Idris Parry: Scholar of German literature

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Idris Parry was a noted scholar of German literature, writer and broadcaster. After 15 years as a lecturer at Bangor, he was appointed to a Chair in German at Manchester University, where he stayed until his retirement in 1977. His literary interests were immensely wide-ranging, but his attention was chiefly directed towards Goethe and his contemporary Heinrich von Kleist, and the classics of German modernism such as Kafka, Thomas Mann, Rilke and Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Through his broadcasts on the BBC Third Programme in the 1960s and 1970s, a much wider audience came to be familiar with these writers and their ideas. Most of his published work grew out of these broadcast essays, many of which were collected in the volume Speak Silence (1988).

Parry was born in Bangor in 1916. His first language was Welsh, and not only did he retain a superb command of that language throughout his life, but a delight in all language, which came across in his spoken English and in the mastery of German, which he acquired at school. He excelled academically, at Friars Grammar School in Bangor and at the University College of North Wales, where he took first class honours in German. He was also awarded colours in rowing and rugby. It was there that he met his wife, Eirwen Lloyd Jones.

He was called up in 1940, and with his command of German he was immediately seconded to the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office. By the end of the Second World War he was in charge of a team of 30 specialists interrogating prisoners of war.

Parry returned to his academic career in 1947 and became recognised as a leading interpreter of German literature, so that he was highly recommended as a candidate for the second Chair of German in Manchester in 1963. His strength was in interpretation, and it was his imaginative insights into literary works, especially those which explored the bounds of rationality, that formed the core of his broadcasts and essays. He was immensely perceptive in seeing links in ideas across cultures, convinced that all things flowed and were in some way connected.

He had the gift of penetrating to the core of a work, and of conveying his ideas to students, radio listeners and his readers. Everyone who met him or heard him was struck by his mellifluous speaking voice and the easy eloquence of his delivery. He took language and literature seriously, and was meticulous in his attention to detail, but he was also remarkably unstuffy and detested pretension and pomposity – it was difficult to walk down the corridor of the department in Manchester in his time without hearing a few of his jokes.

Through his teaching, writing and broadcasting he acquired a wide circle of friends. The novelist Stevie Davies was a student of his in Manchester and her 2002 novel The Element of Water drew on inspirations born of him; she describes him as an inspirational teacher who offered insight into the way the intellectual and ethical world of German poets and thinkers had been transgressed by the heinous machine of National Socialism.

The German writer W.G. (Max) Sebald was a lector in Manchester in the 1960s and wrote a dissertation under Parry's supervision on the expressionist dramatist Carl Sternheim. It is tempting to think that the marvellous portrayal of North Wales in Sebald's last novel, Austerlitz, went back to their conversations, but Idris doubted this. Philip Pullman, at the end of the trilogy His Dark Materials, acknowledges his intellectual debt to Idris Parry's translation of Kleist's essay "On the Marionette Theatre" (first published in Hand to Mouth and Other Essays, 1981) – a tour de force which grapples successfully with some of the most difficult German prose ever written.

The same linguistic skill can be seen in his outstanding translation of Kafka's The Trial, published by Penguin in 1994. In the 1960s he met the writer Elias Canetti and they became close friends; it was on Parry's initiative that Canetti, who had lived in Manchester before the First World War, received an honorary doctorate from Manchester University in 1975, six years before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

Among other things they went on a week's walking holiday in Wales – although as Canetti's legs were not really up to long walks they spent much time in pubs where Canetti became fascinated by the Welsh language around them. Parry's essay on Canetti's Auto-da-fé (1935), "Attitudes to Power" (originally in Hand to Mouth, republished in Speak Silence), offers penetrating insights into what has been seen as one of the seminal novels of the 20th century.

Idris Parry saw himself as being "in the business of explaining the inexplicable" and thought "one should realise that's a magical and wonderful thing". A brief glimpse into his essays shows how well he succeeded.

Martin Durrell

Idris Frederick Parry, German scholar: born Bangor, Caernarvonshire 5 December 1916; Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer, in German, University College of North Wales, Bangor 1947-63; Professor of German, Manchester University 1963-77; married 1941 Eirwen Lloyd Jones (died 1992; two daughters); died Frinton-on-Sea, Essex 25 January 2008.