OBITUARY : Deszo Keresztury

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The Independent Online
In a series of publications that spanned almost 70 years, Dezso Keresztury, the grand old gentleman of Hungarian letters, left an indelible imprint on Hungary's intellectual life as a literary historian, poet, and writer on European and, in particular, German culture. Like so many Hungarian writers of his generation, the apolitical Keresztury could not avoid getting involved in politics at the highest level - in his case as Minister of Religion and Education - in the post-war government.

But while many other fellow-intellectuals succumbed to the temptations of serving the ideologies of Fascism or Communism (or, in some cases, both) that dominated Hungarian politics in the middle years of the century, Keresztury never became tainted by being associated with them. Instead, behind his old-fashioned courtesy he preserved high standards of personal decency and intellectual honesty; though his detachment from politics kept him from expressing even mild criticism, of Hungary's repressive regimes.

Keresztury was born into a comfortable middle-class family in 1904 in the western Hungarian town of Zalaegerszeg where his father was the local mayor. His education in Budapest included a spell at the elite Eotvos college - where he was later to return as director - then he moved on to the universities of Vienna and Berlin. He stayed on in the German capital during the early years of Hitler's rule, working at the Humboldt University. After his return to Hungary in 1936 he joined the German language Budapest daily, Pester Lloyd, as the paper's literary editor.

The young Keresztury's love of German culture and history and his experience of living under the Nazis inoculated him for the rest of his life against collaborating with dictatorial rule. With many other intellectuals discredited by their close links with Admiral Horthy's right-wing regime, he was seen as the ideal candidate for important posts in Hungarian cultural life at the end of the Second World War. In 1945 he was put in charge of Eotvos College - its last director to enjoy widespread respect before it came under Communist control which left its academic performance and reputation in tatters.

While at the College, Keresztury was also appointed Minister of Religion and Education in Hungary's coalition government, where he represented the centre-left Peasant Party. He embarked on major reforms to modernise the Hungarian educational system, but also had the unenviable task of being requir-ed to push through radical legislation, such as nationalisation of schools, most of which had been under church control.

Although unwilling to do it, Keresztury hoped that the process could be carried through in a humane manner - by allowing teachers to stay on in their jobs - but he was constantly under pressure from the increasingly powerful Communist faction in the coalition not to make concessions to the churches. The Catholic Keresztury was deeply troubled by conflicting loyalties and was nearing nervous exhaustion when he was sacked after two years in 1947 for refusing to carry out the nationalisation project.

With the Communist take-over in 1948, Keresztury was gradually demoted: initially he worked as the chief librarian of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and then from 1950 to his retirement in 1971 as a head of department at the National Library.

During the 1956 pro-democracy uprising Keresztury joined the revolutionary commmitte of Hungarian writers but did not play a prominent part and escaped retribution. He remained aloof from politics, but as his reputation in the literary world grew, the Communist state showered honours on him.

Keresztury's presence in Hungary's cultural life was all-pervasive. He was a prolific author who belonged to the so-called Pannonian school of mainly west Hungarian poets with a strong emotional attachment to the landscape of the region. This somewhat bucolic verse - a typical example was Transdanubian Hexameters (1956) - was largely traditional in form and content.

Keresztury was better known to the general public for his work as a cultural historian with a popular style who combined a passionate involvement in local, Hungarian traditions with an equal commitment to European artistic values. He was one of the leading authorities on Hungary's great 19th- century poet, Janos Arany, and his age. His Illustrated History of Hungarian Literature (1956) was one of the first coffee-table books of the highest artistic merit to be published in Hungary. And his vast output included books on Hungarian music, opera and ballet as well as his beloved Lake Balaton.

A tall, slim and handsome man, Keresztury was much helped through 50 years of marriage by his first wife, the musician Maria Seiber, and after her death by his second wife, Maria Novak.

He never stopped writing; his last volume of poetry was published when he was 90. Among the few belongings found with him after his death in hospital, where he spent the last month of his life, was a poem expressing his heart's longing to return to Lake Balaton.

Gabriel Partos

Dezso Keresztury, literary historian, poet: born Zalagerszeg, Hungary 6 September 1904; Minister of Religion and Education 1945-47; married 1943 Maria Seiber (died), 1985 Maria Novak; died Budapest 30 April 1996.