Obituary for Leslie Bodi

(09/01/1922 – 09/04/2015)

On the fourth of September last year died Leslie Bodi, Emeritus Professor of German Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, where he was one of the founding professors of the university and founding professor and long-time head (1963-1987) of the German department of that university. This is not only the obituary for an outstanding scientist, but also a tribute to a fatherly friend and companion in the research-field that is associated with the study of Austrian German and the pluricentric perspective on the German language as a whole. Born in Budapest in a secular Jewish family, he spent several years of his childhood in Milan and attended German schools. So he was always at home in multiple languages, as he himself confessed: „I have always lived in three languages, in several partly overlapping worlds and cultures, in Hungarian in Eastern, in German and Austrian in Western Central Europe and in Australian English, which represents a category of its own – and marginally also in the Jewish world.“ It was the latter which led him to be excluded form studying at university. He therefore completed an apprenticeship as a typesetter to work later in the printing company of his parents. The Second World War also prevented that as the parental company was destroyed and Leslie Bodi like many other Hungarian Jewish citizens was deported to a German concentration camp, which he in 1945 with only 42 kilograms weight barely survived.

After the war, he began to study German, in order to work at the University. The crushing of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the Soviet invasion also averted this goal, so he immigrated with his wife Marianne and daughter Anna to Australia, where a part of his family already lived. After a brief period at Newcastle University College he was appointed in 1960 to the newly founded Monash University and worked as a Founding Professor of German, where he set up the department with a young team of excellent academics from scratch. What to do in such a situation, or not to do, he himself described in his acceptance speech at the award ceremony of the Friedrich Gundolf Prize of the German Academy for Language and Literature: „One did not pretend to be a big shot Germanist somewhere in the German speaking area, did not act as an emigrant, who quickly wants to return home and did not complain about the pinched circumstances and no attempt was made to get unconditionally assimilated. We were looking to open up new opportunities and to change things rather than to accept them.” He called himself an „antipodal-Kakanian Germanist“. That sums up briefly and aptly Leslie Bodis lifelong attitude to his work: personal modesty and great professional commitment, which went so far that he more than once became entangled with the deans in heated discussions, but apologizing for the vehemence the next day by presenting large chocolate boxes, so that after some time an entire cupboard was filled with them. His central European origin, having grown up in a multicultural environment, his linguistic versatility and his understanding of the differences between the German-speaking countries and the diversity of Central Europe that he build on, led him to emphasize the pluricentricity of literature and languages and to consider this diversity from different perspectives and not unilaterally. That made him a fascinating teacher and inspiring supervisor who has trained many generations of Australian Germanists. This included, among others, Michael Clyne (1938-2010), who was the son of emigrated Austrian parents and a world-famous socio-linguist and researcher on multilingualism who had studied with him and in 1965 became the first person who completed a doctorate at the Faculty of Arts of the Monarch University. His pioneering book of 1984 „Language and Society in the German Speaking Countries“ has introduced the concept of pluricentricity into German linguistics. Leslie Bodi was both as a teacher and as scientists an important pioneer of pluricentricity within the field of Germanistik as he emphasized the autonomy of Austrian literature (and of Austrian German) at a time when German as a subject field still completely followed the monocentric concept and the pluricentric view was considered sacrilege. His view was based on the knowledge and his personal experience that a „language“ can accommodate multiple cultures and literatures. At the centre of his reflections were particularly issues of self-identification of modern multicultural industrial societies and societies such as Australia, where the majority of the population had migrated two generations ago. A significant resource for him was the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its multicultural constitution and Australia as a multicultural country of immigrants. His book „Tauwetter in Wien” (Thaw in Vienna) about the prose of the Enlightenment has become the standard work on an otherwise neglected and complex period of the development of Austria and Central Europe. The anthology „Literature, Politics, identity – Literature, Politics, Cultural Identity“ (series: Austrian and international literature processes) can be regarded as the legacy of a versatile scientist and teacher whose research had an effect far beyond the borders of his profession and who significantly contributed to the development of his discipline and the understanding of the multicultural world of today. His rich life and work has gained wide recognition in professional circles and is reflected in two honorary doctorates, the German Federal Cross of Merit, the Goethe Medal and the Austrian Medal for Science and Art. Leslie Bodi is survived by his wife Mari, his daughter Ana and his granddaughter Sarah. We will remember him as a comprehensively educated humanist, as an inspiring scientist and as a dear friend.


Rudolf Muhr (Graz) [ Bio ]