radical liberalist,’ to borrow a term translated from an Hungarian entry about him, Faludy suspects the broad front that the Hungarian Communists have constructed to hide behind. Before they seized total control, communists had avoided even calling themselves ‘socialists’; they allowed Faludy’s social-democrats the term, the better to mask the ‘salami tactics’ of party leader Rákosi, who kept in touch by direct radio contact, hidden in his villa, with Stalin himself. ‘Stalin’s best pupil’, Rákosi boasted he sliced off his opponents like chunks of salami. (In November 1945 free voting, a bourgeois-peasant Smallholder majority won 57%, social-democrats 17.4%, and communists 17%.) The Party favours returned exiles from Moscow; Hungarian cadres had fled well before Hitler’s forces had seized direct control of Hungary away from the outflanked Horthy regime in 1944. Newly promoted functionaries, often within the police and petty bureaucracy, carry familiar faces. Many had served Horthy and the Arrow Cross. They changed allegiances at the collapse of fascist-Nazi terror. Repeatedly, prisoners recognise a guard or kapo who had beaten them a few years earlier. The tormenter’s uniform changed, not the man inside the tunic and beneath the steel helmet.

The sections that follow, about halfway through Faludy’s book, energise such testimony. While extensive first-person attestation exists from those who have survived gulags and prisons,1 we have to date less information on how those on the outside managed to persist amidst purges, show-trials and betrayals. The compromises required for mundane survival under totalitarian regimes lack the drama inherent within experiences of the incarcerated. Although this portion of his autobiography comprises only a small fraction, Faludy unmasks the evasions and lies that those under totalitarianism manufacture under the People’s Democratic Republic that silences democratic opposition in the name of the dictatorship of the proleteriat by May 1949.

Emigrating into this repressive society, Faludy wryly summarises its necessity for the daily lie. Viewing a portrait of Stalin, black-haired at 65, Faludy thinks to himself: ‘this is socialist realism.’ As his colleagues at the leftist newspaper disappear into the maw of the AVO, the secret police, Faludy and his Bolshevik-loving girlfriend find themselves at odds with each other and with their ability to act in any way approaching truth. The shiny black beetles, the AVO cars, follow them about, a Kafkaesque touch, and one reminding us that when Orwell wrote 1984 at this same time, he merely reversed the last two digits; the time of Big Brother, he assured us, was now. Faludy refuses to prostitute his talents to edit an anthology of anti-clerical writings for the regime. His old friends, including an avuncular comrade in the Party dating back to the Red Terror of the 1919 Béla Kun communist dictatorship that had briefly taken control of Hungary, find themselves made redundant and then eliminated under the hand of those communists who had returned from Moscow after 1945 and who edge out those who had worked in the underground or had fled to the West to work for the party during the fascist years. No loyalty endures for the Party. Here, no one is innocent. Winston Smith would have recognised Budapest in 1948. Without the constant renewal of enemies, class war, and the crushing of artificially concocted dissenters, the Party cannot justify its reign on behalf of the People’s Democracy. The peasants in whose name the intellectuals rule are promoted by those under Moscow’s control. This proletariat is elevated to power, but they cannot run the factories or govern the bureaucrats. Those capable who could have done so, communist or otherwise, have already been purged.

Faludy enters this oppressive atmosphere, Faludy muses, with typical erudition, of the Roman intellectuals who speak out against the corrupt imperial power, who then enjoy with self-conscious attention their leisurely last feast before being compelled to take to their bath and slit their wrists at the Emperor’s behest. Waiting for the inevitable black car, Faludy finds that when in 1950 it comes to spirit him off to AVO headquarters at 60 Andrassy street2, it brings him into– again reminding one of Kafka and Orwell– ironic inner peace and welcome mental liberation.

Classically trained, Faludy takes inspiration in another gadfly imprisoned for his refusal to kow-tow to thugs. Socrates taught him ‘that man can identify himself with the laws of his country and its official moral outlook only if the daimon inhabiting him approves’. (296) Faludy realises that his girlfriend, Suzy, and those who await the coming of the Marxist messiah have grown up ignorant of Christian ethics or a liberal-arts education. The ersatz religion of Marxist-Leninism has bestowed upon these faithful a perfect secular substitute:

[S]eminars to take the place of religious education and party meetings to take place of mass, the rigorous fasts of the five-year plan-loan and the shortage of food to take the place of Lent, demonstration instead of procession, public self-criticism instead of confession, and instead of Abraham’s bosom the promise of an earthly paradise, the constantly retreating mirage of which was painted on the horizon before the ragged armies marching across the desert. (296)

Yet, Faludy continues, the church is an ‘eternal antithesis of the party,’ bound to disappoint the believer who ‘unconsciously seeks the church in the party’. Kant’s categorical imperative drives Faludy towards the secular, existential form of morality that sustains him. He is not a believer per se, but a humanist. He must act towards others in the same way that he would want others to act towards him if the roles were reversed and the rules were universalised. The Socratic daimon must reject the sureties of the church and state; ‘the more loyally the faithful serve the ideals of communism, in fact, the more inevitably do those ideals afflict them with inner conflict and nervous disorder’. (297) That longtime friend and Béla Kun-era communist activist is imprisoned in a cell near him; he is driven insane and just before his jaw is shattered by a truncheon, he shouts out in one last desperate attempt to win freedom– again echoes of Winston Smith– that he loves Stalin. This is a statement so forced that not even his fellow prisoners, or their guards, bother mouthing it. With his last utterance before madness takes over and atrocity silences his voice forever, he still tries to convince his torturers that he is innocent. Faludy hears him. Any attempt to change the minds of his AVO interrogators is futile. He gives in eventually, after the customary months of mind-games, threats, and beatings. Faludy signs the ridiculous trumped-up charges that he’s a Titoist-Yank spy. If not, Suzy and his mother would have been brought in to the cell next to him; he would never see them again, of course, but he would hear their screams.

Faludy reflects upon so many faithful Bolsheviks he had known on the outside. After months of desperate attempts to argue their innocence to their jailers, who knew of their innocence, all of these Party faithful had capitulated. Two months of torture silenced them. Faludy justifies his own decision to sign the farcical allegations of his espionage for the capitalists (his stint in the U.S. damning him prima facie) with the fact that his acquiescence will save him from, under further torture, accidently revealing the names of other innocents who in turn will be dragged in by the black cars to this same cellar. Faludy had been jailed in part due to the diary kept by a harmless, rather simple-minded, devotedly Bolshevik acquaintance with an unrequited crush on Faludy; she could not stop naming names and imagining plots up to the night of her own arrest.

The hypocrisy of the People’s Republic: this Faludy damns. He understands that his stalwart communist friend thought that after a polite chat the AVO would confess their error and let him go, with apologies. Another prisoner, arrested in mix-up with another of the same name, is tortured for months. The error acknowledged, the innocent man, nevertheless, cannot be released. The State would be caught admitting its mistake. The condition of the prisoner would prove ineradicable evidence of the State’s cruelty against the guiltless. Instead, he was told, for the greater good of the People’s Democracy he must remain incarcerated.

This topsy-turvy logic inspires Faludy with this analogy. ‘But what happens to a believer who discovers in prison that the priests of his church are cynics, his inquisitors heretics, his executioners pagans? He is faced with an appalling alternative: either he relinquishes his faith, or he sacrifices his sanity. Obviously the majority will defend themselves against going mad and will betray the faith that has betrayed them, so that the false accusation of heresy finally becomes true; not because the believer accepts the accusations brought against him as true, but because he discovers that his accusers know it to be false.’ (287) Truly an Orwellian Room 101. The forced confession of his friend, in turn, goads his interrogators further in forcing a confession out of Faludy, implicated naturally in the desperate ravings of a doomed man, a true believer, a communist loyal to Stalin and his henchman Rákosi until his last breath. An excerpt from Faludy’s ‘Ode for Stalin on his 70th Birthday’: ‘Your heroes you have hanged upon the gallows / or pistoled in their prisons in disgrace; / you’ve spit upon the brave, whom courage hallows, / and stamped with muddy jack-boots on their face.’ Images of Ingsoc again, Big Brother’s boot stamping on the face, forever, the symbol of the eternally paranoid regime.

Sentenced to death one afternoon, Faludy discovers the next morning that since ‘as it is prescribed by Soviet etiquette’ that his arms were not broken before he is led to the gallows, that he will be spared by a twenty-five year sentence. Why? “‘Do you know why you have been brought in here?’” he is asked. Faludy shrugs. The captain explains: ‘It doesn’t matter, he continued tolerantly. “It’s enough if we know”.’ (275)

The rest of the book details his two jailings, amidst social-democrat and communist comrades, and then at a mountain camp for 1,300 intellectuals. After a train ride that more than one of his fellow prisoners recalls repeats what they had experienced at Auschwitz and Dachau five years earlier, they find themselves cargo dumped out under the guns of the AVO– many of whom had worn other insignia when they served the Gestapo on behalf of the Arrow Cross. Thousands of prisoners are condemned to deforest a primeval hillside. They build a quarry for an ill-conceived public-works project that stands for so many idiocies that destroyed the ecology of Central and Eastern Europe in the name of technological advancement and the triumph of the mechanical gods of materialism. However, anarchism among the intellectuals spreads soundlessly, and the labour soon undermines, literally, like the Bridge over the River Kwai, the foolish edifice.

If you have read Anne Appelbaum’s history of the gulags, or accounts from Russian survivors, the tales that Faludy tells will prove depressingly familiar. What makes the final two hundred pages engrossing and compulsively readable– more than what has preceded them even– is the wealth of detail Faludy offers, given his proven skills of memory. He can be free in prison. Here at last, confined in this microcosmic communist dictatorship, he can think without fear of punishment. He, already convicted, now enjoys ‘happy days in hell’. He will sustain his beaten and starving body through mental energy and soothing daydreams. Facing inexorable starvation by slow degrees over the next three years– chronology understandably vague much of the time as they are cut off from the outside world– he and his fellow inmates conspire against tyranny ingeniously and relentlessly. Fittingly, a collection of his poems would later be titled ‘Learn This Poem by Heart’, a task enjoined by Faludy upon his fellow inmates to ensure that his poems could perhaps survive his own death in prison.

Here is an example composed from this time in a poem published in 1983.

Learn by heart this poem of mine,
Books only last a little time,
And this one will be borrowed, scarred,
Burned by Hungarian border guards,
Lost by the library, broken-backed,
Its paper dried up, crisped and cracked,
Worm-eaten, crumbling into dust,
Or slowly brown and self-combust,
When climbing Fahrenheit has got
To 451, for that's how hot
it will be when your town burns down.
Learn by heart this poem of mine

Doomed men themselves ‘worm-eaten, crumbling into dust’ they were ordered to build, but they determined to doom the quarry. Faludy constructs another analogy. The forced-labour camp represents the triumph of communism. Talents from these intelligent men wither. Violence rules. Sensible production that would truly help the People’s Democracy in the name of war-weakened men and women desperate for better working conditions and tangible goods of value: irrelevant. Only work that will weaken, torment, and mentally degrade these prisoners is commanded. Conditioning to communist ideals happens with the mere offer of a handful of beans. This is more practical and realistic. ‘Outside they still tolerate family ties and separate apartments and permit a man to have two suits of clothes.’ Inside the camp, no need for newspapers, books, watches, or luxuries that detract from the common good. Not even rumours can be shared. As with Goldstein and O’Brien from Orwell’s dystopia, ‘even subversive action has become a state monopoly’. (429) The iron curtain shrinks. Barbed wire fences suffice. Inside prison, a perfect communist utopia: no culture allowed, no science applied, no propaganda needed. Outside, only with the global victory of communism will equality, utter reduction to bare essentials, arrive.

Furthermore, Faludy elaborates to his fellow inmates, this psychological advancement towards the final stage of communism proceeds. Inside the camp, an ideal has been reached. Power controls the incarcerated– by violence, cunning, threats, and above all a constant scrutiny by informers. ‘But at the same time they have taught us to think. Their moral effect is like nitric acid separating the gold from the filth. Because of it scoundrels become even worse scoundrels, rotten to the core, but the gold of honour remains unchanged, or rather, receives an added sheen.’ Inside prison, Faludy encourages his fellow inmates by education– recalling Long Kesh I might add and so many other ‘Universities of Freedom’ in which humans must rely upon only recall in the censorship of external media and the reduction of social exchange– so prisoners support each other by the tales they tell, the dreams they enter, and the determination they create to survive.

Near the moment of liberation, six months after Stalin’s death and in the wake of the escape of one prisoner to the West who tells Radio Free Europe about the secret camp, Faludy’s condition reminds me of the proverb that ‘a longtime prisoner grows to love his cell’. He fears losing his intellectual freedom. Inside the prison he could be brave and honest; outside, he would have to again withdraw within himself if only to protect his family. Inside jail, he committed his reminiscences to memory; outside, when he wrote them down, his flat could be searched; ‘it would be impossible to put down my experiences on paper and my unwritten memories would weigh on me like the fear of a new arrest’. (465) (By the way, more than once Faludy hears of those released from prison only to be rearrested by the AVO on other trumped-up charges the moment they walk free.) Inside, he has forged mental refinement and philosophical ornament. Outside, he fears the people’s democracy which has stupified and desensitised its citizens.

‘Formerly, in the people’s democracy, and here in prison I had always felt like a researcher who had renounced for a certain time the pleasures of life and had descended in a steel globe to the bottom of the sea to observe the life of the deep-water monsters, who would one day report his scientific experiences objectively and exactly, though without concealing his horror of them.’ Facing his release, he feels as if the bathyscope has broken away from its anchoring chains and will never be lifted up again from the ocean depths. ‘I would have enough air and food to last me until I died but I should never have the opportunity to report my findings. I should have to live in the globe until I died, observing the polyps, sharks and algae about which I knew everything there was to know, until I went mad with boredom and disgust’. He had thought in prison that he would redeem himself, whether he emerged alive or was dumped into the lime-pit which had been prepared for all the inmates, once their quarrying had ended. ‘But now I would have to exist, neither dead nor alive, in an alien world.’

A few pages later, his tale ends as Faludy trudges out of the camp. His obituary revealed that his life continued, however, along labyrinthine paths. Curiously, he never identifies himself as Jewish in his book; he fled in 1938, the obituary explains, in part due to this reason. A poem admits only this much: 'My aunt cut her neck with a razor blade. The rest died in the war in gas chambers. My sister floats upon the icy Danube.' She had been shot and thrown in the river, still alive, by the Arrow Cross. In 1956 Faludy was a delegate from the Writers’ Conferences to the workers’ councils who controlled the rebellion.3 Another exile followed. France, Algeria, Britain, Italy: he lived many places. He taught in the 1960s and 70s at Columbia and in Toronto. A Nobel nominee, he resided two decades in Canada until 1989 allowed him to return to a free Hungary.

These are the mundane facts. Looking up more about Faludy in Wikipedia, a few more surprises emerged. Namely, after his second wife, and former girlfriend, Suzy, died in the 60s. ‘In 1963 Eric Johnson (26), a US ballet dancer and later a renowned poet in contemporary Latin poetry, read the novel[4] My Happy Days in Hell, which captivated him, and he decided to seek Faludy in Hungary. He started to learn Hungarian and found Faludy three years later in Malta. He became his secretary, driver, translator, co-author and partner for the next 36 years. In 2002, Faludy married a 26 year old poet, Fanny Kovács. Johnson left for Kathmandu, Nepal, and died there in February 2004, at the age of 66. Faludy published poems written jointly with his wife.’

Another Wikipedian has amended this: ‘Eric Johnson drove a motor vehicle only once in his life. That was a very ill-fated adventure in Korea. He did not drive George Faludy anywhere in their 37 years of association.’ This relationship certainly proved Faludy’s powers over his admirers. He found attraction to a beckoning soul beneath its gendered shell. Hints of this bisexuality surface throughout the memoir, whispered beneath its 1962-era air of discretion. Johnson, who fell in love with Faludy through only his words, travelled in 1964 to Budapest and demanded to be allowed to stay there to learn Hungarian! Three years passed before Johnson would actually meet Faludy face-to-face for the first time. His compatriot George Jonas tells us more about Johnson and Faludy: http://www.georgejonas.com/recent_writing.cfm?id=179

Faludy loved to tease. He appeared, nearly naked, wild grey mane, piercingly dark eyes, and sixty years older than his third wife, with her in the Hungarian edition of Penthouse. An earlier episode may remind Blanket readers about a certain monument once on O’Connell St. After his return in 1946 from America: ‘He was among the unknown vandals [citation needed] who destroyed the statue of Ottokár Prohászka, a Hungarian bishop who is respected by many but who is often considered antisemitic. [1] He only confessed his participation forty years later. He is condemned by Hungarian nationalists for this even to the present days, considering it an extremist attack on the strong Catholic traditions of the country.’ (Wikipedia, footnote and brackets in original citation.)

Faludy remained an iconoclast. He never capitulated to the comfortable subterfuge. When the communists fought for Hungary, he admired their courage; when they attained power, he charged, ‘they were just whores’. In a 6 June 2006 interview, translated on hvg.hu, he predicted that literature would not survive this century. True to form, he taught us from his classical mentors.‘In the US, people read 35 to 40 per cent fewer books now than 20 years ago. And the numbers continue to fall. Of course, we've seen this before. Around 350 AD, people stopped reading. At the time of Marcus Aurelius, there were 88 libraries in Rome. Under Constantine the Great there was only one. I think we stand before a great crisis, which is consuming literature.’

However, with a renewed interest of Faludy’s works in his native land, he proved that a prophet could be honoured where he was born. He deserves acclaim outside Hungary as well. He reminds us that what’s become a cliché of ‘speaking truth to power’ still expresses a resolution we must follow. I close my essay in the hope that you will now seek out more about this courageous, cantankerous, memorable man— and belie his own dark predictions for the future of literature.

1. See From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence and Repression in Communist States. Paul Hollander, ed. Wilmington, Delaware: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006. Table of Contents: http://www.isi.org/books/content/384toc.pdf Hollander also fled Hungary in 1956. The fact that a conservative think-tank publishes this anthology does not diminish the importance that such an anthology, the first of its kind, establishes in helping to redress the imbalance between vast scholarship that investigates Nazi-era accounts but which, until the opening of Soviet archives and declassification of Cold War files, has been largely lacking on the other side of the century’s blackened totalitarian ledger.

2. 60 Andrassy street is now the Museum of Terror, a memorial in the building that housed first the Nazi- fascist torturers and then the AVO secret police’s dungeons. When I visited Budapest in 2003, my itinerary did not allow me a chance to visit the museum, but my hosts informed me that the ‘socialist’ politicians then in power were lobbying to close the museum. It had only been open a short time, but already as in many formerly totalitarian nations, the ghosts it raised of a morally corrupted past of compromise, pain, and betrayal have haunted the guilty still living.

3. An acclaimed account has just been published for the fiftieth anniversary of the uprising. Victor Sebestyen. Twelve Days. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson; New York: Pantheon, 2006.

4. The contributors in Wikipedia label this an ‘autobiographical novel’. Comparing Irish WWII counterparts Black List Section H, Francis Stuart, and Nine Rivers to Jordan, Denis Johnston, perhaps this is an appropriate label. A sequel, After My Days in Hell, appeared, to date only in Hungarian, in 2000. The Kossuth Prize, the leading literary award in Hungary, was awarded him in 1994. He was fêted there, where he continued to play the Socratic gadfly to the new regime.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

My "Wife-Cancelling" Headphones

This is an Amazon review, but apropos considering my dear spouse's recent blogs. Actually, I have only worn the Radio Shack cans in her presence or next to her, for reasons of safety, my duty as a householder and father to listen for rampaging sons and dogs, and for future continuation of my state of lawful matrimony. I edit this a day later after in her presence dared to put them on for the space of two-and-a-half songs on my iPod, as the construction commenced again, Sunday morning, and she was snoring. But, up she popped and accused me of deeply insulting her by my mere action. Rover stared at me until I took them off, loyal to his mistress to a fault.

I spent many pleasant hours, to the amazement of my spouse, seeking out what she now calls my "wife-cancelling headphones"! For my commute, I needed to power drivers from a regular-sized iPod. I wanted a pair that I could take with me "on foot" easily and that would fold up neatly. At the $150-and a bit plus price-range [they list for $250, sell for about $165 at their cheapest on Amazon, and I bought an open-box pair for $150 from headphone.com], I expected durable construction as well as sonic fidelity. I had started out with what everyone thinks of: Bose QCs (as mentioned in this week's New Yorker article about what to get people for the holidays-- this gift being suggested along with an eyemask for harried fathers).

Reviews on Head Room, CNet, and Amazon convinced me that Bose QCs were overpriced and undernourished. Perhaps better for frequent flyers, but I needed to cancel sounds on buses and trains: a different challenge. I preferred, or so I thought, on-ear sets, so I looked into Sennsheiser's more affordable noise-cancelling folding on-ear PXC 250s: better, but their plastic headpieces seemed flimsy and prone to cracking, and their external battery cord seemed to get in the way. AKG K81 DJs tempted me at their fair price; they received nearly unanimous acclaim. But for commuting, they seemed too big and bulky, since although half-folding, they are made tough and strong for dj's to monitor music in clubs. (For the $50 range, by the way, AKG's K26 also receive high marks as a vast improvement for IPods if upgrading standard included buds.)

Still, armed with a gift card to offset some of the cost, I looked to the lower weight IEMs and higher range (in price, performance, and db's of noise suppression). The IEM decision fit best my needs; I ride the bus and subway: about three hours total round-trip. Acoustics and physics prove the point. Bose QC's use white noise to "cancel" sounds with others. IEMs isolate more sound at a deeper level of body contact, and so needed lower volume-- this saves aural damage. Also, less volume in the ear means less power drain for the iPod battery.

UE gained the most support from the hundreds of reviews I must have scanned. I purchased a pair (their price on Amazon is about the least expensive retail amount you'll find). Curiously, many vendors charge more for the black than the white model! I being cheap bought the latter, but I am pleased to note that nobody will mistake these for standard Apple buds. The wire is clear, and the color is handsome without being too attention getting: a must for us urban commuters, unfortunately. The actual earpieces do stick out, since IEMs carry more punch than buds. To my surprise the hook over the ears does markedly help in wearing them comfortably-- it was not interfering at all with the eyeglasses behind the ear. Also, this position minimizes the drag of the wire and reduces the IEM transmission of vibrations into the ear as you move or as the wire brushes against clothing or your body. This does take a bit of getting used to, but, as with the insertion of the IEMs, it can be done in a few seconds after the first few times.

For noise-cancelling, the Pros do not shut out all external sounds, nor for the sake of safety would a commuter desire this. But, they reduce it by perhaps 75%-80%. What remains on bus and train is often attributable to the vibrations and rattles that shake as well as produce sound. You cannot get rid of the discomfort as the vehicle hits the bumps in the road or on the track!

They do reproduce (especially "standard" rock) sounds well, although they so far coupled with the iPod have only outperformed my $50 Koss-Radio Shack over-the-ear cans slightly. This may improve with time, as phones need to be broken in, apparently. [Hint: the EQ set for rock reveals much more depth than the bass booster setting that I had previously as my default.] Debate at "head-fi" on-line has raged as to whether "burning" them in over a couple hundred hours to season their drivers is merely the placebo effect or an actual improvement in fidelity. Similarly, I am getting a portable headphone amp (Gary Ali at electric-avenues dot com) that should enrich the sound further on whatever headphones I use with cheaper CD boxes or digital players. Ultimately, what IEMs are at this range, I gather (as opposed to the thousand-dollar customized pairs UE designs), are "musical earplugs."

They shut out the outside, boost what sounds you program and prefer, are lightweight, enjoyable, and while not audiophile-level, fulfill their purpose. They are less expensive than competing models, the fit in the ear is not nearly as traumatic as some reviews have made UE IEMs seem, and the match of form-- plugs-- with function -- players, will never be airtight, offer orchestra-like fidelity, nor will it be able to satisfy those lucky enough to afford higher-level IEMs or phones. But, for commuting, portability, and ratio of cost to performance, they work well.

As my hearing is overly sensitive, and I could/can not ever listen to amplified sound at a rock concert, for example, the lessened volume was crucial for the IEM I chose. This does run at about a third of the iPod volume setting compared to half for other headphones (I did comparisons with a cheap back-of-neck pair and my over-ears on the commute: these by the way both do one thing: they place the music as an additional layer of sound closer to your ear, but no external sounds are mimimized at all. Conventional headphones therefore only distract you by their placement of preferred sounds nearer to your ear. Think of when you talk louder to a neighbor in public so as to drown out somebody else at a nearby table.

What remains a bit of a problem is the cord. Sitting at a desk with a computer, if you are at all tall, plugging in to the computer for playback will nearly reach if not match the limits of the cord's length. These are better used while walking along or holding the iPod. The detachable cord feature also narrowed my choice to UE. At three feet it is perfect for movement while carrying a portable player. However, I have noticed a glitch with the initial starting up of the iPod, during the shift from regular use to the hold button, and the shutting off of one or both sides of the IEMs. But, this may be my own clumsiness or lack of practice. [If not, I will update this comment.]

But, how to wind up the cord into a pocket or case? It tangles constantly, and the need for the permanence of the semi-flexible bends near the ears means the wires cannot be totally compressed as they would be in buds-- or even other IEMs, I suppose. I carry them in an eyeglass case, since this allows less folds and preserves somewhat the twist given to the behind-the-ear beginning of the cords.

I give four rather than five stars for a specific reason. Past reviews led me to believe that a small leather case was also given gratis along with the metallic box. The UE booklet now lists it for $10. What is needed in the metallic box is a winding device; earlier models apparently included this while the one I bought notes, in the booklet, that such a winder is "optional" although it is not listed on the accessory form nor is it explained with which models it would presumably come free. For the price these sell for, I expected a bit more generosity in the "add-ons."