Frigyes Riesz by those who knew him

We present four extracts about Frigyes Riesz.


  1. Edgar Raymond Lorch (known as Ray) spent the year 1934 in Szeged. Here are some of what he wrote about Riesz. First a quote from "Szeged in 1934" [Amer. Math. Monthly 100 (1993), 219-230], in which he writes about how they communicated:

  2. When I first met Riesz, I expected to communicate in French. Although he still wrote French of considerable elegance, he was no longer in his French period. I never heard him utter more than a passing phrase in German - at most, he might tell a German-Hungarian joke. He had been studying English for the past three years, and so English became the language between us. His study of English had been exceptionally thorough. Not only had he assiduously studied grammar and composition, he had read much literature, including a good number of the plays of G B Shaw. As a distinguished professor, it was understood that he was capable of learning anything he wanted to in the seclusion of his room. In fact, he never had an English teacher with whom to exchange a single word. (There was one English teacher in Szeged, an unmarried lady who had been living there for almost twenty years, teaching the few adventurous souls who were intrigued by things British.) It was to me that Riesz uttered his first words of English, after three years of study. The results were strange and at times, with the best of good will on both sides, slow. Sometimes Riesz corrected my English pronunciation. For example, once I asked whether a goose that had just been brought was well-cooked. He did not understand until it came to him in two syllables. "Coo-kud," he corrected, and set to with a twinkle of satisfaction.

  3. This quote by Ray Lorch comes from the article by Reuben Hersh and Vera John-Steiner, "A Visit to Hungarian Mathematics", The Mathematical Intelligencer 15 (2) (1993), 13-26:

  4. Riesz was a dangerous man with whom to collaborate in writing a paper or a book. He was constantly having new ideas on how to proceed, and the latest brain child was the favourite. This would lead to disconcerting results for the collaborator, who was perpetually out of step. An example was told me by Tibor Rado, his ex-assistant. During the academic year, Riesz would lecture on measure theory and functional analysis. Rado would take copious notes. When summer arrived, Riesz would depart for a cooler spot (Gyor). Rado would sweat it out for three months, writing up at Riesz's request all the material, to be in publishable form in the fall. At the end of September Riesz would put in his first day at the Institute, and Rado would come to the library to greet his superior, proudly carrying a stack of eight hundred pages, which he placed in Riesz's lap with great satisfaction. Riesz glanced at the bundle, recognized what it was, and raised his eyes with a mixture of kindness and thankfulness, and at the same time with a spark of merriment, as if he had pulled off a fast one. "Oh, very good, very good. Yes, this is very nice, really nice. But let me tell you. During the summer I had an idea. We will do it all another way. You will see as I give the course. You will like it." This took place many years in a row. The book was not written until Riesz, probably under the pressure of advancing age, wrote the book in collaboration with Bela Szokefalvi-Nagy some 18 years later. As we all know, the book, Leçons d'Analyse Fonctionnelle, was an international best seller for decades.

  5. Istvan Vincze wrote about Riesz in 1983 (see I Vincze, Vallomások Szegedrő, Somogyi Kőnyvtari műhély, 2-3 (1983)):

  6. As a lecturer Riesz was somewhat unpredictable. He was not always perfectly prepared for the lecture. When that happened he would ask his assistant, Laszlo Kalmar, for help. But Kalmar wasn't always available. Nevertheless, we found Riesz a first-class interpreter of science. In his lectures everything appeared naturally in historical perspective. That was highly instructive. When he was not well prepared, he often spent time on very interesting digressions. Once he gave a brilliant explanation of why scientific work is easy. "Everyone has ideas, both right ideas and wrong ideas," he said. "Scientific work consists merely of separating them." Lipót Fejer was born only three weeks after Frigyes Riesz (on 9 February1880; Riesz was born on 22 January). There was constant teasing between them. For instance, Fejer would claim that he actually was older than Riesz, because Riesz was born a month prematurely. Riesz loved a quiet, balanced life. He liked order. He was jovial, even a bit aristocratic. Much of his social life took place in a few fashionable rowing and fencing clubs, where empty-headed "notables" from the city and the military could also be found. He belonged to the most exclusive rowing club in Szeged, and would go there from early spring to late autumn. In the evening he would go to the fencing club and play bridge. He backed László Kalmar very strongly, and hoped Kalmar would become an outstanding mathematician (which he did). But he expected Kalmar to remain a bachelor and devote all his life to science. (As Riesz did himself, and as also did Marcel Riesz, Alfred Haar, Lipót Fejer, Denes König, and Pal Erdös.) However, Kalmar did get married. This made Riesz lose his temper to some extent. For a while he was nervous and impatient to Kalmar. Then he calmed down. Kalmar's wife was also an able mathematician, and Riesz liked her, as all of us did. Riesz could see that Kalmar's scientific goals had not been hurt by marriage. When reading a mathematics journal, he sometimes would heave a sigh: "At last he also understands it." (Meaning, the author at last understands what Riesz and others discovered earlier.) Once Riesz said that a good mathematics book - while of course proving all the theorems - should be more than just a sequence of theorems and proofs. It should discuss the significance of the theorems, clarify them from different viewpoints, explain their connections to other parts of mathematics. Fortunately, Riesz did not suffer any injury or imprisonment during the war. Some of his fellow faculty members petitioned to the government that he be exempted from the deportation of the Jews which took place starting in 1943. On advice of friends, he went to Budapest early in 1944. While deportation of the Jews was being enforced in the provinces, he was in Budapest. He returned to Szeged the following summer, and on 11 October Szeged was lucky enough to fall, almost without combat, into the hands of the Soviet Army. (Budapest was not to be so fortunate.) Soviet troops had crossed the Tisza River above and below Szeged and encircled it. So the Germans abandoned Szeged and blew up its bridges. Their Hungarian allies were stranded on the east side of the river. A few years later, a decade-long desire of Riesz was fulfilled: to hold a chair at the University of Budapest. In Budapest Riesz lived a quiet, contented life. He was not completely satisfied with his new social standing, which was much different from what he had enjoyed between the two World Wars. But the changes did not disturb him too much. His new sport became swimming in Gellert Bath or in Palatinus Bath on Marguerite Island. He liked to read crime stories, and smoke cigars occasionally. He did not have many personal students. Edgar R Lorch, Bela Szokefalvi-Nagy, Tibor Radó, and Alfred Renyi (1921-1970) all became well known. He never refused anyone who came to him for help, but such a thing rarely happened. Nevertheless, he taught every mathematician in the world. Even today, all mathematicians learn from his elegant demonstrations and penetrating ideas.

  7. We present another extract from Edgar Raymond Lorch, taken from his paper "Szeged in 1934" [Amer. Math. Monthly 100 (1993), 219-230]:

  8. Riesz was a quiet man who sometimes may have given the impression that he was unapproachable. That impression was incorrect. In his later life in Szeged, he acted the part of a "vieux garçon," always pleasant with the people around him, usually deep in thought. People there could hardly have conceived that he was a mathematical genius. Local people (excluding university intimates) were amazed that someone had come all the way from New York to be close to him. Many times I was taken aside and asked, "Is he really that famous?" His lack of attention to others may have given the appearance of displeasure. He knew his own worth fully, and calmly steered his course. Undoubtedly he was troubled at having been kept in Kolozsvar and Szeged most of his life, not receiving recognition from his country by a call to Budapest until he was late in years. The people he came in contact with - excluding, of course, his mathematician colleagues - thought he was a strange, inoffensive man. To them he was a sort of teddy-bear - short, rather corpulent, unhurried in movement, slow, mumbly, and parsimonious in his speech. He could invariably be found, either in his easy chair at the Institute, at lunch at his table in the Hotel Tisza, or at supper in his club. His meals would last three hours - well, perhaps not always, but certainly two and a half. After eating copiously with his napkin under his chin, he would light up his cigar, have the waiter bring the day's newspapers, and plunge into a complete reading of at least five of them. From time to time a cloud of smoke would rise from behind his paper, or he would throw back his head, close his eyes, and after a pause mutter "Ja uj, I see now." Then back to the paper. Finally, he would rise and slowly, very slowly, walk to his apartment. During this walk, he would frequently stop and turn to me, his eyes blazing with pleasure. He would get close, probably because he was short-sighted, and push me back with his stomach. Then he would tell me, ever so briefly, about a new idea for a proof made "pour épater le bourgeois."


JOC/EFR May 2017

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