Obituary: Professor Leonard Forster

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The Independent Online
Leonard Forster was one of the best known and most distinguished German scholars of his generation, an internationally respected figure in German and Renaissance studies. He was a comparatist, not in any institutionalised sense, but in the awareness that literatures and cultures interrelate and that little is to be gained by studying them in isolation.

By aptitude and inclination a splendid linguist, he was as much at home in Renaissance Italian and French, neo-Latin, Dutch, later Czech, as he was in German, the language and subject which he professed. Thus Forster was one of that significant generation of Baroque scholars who broke with the national approach, so much favoured by the German school between the wars, and set this branch of studies on an international footing.

Yet Forster was a Cambridge man through and through. After Marlborough, he came up to Trinity Hall to read Modern Languages. German studies were then, if not in their infancy, certainly not the established subject they are today. Forster remembered as an undergraduate attending the funeral of the first Schroder professor, Karl Breul, little imagining that he was to be the fifth holder of that chair.

His real mentor was Trevor Jones, and it is a measure of Forster's linguistic capacities that the two of them first planned the great (and alas unfinished) dictionary that Jones later tackled single- handed. He once said that his failure to gain a First (having spent too much time on Italian) was the sole reason for his decision to embark on a German doctorate. German universities were, however, going through the rigours of political Gleichschaltung, and Forster, as a Lektor first at Leipzig, then at Konigsberg, quickly became aware of its perils.

It was at Konigsberg that he saw the eminent Renaissance scholar Paul Hankamer hounded out of office by the Nazis. In the relative security of Switzerland, from 1936 to 1938, he studied for the doctorate on Georg Weckherlin in England that he gained in 1938. In Basle, too, he met his wife, Jeanne, his companion and mainstay for nearly 60 years of happy marriage. Being the linguist he was, Forster spoke Baseler Duutsch like a native.

The war years saw him as a naval officer, eventually with the rank of lieutenant-commander, not on the high seas but in that high-powered backwater, Bletchley Park, engaged in intelligence work the significance of which has emerged in Sir Harry Hinsley's and others' account of code-cracking and Enigma. Bletchley proved to be a forcing ground for German studies: from there, the experts swarmed out to fill university chairs. Forster was no exception.

After a brief period as a lecturer in Cambridge and Fellow of Selwyn, the college to which he maintained his loyalty for more than half a century, he moved to the chair at University College London. His tenure there, from 1950 to 1961, was without doubt the climax of his career and a high point of teaching and research in German studies nationally. His inaugural lecture, The Temper of Seventeenth Century German Literature, remains to this day the finest short statement of the paradox of vanitas and Lebensfreude underlying that period. Many would wish that it might have been expanded into the monograph we hoped he would write; but he preferred shorter compass and briefer focus.

In London, too, he gave those memorable lectures on modern German literature (electrifying his hearers by reading aloud the newly published Todesfuge by Paul Celan) which attracted an audience from well outside the confines of University College or the academic world.

Forster returned in 1961 to Cambridge to a somewhat muted triumph. He soon learnt, as have many before and since, that Cambridge can envelop and bind as well as offer scholarly satisfaction. German studies nevertheless flourished during the period of his tenure of the chair. It is perhaps significant that his years as Schroder professor were also a time of visiting professorships, in Germany, in the Netherlands, in Canada and elsewhere.

His real triumph was the presidency of the International Association for Germanic Studies (IVG) from 1970 to 1975, where his elegance, his urbanity, in short, his sheer style, prevailed in deliberations where entrenched opinions and ideologies might otherwise have raged. At the international conference held at Cambridge in 1975, over which he presided, extreme opinions were lost in the centuries-old atmosphere which he knew and loved so well. A nice personal touch was the creche which his wife Jeanne organised for the children of those attending. He was a well-known figure at the German centre for Renaissance studies, the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbuttel, later a kind of senior citizen in that international place of scholarship and letters.

Forster's studies on Petrarchism, on neo-stoicism, on the Faust legend, on 17th-century Anglo-German literary relations, might not sit easily with his interest in nonsense (but "significant" nonsense) poetry and in the most recent literature coming from the old Federal Republic. Yet it was part of his breadth, his sense of responsibility for the whole subject, the awareness, almost lost today, that a German scholar cannot confine himself to narrow compartments (or forget that he is studying texts by real authors).

Who else but Forster could have produced that Penguin anthology, The Penguin Book of German Verse (1957), which is still an important source for students and laymen alike, with its range from the Hildebrandslied to Celan? Who else could have received a Festschrift called From Wolfram and Petrarch to Goethe and Grass?

Leonard Wilson Forster, German scholar: born 30 March 1913; Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge 1938-50, 1961-97; University Lecturer in German, Cambridge University 1947-50, Schroder Professor of German 1961-79 (Emeritus); Professor of German, University College London 1950-61; President, International Association for German Studies (IVG) 1970-75; FBA 1976; married 1939 Jeanne Billeter (one son, two daughters); died Cambridge 18 April 1997.