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In MemoriamJohn Neubauer

  Jiiri Talvet

  Faculty of Philosophy, University of Tartu

  Ulikooli 17-403, 51014 Tartu, Estonia

  Email: [email protected]

   On the eve of our Estonian Association of Comparative Literature 11 `" internationalconference in Tartu, Estonia, I received an e-mail letter from my long-time goodcolleague and friend John Neubauer, from Amsterdam. His short lines from October26, 2015, with the title "Farewell", put me in consternation. With heavy heart, Johnsaid, he had to announce his retirement from the academic advisory committee ofour journal Interlitteraria, because his death was imminent.

   Especially as John sent me his letter by email and was himself aninterdisciplinary scholar par excellence, first educated as a physicist, and then asa literary and cultural scholar, with an amazingly broad knowledge and eruditionin sciences, music, psychology, history, his tragic announcement made me oncemore feel the sad truth summarized in its fullest quintessence by Pedro Calderonde la Barca in the short play El gran teatro del mundo (The Great Theatre of theWorld). Whatever wonderful illusions of future and progress man could produceand imagine on the earth, whatever roles he might take, whatever escapes could hescheme, the end is silence. No human mind, however clever, capable or prophetic,can claim to know if what we see during this short symbolic second of our lives, isreality or just a dream.

  Yet despite that the same Spanish 17`"匯century playwright, poet andphilosopher made stand forth in his drama masterpiece La vida es sueno (LifeIs a Dream) a noble leitmotif of "doing good" and following the path of virtue,regardless of what life was. "Even if it is merely a dream, a good and virtuous deedwill never be lost," Calderon claimed.

  It can be said of John Neubauer's deeds in his life /dream. We met in Tartu in1993, shortly after my country Estonia following the collapse of the Soviet empirehad become a free independent state. I had been teaching Western literary historyat the University of Tartu匯Estonia's main university匯since 1974. After thecountry's reestablished independence, in 1992, I was elected to the post of chairprofessor of world literature. In parallel, I was in charge of coordinating a programof Spanish studies, for the first time ever introduced in Estonia.

  At the time of John's visit to Tartu, he was an accomplished comparatist,an active member of the International Comparative Literature Association, oneof those scholars who had substantially contributed to the research of literature'srelations with science, language and music. After leaving as a young man his homecountry Hungary after the 1956 uprising and the following regressions, he settledin the US, where he got his academic degrees and taught German literature atdifferent universities. In 1983 he moved to the Netherlands where he worked as thechair professor of comparative literature at the University of Amsterdam.

  By contrast with John's international scope of scholarly activities, ourEstonian academic life had been very much restricted in the SU. Our contacts withWestern scholarship were scarce. The economic situation of the country at the startof the new independence was extremely meager, our salaries at universities werelow. To visit other countries we nearly always needed visas. Lots of efforts had tobe made for elementary daily survival, while at the same time there was an urgentneed to restructure academic life, to write new manuals for schools and universities,etc.

   At our meeting in 1993 John asked us: why could we not found our Estonianassociation of comparative literature, to become a collective member of the ICLA?

  Indeed, we liked and accepted his idea. At the end of the same year wefounded our Estonian Association of Comparative Literature. Since its admissionin 1994 in the structure of the ICLA it not only started to propel literary researchin Estonia, but contributed growingly to the international dimension of our literarylife.

  Naturally, not everything went so smoothly in the beginning. Our travelsabroad were still very much restricted by the economic misery of those times.Thus evoking today my first ever visit to the Netherlands匯following John'sinvitation for guest lectures at his home university of Amsterdam, in 1994匯sounds like a series of grotesque adventures of a picaresque novel. As air travelwas too expensive for my budget, I with my wife Margit had the plan to reach theNetherlands by bus via Poland and Germany. The Estonian bus failed to appearin the evening of our scheduled departure from Tartu. The boss of the bus firmapologized and promised us air flight from Tallinn airport, the following morning.Yet nobody in Tallinn knew anything about that special deal. As the result, my wifehad to stay at home, while I bought a one-way air ticket to Amsterdam, with thehope, as the bus firm boss had assured, that I could still return from the Netherlandsby their surface transport.

  However, while in Amsterdam, I had to obtain Germany's transit visa andalso the Netherlands return visa, as my plan included proceeding from Amsterdamto Paris, by Euroline bus, to visit there my sister who was at that time in chargeof establishing Estonian embassy in the French capital city. In conclusion, I hadto spend a considerable time of my short stay in Amsterdam visiting variousembassies and consular offices. Indeed the Germans were kind enough and issuedme their transit visa. In turn, the Dutch officials were reluctant to do what Iasked. They advised me not to go to Paris. I still did. Luckily nobody checked mypassport during that illegal night travel across the lowlands between France andthe N etherlands…I still could not return by bus to Estonia, because the Estonianbus firm meanwhile had gone bankrupt... John was kind and tried to help me ashe could, but he could not do much for a post-socialist East-European visitor whoclearly did not fit into the system of the Western world.

   After I had asked somebody in Estonia to lend me money and finally couldtake my return air flight, I felt as if I had fled from a "living hell"... I was happy tobe back in my poor and miserable native country.

   Gradually we managed to overcome these initial difficulties of the newindependence phase of our state. Our country established its institutions andfoundations that, however modestly, still provided some relief for cultural andacademic activity. In 1996 we founded Interlitteraria, an international comparativeliterature journal. By today, it has become an important platform for Europeanand world literary and cultural research. Also in 1996, we held in Tartu our firstcomparative literature international conference. Our scholars started to take partin the worldwide activities of the ICLA, while our efforts to contribute to theinternational field of comparative literary studies were appreciated and supportedby a number of leading and merited world scholars whose articles and essaysstarted to appear in Interlitteraria, in parallel with contributions of younger literaryresearchers from a great variety of countries.

  John Neubauer belonged in the ICLA and in the comparative research field tothe minority of international scholars who dared to undertake major tasks. In myopinion one of his greatest achievements was editing, with Marcel Corms-Pope,a four-volume History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe (2004-2010), to which all active literary and cultural scholars from our part of the worldwere invited to contribute. More than ever before and after our Estonian literaryresearchers became involved in the collective ICLA project of writing a newliterary history, organized in a novel fashion, with a number of historical nodes aspoints of departure for discussing all major East-Central Europe's literary-culturalissues and phenomena.

  In his article "Globalizing Literary History" published in this cluster, JohnNeubauer shared with world comparatists the rich experience acquired by theeditors in the long process of organizing and shaping this new experimental literaryhistory. He did it in the background of all existing previous efforts in the mentionedfield, as well as envisaged contours for those younger scholars who mightundertake similar efforts, not only in the Western part of the world, but also in theEast, in times to come.

  John was open to new ideas and approaches, but he was far from sticking tocertain "schools" or positions, which unfortunately have lead an important sectionof comparative literary scholarship to follow either formalist or sociologicalpatterns, in oblivion of the primary moral tasks humanities have in the world.He welcomed the formation in China of a new movement of ethically orientatedliterary research and the foundation of the International Association for EthicalLiterary Criticism. Time appeared implacably too short for John to contribute inperson to the conferences of this newly founded association.

  Yet moral orientation of literary criticism was by no means anything newfor John. I guess his last article published in his life was under the title "Victimsand Perpetrators: Two Novels on the 1942 Novi Sad Atrocities", printed inInterlitteraria'sspecial issue "Taming World Literature" (Supplement 12015;edited by Liina Lukas and Katre Talviste), presented in Tartu just a few days beforethe great scholar and kind friend John Neubauer passed away.

  Thank you, dear John. We in the Estonian academia of literary scholarship willremember you forever. You indeed did good deeds to us and the world of letters.

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