A Tribute to Paul Debreczeny (1932-2008)

     Paul Debreczeny will always be remembered with love and gratitude by those who were fortunate enough to have met him and worked with him. His importance as not only a scholar and teacher, but also as an extraordi­nary human being, is testified to in the reminiscences below.

     However, it should also be recalled that he was of supreme importance to the North American Pushkin Society and this, its humble journal, Pushkin Review, as well. Paul was the first editor of the original manifes­tation of our journal, Pushkin Journal, along with Irina Chistova. Paul was first president of the North American Pushkin Society; indeed, he was a founding member of NAPS in 1993, along with Bill Todd, Marcus Levitt, Leslie O’Bell, J. Douglas Clayton, David Bethea and Stephanie Sandler. It was Paul who drafted the Constitution of the North American Pushkin Society; he did everything in his power to make sure NAPS became a major force in North American Slavic Studies.

     He remained an engaged editor, reviewer and contributor to Pushkin Review until just before his passing. His advice and talent will be sorely missed by us all.

 

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     Paul Debreczeny, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Russian and Com­parative Literature Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, died on March 18, 2008 at the age of 76, following a period of declining health. Debreczeny was born in Budapest and received his undergraduate degree from Eőtvős University. During the 1956 revolution he emigrated to England, where he took a doctorate in Russian literature at the University of London. In 1960 he came to the United States, where he founded the Department of Russian Literature at Tulane University. In 1967 he joined the faculty of UNC-Chapel Hill, where he served as chair­man of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures from 1974 to 1979 and, in 1991, was founding director of the Center for Slavic, Eura­sian, and East European Studies. He retired in 1999.

     Paul was a prolific scholar, whose research over five decades was in­formed by a refined literary and aesthetic sensibility and a knowledge of Russian and Western literature that was both wide-ranging and intimate. Although he made his mark primarily as a Pushkinist, he published on virtually every other significant nineteenth-century Russian writer—Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov—and also explored the links between Russian literature and English, French, and American liter­ary works. From the 1960s through the early 1980s he published a series of analytic articles and monographs in which classic nineteenth-century texts emerge in a fresh and revealing light—the Russian literary canon defamiliarized, as it were. Paul’s magisterial study of Pushkin’s prose fic­tion, The Other Pushkin: A Study of Alexander Pushkin’s Prose Fiction, published in 1983 by Stanford University Press (later translated into Rus­sian as Bludnaia doch´: Analiz khudozhestvennoi prozy Pushkina [St. Petersburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 1995]), assured his status as the pre­eminent American Pushkin scholar; had he done nothing more at this point his reputation would have been secure. Yet it was characteristic of the scholar and the man (including, by the way, the outdoorsman) that he always chose the more strenuous path, and so he now ventured into areas that had previously engaged his interest but in which he had not yet pub­lished. While much of Paul’s early scholarship shows the influence of Rus­sian Formalism, his work beginning in the 1980s incorporates new ana­lytic perspectives, notably reader response theory and cultural studies. The culmination of this new direction was his 1997 book Social Functions of Literature: Alexander Pushkin and Russian Culture (Stanford Univer­sity Press), a multifaceted exploration of the myth that grew up around the figure of Pushkin from the 1830s through the Soviet period. Paul’s in­terest in non-verbal representational art and its complex relationship to literature is reflected in the 1994 volume (co-edited with Roger Anderson) Russian Narrative and Visual Art: Varieties of Seeing (University of Ken­tucky Press), which includes his essay on Impressionism in Chekhov. Paul’s retirement years were devoted largely to studying the life and work of the nineteenth-century Russian painter Isaac Levitan.[1] At the time of his death he had already completed and revised a manuscript, which his colleagues expect will be published posthumously.

     For all his accomplishments, Paul was a thoroughly modest and down-to-earth person, who had nothing but scorn for self-important academics. He was unfailingly generous to colleagues and students, and always en­couraged and supported their best efforts. During his thirty-two-year asso­ciation with the Slavic Department, which included more than one stint as chairman, Paul became, in a very real sense, its heart and soul. His soft-spoken manner and wise counsel saw the UNC Slavic Department through difficult times, and his ready wit was a welcome leaven to our academic earnestness. Having experienced both Nazi and Communist tyr­anny in his native Hungary, Paul lived his life free of illusion, yet his unblinkered outlook never made him cynical or defeatist. On the contrary, he brought a bright sense of possibility to matters great and small, from building and nurturing a department and curriculum to finding various pretexts—it could be a visiting scholar, the beginning or end of a semester, a special anniversary, or just the sudden urge to have a good time—for opening his home to students and colleagues. Parties at Paul and Gillian’s home were keenly anticipated and long-remembered events, where the good cheer and lively conversation usually flowed on past midnight.

     Paul was a reserved person, but there was seldom any doubt about the depth of his convictions. One of these, implicit in everything he did, was that the good life (like good literature) was in large part a matter of resist­ing inertia, not going with the drift of things. This came across movingly in a talk which he gave in the department about the time when his health started to fail, entitled “Why I Read Pushkin,” in which he spoke of the poet’s belief that to live life timidly in the face of the inevitable end is merely to exist. Those of us who enjoyed Paul’s friendship have much to be grateful for, not least the example of his life.

 

Lawrence Feinberg
UNC—Chapel Hill

 

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     In the 1970s I served in the U.S. Air Force in Germany and after my tour of duty completed a Masters in Slavic Literatures at the University of Regensburg. Upon graduation I wrote some twenty letters to U.S. univer­sities offering my services as a Professor of Russian. Having been in Eu­rope for eight years, I had no understanding about how tight the job market in Slavic languages and literatures was in the States at the time and I had no idea that it was highly unlikely that I would be offered a tenure-track position at an American university with only an M.A. Not surprisingly, I received only one response to all those letters. That letter was from Paul Debreczeny at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. In his letter Paul took the time to explain what the situation was like at Slavic departments in the U.S. and suggested that I continue my stud­ies to get a Ph.D. To that end he offered me a graduate fellowship at UNC. His letter was cordial and so persuasive that I decided to come to the Uni­versity of North Carolina, and even declined an offer I received a month later to teach in Regensburg. I have never regretted that decision. The years I spent in Chapel Hill were among the happiest in my life.

     It is a true blessing for a student to have a professor in graduate school who strives not only to teach but also to mentor his students. Paul Debreczeny was such a professor. His lectures on nineteenth-century Rus­sian literature were truly inspiring, and he went to great length to “infect” us, as Tolstoy would say, with his passion for the great writers of Russia’s Golden Age. After his classes Paul was never in a hurry to return to his office; indeed, he enjoyed continuing discussions with his graduate stu­dents in an informal setting and was very generous with his time. I recall numerous occasions when Paul would join us students on Fridays at a lo­cal bar for a beer or a glass of wine and some impromptu conversation in Russian. His active Russian vocabulary was impressive, and he knew how to enliven our meetings with tidbits about Russia’s great writers or with lines from Pushkin. Some of my fondest memories of Paul are of those in­formal gatherings. But behind Paul’s warm personality was the methodi­cal scholar. His office was inspiring—tidy, with narrow boxes upon boxes of neat index cards saturated with information ready to be transformed into a book or scholarly article.

     I recall vividly my impressions as a student in Paul’s graduate semi­nar on Dostoevsky. Paul knew the writer like the back of his hand (as he did all of nineteenth-century Russian literature), and his lectures were couched in that unique Hungarian-Russian-British English accent. We loved the way he said “Luzhin,” “Marmeladov,” and “Stavrogin.” And he made those characters come to life in his classroom. To this day I can’t read Dostoevsky, either in Russian or English, without hearing Paul’s voice. Paul was always patient when he had to correct my, at times, sim­plistic interpretations of various episodes in Dostoevsky, and he did so with humor and a wonderful smile. He taught us to see the amazing com­plexity in Dostoevsky’s depiction of human character types, and to look for overarching and frequently contradictory motives in the characters. Those were good lessons for life, too. Now, some twenty-five years later, having lived a bit and traveled a lot, I can say that I’ve encountered and had to deal with a good number of those Dostoevskian character types in real life. Thanks to Paul, I was ready for them!

     Paul Debreczeny had a very inquisitive mind and was not afraid to venture outside his area of expertise. He agreed to become my dissertation father for a topic which in those days was way off the beaten track—the works of a non-Russian Soviet writer, Chingiz Aitmatov. I’m sure Paul would have preferred that I choose a writer or topic from nineteenth-century literature, but he nevertheless plunged into the new field with abandon, reading all Aitmatov’s major works and making numerous valu­able suggestions. I am forever grateful to him for his dedication to the project and steadfast encouragement.

     Being used to the aloofness of many of the professors I had as a stu­dent in Germany, I was very moved by the warm hospitality that Paul and his charming wife Gillian accorded us graduate students when they in­vited us to their home. There were many such occasions. As graduate stu­dents we were always looking for a free meal, and the food was always good at their home on Hoot Owl Lane. I have since tried to live by that ex­ample in my relations with students, too. In my mind I will always see Paul standing in the door at his home, greeting us as we walked up the steps.

     Boris Pasternak wrote that life is not a stroll across a meadow—zhizn´ prozhit´, ne pole pereiti. By any standards Paul Debreczeny had a rich and rewarding life, but I know his early years were anything but easy. He spent his childhood in wartime Hungary, came to the West after the failed Hungarian uprising in 1956, and had to begin life anew in England and the U.S. I’m sure he left many friends everywhere he went. I’m proud to have been Paul’s student and am deeply grateful for the contribution he made to my life.

 

Joseph P. Mozur, Jr.
University of South Alabama

 

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Paul Debreczeny: A Personal Remembrance

     Readers of Pushkin Review will, of course, know Paul Debreczeny as the fine scholar and translator he was—not only of Pushkin, but of a wide range of Russian writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since others will be writing about his scholarship, my remarks offer a personal sketch of the Paul I knew as a colleague and dear friend for well over thirty years—from the day we first met in February 1974, when I inter­viewed for a position in UNC’s Slavic Department, until we said goodbye a few days before his death.

     He was my first department chair, a welcoming, supportive mentor who made it clear from the outset that he could not abide hierarchy and privileges of rank among colleagues. This was a time when at UNC, as elsewhere, women faculty constituted only a tiny minority, and many of my women friends whose chairs were still old-school in their “acceptance” of female faculty envied me the easy collegial relationship that Paul in­sisted on from the outset. At his invitation, in the early years we read and commented on each other’s drafts. I think now that this was his way of disguising mentoring of a younger colleague as collegial give-and-take be­tween equals. Again to the astonishment of other women on the faculty, without my asking him to do so Paul arranged a lighter, convenient teach­ing schedule for me when I was pregnant with my second child and sup­ported my request for a year’s leave, doing so at a time when the univer­sity had no parental leave available for faculty and I was not yet tenured. Such considerate attention to other people’s needs was characteristic of the man; he extended similar courtesies to everyone. When I succeeded him as chair, my job was made easier by the habits he instilled of civility and mutual warmth that still characterize our department and are far from the norm in academia.

     Until ill health slowed him down, Paul kept up a rigorous research and writing schedule that would have seemed to leave little time for play and relaxation. (At his death he left behind the recently completed manu­script of his biography of Isaac Levitan, whose paintings he loved and with whom he felt a special personal closeness.) But he also loved to arrange opportunities for his colleagues and students to enjoy each other’s com­pany away from the classroom and department offices. In the 1970s and 1980s, while their children were still living at home, Paul and his wife, Gillian, organized joyously undisciplined afternoon volleyball games in their backyard for faculty, graduate students, and as many children as wanted to participate. There were also evening Russian Scrabble parties held once a semester at their house—surprisingly, a great hit among undergraduate students especially. Continuing into the late 1990s, the Debreczenys hosted numerous parties to mark special occasions—a significant anniversary or birthday, a colleague’s new baby, seeing in the new year—at which Paul and Gillian’s various circles of friends came to know each other over the years. Paul was also a good sport about entering into student entertainments, appearing in costume at Halloween parties, for example. One memorable evening a few years ago he made a cameo ap­pearance as a truly fierce Ivan the Terrible at one of our annual “Spek­takl´” programs (an evening of skits performed by students in all our language classes).

     Paul was a much-loved teacher. Graduate students especially appreci­ated his characteristic combination of gentle encouragement and insist­ence on high standards. He was also highly respected by colleagues and administrators across campus, and gave generously of his time on innum­erable university committees, believing, as he often said, that faculty have an obligation to participate in the life of the university, to stand for aca­demic values when they are threatened by outside forces or inside admin­istrators. His early experiences in the Hungarian academic establishment (he fled Hungary in 1956) made him an ardent defender of academic and other freedoms.

     He was also a defender of the environment, engaging in environmental activism long before “green” became a widely bruited term. He was a pas­sionate gardener who composted everything that could possibly be re­turned to the soil. He fought for, and won, the reclassification of a stream that flowed beside his home, lobbying the town council until his concerns about pollution of its waters were addressed. The clean waters of Chapel Hill’s Bolin Creek, beside which a pleasant greenway is now open to the public, owe much to Paul’s early and continuing activism.

     Paul’s personal library, much of it housed in bookcases he had built himself, revealed him to be not only a scholar of Russian literature, but a person of wide-ranging literary tastes with a special interest in twentieth-century British and American writing. He knew a great deal about paint­ing, and though he could not carry a tune, he was an ardent and dis­cerning concert-goer.

     With his wry sense of humor, his bemused enjoyment of the human comedy as it plays out in academia, his love of teaching and devotion to the high standards of serious scholarship, and above all, his thorough-going kindness and decency, Paul Debreczeny was a model colleague and the best of friends.

 

Madeline G. Levine
Kenan Professor of Slavic Literatures
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

 

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     The last time I saw Paul was at the hospital, shortly before his death. My eye was caught by a pile of books he had brought from home. Among them were A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the fourth volume of Pushkin’s CollectedWorks, which included Evgenii Onegin. I noted to Paul that the same edition was in my household when I was a child. In reply and without lifting his head from the pillow, he recited a stanza from Pushkin’s novel.

     He knew that his days were numbered. But our conversation was rather mundane and seemingly insignificant. Paul asked me about my family and, gathering his strength, responded to my answers with some brief comments and a smile. In facing death, Paul remained the person he had always been: calm, generous, and attentive to his interlocutor. I could not help but recall the famous observation from Doctor Zhivago about the “modest reticence” of Pushkin and Chekhov (they were probably the most important authors in Paul’s life) “in such high-sounding matters as the ultimate purpose of mankind or their own salvation.”

     The music that played at his memorial service was chosen by Paul himself: Tchaikovsky, “In Memory of a Great Artist.”

 

Radislav Lapushin
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill 

 


 Download: Feinberg, Lawrence, et al. "A Tribute to Paul Debreczeny (1932-2008)." Pushkin Review 11 (2008): 173-79.


[1] See, for example, Paul’s “Pushkinian Elements in Isaak Levitan’s Painting By the Mill Pond,” Pushkin Review 6–7 (2003–04): 159–66.