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Reviewed by:
  • Comparative Literature: Theory, Method, Application
  • Nicolae Harsanyi
Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, Comparative Literature: Theory, Method, Application. Amsterdam, Atlanta GA: Rodopi, 1998. 298 pp.

In writing this book, Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek intends to enrich the field of comparative literature with a hitherto “lesser known theoretical framework and methodology that . . . represents to date one of the most advanced possibilities for the study of literature and culture” (260). The author’s motivation in his innovative stance lies in his awareness of the “problematic situation” (14) arising from the two contradictory developments noticeable in the discipline of comparative literature nowadays: a certain stagnation, if not recession, in its established centers in the US, France, and Germany, on the one hand, and a robust expansion in vast, non-traditional geographical areas such as the Far East, Latin America, and the Southern tier of European countries. At the same time, realizing that “it is the neglect and lack of rational inclusive, methodologically precise attention in operationality and functionality that results in flaws which in turn create—over several turns and twists—the marginalization of the study of literature” (21), Tötösy sets out to propose “The Systemic and Empirical Approach to Literature and Culture,” which he puts forth in an appropriately called Manifesto (Chapter One).

The author then proceeds to offer several sets of applications of the proposed framework and method for a New Comparative Literature. Discussion focuses on a wide variety of literary and cultural areas of inquiry such as literary readership and the question of the literary canon in a context of cultural participation (Chapter Two). Interdisciplinarity, “taxonomically imprecise” (79), is debated in Chapter Three; Tötösy considers it as an integral part of a New Comparative Literature (82) and brings up as supportive arguments examples from literature and cinema. A very interesting Chapter Four focuses on the literatures of East Central Europe, the author proposing that their study follow the parameters of “inbetween peripherality” (135). This term acknowledges the peripherality of these literatures and cultures in relation to traditional cultural European “centers,” but, at the same time, does not lose from sight that East Central European literatures and cultures have long histories of their own, enjoying a certain degree of cultural sovereignty and self-referentiality. For a while Steven Tötösy lingers in the East Central European space in Chapter Five (“Women’s Literature and Men Writing About Women”) as well: when he considers the work of Hungarian fiction writer Margit Kaffka and its critical reception in Hungary Tötösy rightly emphasizes that the omission of feminist issues from evaluations of Kaffka’s prose is due to the patriarchal thinking deeply entrenched in the Hungarian critical practice. The last two chapters of the book deal with topics that have an ever closer bearing on the study of literature: the study of translation and the impact of new electronic technologies on literary and cultural studies.

This book is useful not only for all those who are primarily interested in theoretical debates concerning the renewal of the study of comparative literature in the contemporary world, but also for all readers concerned with cultural studies dealing with East Central Europe. The author’s ubiquitous voice, alert pace of argumentation, subtle humor and irony enhance his persuasiveness.

Nicolae Harsanyi
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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