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Obituary: Pierre Rouve

PIERRE ROUVE was a master of several trades: interpreter, diplomat, art critic, semiotician, BBC World Service broadcaster, film producer/director, translator, university lecturer. He arrived in England from his native Bulgaria in 1947, and became well known in various subcultures of his adopted country, depending on which of his many hats he was wearing at any given moment. But in Bulgaria he was a celebrity, and one of its most famous emigres or exiles, along with his sister Dora Vallier, Julia Kristeva, Tsvetan Todorov and Elias Canetti. On learning of Rouve's death, the President of Bulgaria, Peter Stoyanov, wrote to Rouve's wife and daughter: "Your husband and father will have his place in the history of Bulgaria."

Rouve used to joke that he was a professional Bulgarian, but this was a day-job persona, an image constructed by an exile in the classic mode. Inside Bulgaria his was the voice (literally so, over the air) of freedom, tolerance and democracy, incarnating these eternal values during the darkest days of the Cold War. But this liberal intellectual was never a hardline ideologue and after the fall of Communism he called for moderation and tolerance towards individuals associated with the ancien regime.

Broadcasting regularly for 50 years as a freelance ("a spiritual ambassador" in the words of Bulgaria's Minister of Culture), he may have had only one long-service peer at the World Service, the far less extrovert but equally intellectual Anatole Goldberg of the Russian Section. They both embodied a public service broadcasting culture whose heyday may, sadly, have passed.

Goldberg, however, unlike Rouve, was primarily a political commentator. One could more appropriately compare Rouve with Alistair Cooke, broadcasting to his home country from abroad, but for obvious reasons Cooke's listeners do not turn to him for the assertion of fundamental values denied at home.

While Rouve did share something with these two great broadcasters, his famous broadcasts - in which he discussed cultural and social issues, literature and art - were a projection of his own highly individual voice. Like Arthur Koestler and George Steiner he was a grand master of haute vulgarisation. From 1969 till 1982 he also broadcast on France-Culture.

What underlay every word Rouve spoke - in private and in public - were the language, attitude, education and general approach of central European intellectuals, the kind of emigre figures often found in, and perhaps more at home in, Paris or Vienna, Edinburgh or Berlin. In England such figures, especially if their style is perceived as being eloquent in an old-fashioned way, are sometimes dismissed as pseudo- intellectuals - but this term is often enough a synonym for intellectual as such. Rouve himself saw England as the embodiment of civilisation, France as the embodiment of culture. His younger sister, the famous art critic Dora Vallier, lived in France. He always said he was the "brouillon" (draft) for her.

By this I suspect he meant that she was - in Isaiah Berlin's terminology - a hedgehog, who knew one big thing, namely art, and spent her entire life writing major works of art history and criticism. He, by contrast, was a fox, and a fox knows many things. Thus the self-deprecatory remark about being a draft, a practice run, for his equally brilliant sister, raises a big question: was he - in his own eyes although certainly not in the world's eyes - unfulfilled in some way? Answer, of course, comes there none. For he, being himself ("such as into himself at last he is changed", to adapt Mallarme), could not help doing many things. It was the nature (for which one can read culture) of the man.

The man was brilliant and charming, seductive and handsome, and in 1962 he met his perfect match, in the beautiful and talented young educationist Sonia Joyce. In his movie incarnation, he directed James Stewart in Stranger in the House in 1968, was Antonioni's associate director on Blow-Up (1966), and worked with Anatole de Grunwald on many films. He directed his close friend Jonathan Griffin's translation of Claudel's Partage de Midi at the Ipswich Playhouse in 1972, starring Ben Kingsley and Annie Firbank, who were both far less well known than they are today. London buddies descended in a hired coach. Rouve also directed plays for the legendary Q Theatre at Kew Bridge in the Forties and Fifties.

One grouse his friends have against him is that much of his best writing - a la Coleridge and Isaiah Berlin - was spoken, whether at public meetings, in the club at Bush House, or hosting boozy smoke-filled dinner parties in his Chelsea house (with pictures by Poliakoff, Vieira da Silva and Arp on the wall). Like other intellectuals of his ilk, he could compose fully fledged impromptu sentences and paragraphs, at the drop of a hat - or a brandy.

I shall never forget one occasion in King's College London, after someone had given a prepared lecture on some topic or other, when Rouve stood up from the floor and made a critique of the lecture which left lesser mortals breathless. Oh, the unwritten books! His studio was in Markham Square, a short drink from his house: Bulgarian plum brandy and fags, books in many languages (he spoke at least six), mementos of theatre and movies, memories and icons (a traditionalist unbeliever, he is being buried according to the Bulgarian Orthodox Christian rite). Rouve belonged to a classically European community of the spirit, and it is good to know that his widow intends this studio to house a foundation which will keep this spirit, his spirit, alive.

A book which was written - in French - was his extraordinarily original study of J.M.W. Turner, Turner: etude de structures, published in France in 1980. This text, which avoids the opposing sins of esotericism and populism, was praised to the sky by such eminent figures as Claude Levi- Strauss, Roman Jakobson ("a daring and powerful attempt to see a painter's development and achievement in the light of sign theory, philosophy, psychology and cultural history") and Jean Starobinski. Rouve also published many shorter texts on art and semiotics, a characteristic title being: "From Opteme to Sight Sentence: towards a visual grammar" (1983).

The son of first-generation post-Liberation teachers, Rouve received his early education at an Italian primary school in Sofia and at the Augustinian Fathers' Lycee in Plovdiv - where he received the school prize from Cardinal Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII - and then attended university in Sofia (studying for an appropriately functional law degree in order to please his widowed mother, although he never became a lawyer) and Rome. He did postgraduate research in Venice and Paris.

During his military service he had the taxing job of interpreter for the army orchestra. From 1938 till 1946 he was a professor at the University of Sofia, and also spent some time as a diplomat. He taught at universities throughout Europe, as well as in North America and Mexico. He was Vice- President of the International Association of Art Critics and President of the International Jury of the Rijeka Biennale of Drawings.

Perhaps the most famous poem of Wallace Stevens, Rouve's favourite English- language poet, is "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird". Substitute Rouve for blackbird and you have an idea of his manifold nature. Another poem of Stevens, "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction", ends with the phrase "he . . . lives on the bread of faithful speech". Faithful speech was Pierre Rouve's sustenance. We can ask no more of a European intellectual or, indeed, of a human being.

Peter Christoff Ouvaliev (Pierre Rouve), art critic, broadcaster and film director: born Sofia 12 January 1915; married 1962 Sonia Joyce (one daughter); died London 11 December 1998.