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?’