Professor Richard Bales: Leader in Proust studies

Richard Martin Bales, French scholar: born London 21 June 1946; Lecturer in French, Queen's University Belfast 1973-90, Reader in French 1990-96, Professor of Modern French Literature 1996-2007; died Belfast 17 December 2007
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The Independent Online

Richard Bales was an inspirational university teacher of French at Queen's University Belfast and a researcher who enjoyed an international reputation in the field of Proust studies. A member of the prestigious Equipe Proust in Paris working on the transcription of Proust's manuscripts, he bridged the research communities in his field in France, the United Kingdom and Ireland, bringing scholars together in a generous, inclusive and unfussy way. He was to have been the keynote speaker at an international conference on Proust at London University, which got under way on the day of his death.

Born in Wimbledon a year after the Second World War (his father had served for much of the war in North Africa) Bales studied at Reigate Grammar School in Surrey before going on to Exeter University, where he took a BA in French and German. After a year's postgraduate study at the University of Kansas, where he wrote a thesis on the late 19th-century composer and contemporary of Marcel Proust, Reynaldo Hahn, he moved to King's College, London. There, under the expert supervision of Professor John Cocking, he completed a PhD on medieval influences and resonances in the work of Marcel Proust.

Bales was to go on to publish several books on Proust, his first, the critically acclaimed Proust and the Middle Ages (1975), becoming a standard work of reference in Proust studies. A second book, Bricquebec: prototype d' "A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs" (1989), published by Oxford University Press, delivered a painstaking and lucid case-study of the French novelist's notoriously complex methods of composition. And in his editing of The Cambridge Companion to Proust (2001) he astutely brought together the work of leading contributors in the field.

Here, as with another collective volume, Challenges of Translation in French Literature: studies and poems in honour of Peter Broome (2005), his editorial style was characteristically consensual, a reflection of his manner more generally which was collegial and wholly unaffected. In the broader field of French literature, he was the author of Persuasion in the French Personal Novel (1996), which explored 19th-century French prose fiction.

For generations of students of French at Queen's, Belfast, where he began his academic career in 1973 after a brief spell at the University of Paris (Nanterre), he was an institution in himself. Convivial and shunning formality, he conveyed to his students and colleagues an infectious enthusiasm for literature, painting, music and architecture. In a memorable professorial inaugural lecture, he delivered a rallying cry for the power of literature and the arts generally.

Beyond the remit of his professional academic work, Bales continued to be drawn to subjects that were weighty and complex. A deeply knowledgeable aficionado of the works of Wagner and Bruckner, he also studiously sought out the recondite in the classical music repertory. Yet if these high cultural tastes were fervently cultivated, they never confined him to the ivory tower.

He loved Paris, welcomed his friends there, had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city and its streets, and indulged the pleasures of the unobtrusive but always observant flneur. The voluminous tomes of the French national railway timetable that were invariably to hand in his Paris flat allowed him to plot his annual series of summer day-excursions to every corner of the country. His knowledge of its cathedrals, regional museums and architecture and indeed of the French and other national rail networks was unsurpassed. (He once told a bemused friend who had travelled in blissful ignorance through a deserted Limerick Junction station that it had one of the most intricate rail layouts you could find.)

With an acute eye for detail and his wide-ranging knowledge of art, he was a regular winner of the champagne prize that came with The Independent's weekly painting competition. He was the antithesis of narrow conventionalism and his tastes were eclectic: he enthused about Belgian literature (writing on the Symbolist Georges Rodenbach and others), cuisine and art nouveau, loved Romania, and delighted in anything that improved public transport schemes, including Mayor Bertrand Delanoë's recently introduced bicycle-hire scheme in Paris.

For his retirement, which he did not live to see, he had planned, among many other things, a typically unspectacular literary pilgrimage to the East End of London in search of the urban itinerary so movingly described in Austerlitz, the work of the contemporary German novelist W.G. Sebald, whose merits he so perceptively and passionately identified.

Edward Hughes