Professor Malcolm Bowie

French scholar of brio - author of 'Proust Among the Stars' - and Master of Christ's College, Cambridge
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The Independent Online

Malcolm McNaughtan Bowie, French scholar: born Aldeburgh, Suffolk 5 May 1943; Assistant Lecturer in French, University of East Anglia 1967-69; Assistant Lecturer in French, Cambridge University 1969-72, Lecturer 1972-76, Honorary Professor of French and Comparative Literature 2003-07; Fellow, and Director of Studies, Clare College, Cambridge 1969-76, Tutor 1971-76; Professor of French Language and Literature, London University 1976-92, Head, Department of French, Queen Mary College 1976-89, Founding Director, Institute of Romance Studies 1989-92, Chairman, Advisory Council, Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies 2004-07; General Editor, French Studies 1980-87; General Editor, Cambridge Studies in French 1980-95; President, Association of University Professors of French 1982-84; Editor, Journal of the Institute of Romance Studies 1992; Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature, Oxford University 1992-2002; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1992-2002; FBA 1993; President, Society for French Studies 1994-96; President, British Comparative Literature Association 1998-2004; Director, European Humanities Research Centre 1998-2002; FRSL 1999; Master, Christ's College, Cambridge 2002-07; married 1979 Alison Finch (one son, one daughter); died Cambridge 28 January 2007.

Malcolm Bowie's academic life was one of inventive devotion to French Studies, to interdisciplinarity and to the arts more generally, gloriously expressed in his critical writing. His preoccupations were 19th- and 20th-century French verse, psychoanalysis and literature, and - his spiritual companion - Proust. He held a chair in French at London University from 1976 to 1992, when he was appointed Marshal Foch Professor of French Literature at Oxford. In 2002 he became Master of Christ's College, Cambridge.

Bowie was educated at Woodbridge School in Suffolk and at Edinburgh and Sussex universities. His first teaching post, in French, was at the University of East Anglia from 1967 to 1969, just as the subject was being established there, under Professor Haydn Mason. At UEA Bowie initiated those specialisms that were to preoccupy him for the rest of his life, and he also refined a style of teaching that drew students deep into a topic, by being at once effortless and challenging, teasing out and shaping various responses to textual exploration.

In 1969, with his pioneering doctoral thesis on Henri Michaux all but complete, he moved to a lectureship in French at Cambridge and a fellowship at Clare College, where, working with Professors Alison Fairlie and Lloyd Austin, he established a critical reputation and scholarly authority.

What added to that authority was the elegant and compelling ease of his critical writing, already apparent in his published doctorate, Henri Michaux: a study of his literary works (1973). One might claim that this first book is already the work of a supreme stylist, and that would be true. But it would not quite convey that the beauty of Bowie's writing grows not from editorial attention to polish, but from the quality of his understanding of his subject, its subtlety, its sympathetic intimacy. Bowie's writing, of itself, urges us to be perceptive and delighted readers, and it is this concern to sensitise us to verbal texture which informs the principal published fruit of these Cambridge years, Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult (1978).

The book's epigraph from Così fan tutte and the passing references to Gainsborough and Bridget Riley remind us that Bowie's critical consciousness found it unnatural to operate within segregated disciplines - as if we were merely supplying ourselves with an excuse to stop short, to constrain our experience, to disclaim critical responsibility beyond certain safe points. In his work there is nothing decorative or exhibitionist about interdisciplinary thinking, merely an intenser and fuller engagement of our intellectual and perceptual faculties, and a correspondingly greater capacity for aesthetic pleasure.

By the time the Mallarmé work was published, Bowie had already taken up a chair in French in London University, at Queen Mary College, which he held until 1992, and which brought with it the headship of the department.

In 1989 he founded the Institute of Romance Studies at London University, becoming first the Director and then an Honorary Senior Research Fellow. Quite apart from the institute's significance as a research centre, as an agency designed to foster dialogue between scholars and between languages, and as a defence against the incipient erosion of modern language frameworks within the broader education system, it bore witness to what was both visionary and quick-acting in Bowie's approach to administrative responsibility. He combined strength of purpose with sure-footed and sensitive diplomacy.

During this period at QMC, Bowie took on the general editorship of French Studies, the general editorship of Cambridge Studies in French, the presidency of the Association of University Professors of French, and the editorship of the Journal of the Institute of Romance Studies.

But these commitments did not prevent him from pursuing his principal research preoccupation of these years, the dialogic and often disobliging interactions between psychoanalysis and writing, Freud and Lacan as fiction, Proust as theory. From Freud, Proust and Lacan: theory as fiction (1987), through Lacan (1991) to Psychoanalysis and the Future of Theory (1993), Bowie watched conceptual frameworks lose their clear outlines under the insidious pressures of narrativisation, rhetoric, memorable image-making, and reviewers responded enthusiastically to this heady mix of erudition and critical brio.

Bowie left London in 1992 for the Marshal Foch Chair of French Literature at Oxford and a professorial fellowship at All Souls College. His 10-year tenure of this post occurred at a time when universities were engaged in implementing complex procedures of accountability and the research assessment regime. But such impositions were not likely to deflect Bowie from the longer and broader view; in 1994 he organised the establishment of the European Humanities Research Centre and its affiliated publishing enterprise, Legenda, becoming Director in 1998.

Many readers of Bowie will have a special affection for Proust Among the Stars, published in 1998 and awarded the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2001. Although Bowie describes this as an introductory volume, written "in schematic and accessible form", it is, in fact, a distillation of accumulated, long-pondered, critical wisdom about a writer who seemed able to draw out of Bowie what was most precious to him and in him. Here, Bowie is the consummate moraliste and himself an indispensable spiritual companion.

These Oxford years saw the culmination of his work as a doctoral supervisor, encouraging in his students not only the adventurousness and fearlessness of his own thinking, but attention to the revelations of textual detail, and scrupulous scholarship, without interfering with their intellectual independence; there are many academic careers that have prospered thanks to this careful and caring guidance.

In 2002, two years before the diagnosis of illness, Bowie became the 36th Master of Christ's College, Cambridge. He continued to participate in the worlds of French and comparative literature - publishing, in 2003, A Short History of French Literature, with Sarah Kay and Terence Cave; and he remained President of the British Comparative Literature Association. But his appointment also gave him more opportunity to indulge his expertise in music and the visual arts. He had already provided occasional programme notes for Covent Garden, and had written on Liszt, on Mallarmé and Debussy, and was to write on Proust and the Italian painters; his enthusiasms found a wider outlet in seminar and conference papers, supervisory advice and animated conversation.

And it was to these sides of his learning that the academic world appealed, when, as his illness progressed, it wished to honour him: in December 2005, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge organised a conference on "Why Art Matters" - Bowie gave a paper on "The Fate of Pleasure". In October 2006, the British Comparative Literature Association held a colloquium entitled "Listening to Sing: writing and music" at Bowie's first academic home, the University of East Anglia, a colloquium which, with characteristic courage and selflessness, he managed to attend. His last piece of published writing was an extended, sumptuous review in the TLS of books on the German Lied.

Malcolm Bowie responded to the incessant demands upon him with patient resilience and indefatigable helpfulness, and his friendship was unfailing. With his wife, Professor Alison Finch, he shared a formidable intellectual partnership and a hearth of vitalising hospitality.

Clive Scott