Alan Raitt

b. 1930 – d. 2006

Alan Raitt was one of the most distinguished post-war British scholars of 19th-century French literature, particularly noted for his work on Flaubert and on Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. A Special Lecturer in French Literature at Oxford University from 1976, and then from 1979 Reader, he was appointed to a personal chair in 1992. The novel with which Julian Barnes made his reputation, Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), is indebted to his undergraduate studies, when Raitt was his college tutor.

Alan Raitt remembered – by Julian Barnes

At a party in Oxford for the publication of his Festschrift (The Process of Art, Clarendon Press, 1988), Alan Raitt thanked the contributors grouped around him and observed wryly, ‘Now I know what it will be like to read my obituary.’ It was a typical remark, truthful, friendly yet faintly unsettling to those present, who had expected an easier ride; some of us briefly felt like undergraduates again. Since Alan was a distinguished Flaubertian, his reaction might also have been an oblique reference to Flaubert’s comment at a celebratory dinner offered him by friends. On that occasion a guest had attempted to place a laurel wreath on the novelist’s brow, only for it to slip down around his neck: ‘I feel like a tombstone,’ he observed gloomily.

Alan Raitt, who was made a fellow of the RSL in 1971, published widely on nineteenth-century French literature. He wrote substantial critical biographies of Mérimée (1970) and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1981), whose complete works he also co¬edited for the Pléiade; but always, like one returning home, he came back to Flaubert. In his later years he wrote increasingly about the Master –  The Originality of Madame Bovary (2002), Flaubert and the Theatre(2004), Gustavus Flaubertus Bourgeoisophobous (2005) – and he was working on a book about L’Education Sentimentale when he died. In letters he would often groan modestly about what he was up to. ‘As I check the text through, it seems to me to grow ever less interesting,’ he wrote to me of Flaubert and the Theatre, continuing cheerfully. ‘But I have an even duller book coming out any time now with Rodolfi of Amsterdam…’ Naturally, the text he was referring to showed only his typical freshness of response and insight – of the kind which Flaubert will always stir in those who do not tire of literature.

Alan’s great contribution to Flaubert studies, and his propagation in Britain and elsewhere of French thought and French literature, brought him the Grand Prix du rayonnement de la langue française from the Académie Française in 1987; he was also made an Officier, then Commandeur des Palmes Académiques. But he wore such honours lightly and unpompously; certainly his students were unaware of them. He was my tutor at Magdalen College for two years in the mid-Sixties. Even then there were distinguished professors around still ludicrously pronouncing French no better than Edward Heath. Alan’s French was as impeccable as his scholarship. His tutorial manner was rather private; kindly, yet with a nose for the bluff and fraud most students try on at some point. I remember once trying to wing it rather on the French Realist novel, and being brought up chasteningly with, ‘Which of Champfleury’s novels have you actually read?’

Fifteen years after I left, I asked if I could show him the draft of a novel I was working on. He agreed, and I took the typescript ofFlaubert’s Parrot up the same flight of stairs I had trod many times before, feeling as trepidatious and under¬prepared as I often had as a student. The room, with its pale oak panelling, was quite unchanged – even the electric fire was as I remembered it – and so was Alan: the bushy-eyebrowed, smiling face, the shy yet straightforward manner, the encouraging yet exact response to what you put in front of him. His reaction to this unexpected late demand for another tutorial was as generous, frank and useful as it could possibly have been. He read the book as attentively as if he were examining a thesis; six pages of closely-typed notes soon arrived, full of suggestions about where to look and who else to approach; and I felt, perhaps, that I had finally passed some unspecified academic test in the way I had never really ¬done as a student. Since then, I have written many times on French subjects, and frequently found myself imagining the expression on his face – half a frown, half a smile  – as he read my words. When the news of his death arrived, I was selfishly wondering what he might make of a piece I had written for the 150th anniversary of the first serial publication of Madame Bovary: would he find it too cheeky, would he spot any mistakes, would its lèse-majesté displease him? And I had already solicited his help for a radio programme about Mérimée, planned for next year. There are many others who, like me, have long depended on his encyclopaedic knowledge and his swift response to the slightest request. Now we shall have to get along, less sure of ourselves, without him.