Internationally renowned literary historian Mihály Szegedy-Maszák passed away last Sunday. Szegedy-Maszák was one of the few scholars who wrote extensively on Hungarian literature in English, in a comparative framework.
He was the greatest literary historian of our times, Sándor Mészáros, editor-in-chief of Kalligram, the publisher of Szegedy-Maszák’s oeuvre said to the Hungarian news agency MTI. Even more than that, Mészáros added, Szegedy-Maszák was one of those rare literary scholars who were well versed in art and music as well.
Szegedy-Maszák started his career as a specialist of English literature, Mészáros said. It was when he started to focus on Dezső Kosztolányi’s oeuvre that his attention shifted to Hungarian literature. Szegedy-Maszák published extensively in English, and taught at universities abroad for years. However, he returned to Hungary as he was convinced that in order to be able to interpret Hungarian works, a literary scholar must live in a Hungarian-language environment.
Szegedy-Maszák was an extremely versatile scholar with great erudition, ranging from 18th century literature to contemporary authors. He wrote on Péter Esterházy, whom he considered the most significant contemporary writer. Esterházy died ten days before Szegedy-Maszák, who was deeply shocked by the news of his death.
Born in 1943 in Budapest, Mihály Szegedy-Maszák graduated at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, and went on to study at Cambridge. His main fields of research were comparative literature, cultural studies, 19th century Hungarian literature, and the theory of the novel. He was Professor of Cultural History at Eötvös Loránd University (1981–1990), then became a regular member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He spent years as visiting professor at King’s College in Cambridge (1979–1980), at the American Council of Learned Societies (1984–1985), and at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he was Hungarian chair professor (1988–1991), then Professor of Central Eurasian Studies and Comparative Literature (1991–2008). Szegedy-Maszák also edited the academic journal Hungarian Studies.
Mihály Szegedy-Maszák was the first to write a monograph on Sándor Márai after the regime change. He also wrote monographs on Zsigmond Kemény, Géza Ottlik and Dezső Kosztolányi, and a book on literary canons (Literary Canons: National and International. Budapest: Akadémiai, 2001).
Excerpt from a recent interview with literary critic Csaba Károlyi in the weekly Élet és Irodalom:
Cs. K: What will become of the world if classical middle-class (polgári) erudition dies out?
M. Sz-M.: I will not live to see that.
Cs. K: What can a man of the intellect do today?
M. Sz-M.: I don’t know, unfortunately. A man of the intellect is often reduced to loneliness.
Cs. K: Is it really a huge problem if classical middle-class culture disappears? Hasn’t it been the nature of things for millennia that cultures are born, they flourish and then they die, perhaps to be preserved to some extent in a later culture? The traces of Sumerian or Roman culture are still alive today, for example.
M. Sz-M.: That may be the nature of things, and certainly, one can see things from the perspective you have just outlined, and then we could end this conversation on an optimistic note if we accepted this nature of the world, if we could believe in it.
Cs. K: Do you believe in it?
M. Sz-M.: No.
(Photo by Máté Nándorfi / MTI)
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