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

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own