Obituary: David Arkell

David Arkell was a writer whose understanding and love of French culture made him the most sensitive biographer of Jules Laforgue and of Alain-Fournier to have published on either side of the Channel.

His Francophilia was partly determined by his background: his grandparents came from the Channel Islands, and his mother, Elizabeth, a well-known actress, was educated in France and England, as was her brother, the music critic Edwin Evans. Arkell's father, Reginald, was a prolific journalist, novelist and lyric writer, and between his parents' theatrical connections and his uncle's friendships with Stravinsky, Poulenc, Picasso and Diaghilev, Arkell enjoyed a stimulating childhood.

He visited France frequently in his youth, and went to live in Paris before the Second World War as a sub-editor for the Continental Daily Mail. His first book, a popular guide to the city, called Paris Today, was published in 1938 and remained in print for many years.

When the war broke out, Arkell tried to escape from Paris on a bicycle, but was apprehended by the Germans and interned for four years in the barracks at Saint-Denis, from the top floor of which he could see the "not very evocative Eiffel Tower". After the liberation of Paris, he came back to England and continued to work as a staff and freelance journalist and translator in London, and in 1958 published a novel set in the South of France, Portrait of Mimosa. In 1957 he had married a young Frenchwoman, Maguy Anglade, who was the fashion buyer for the trend-setting 21 Shop in Woollands, Knightsbridge. The marriage was tragically short-lived, as Maguy contracted cancer and died in 1962 at the age of 31. Arkell, an intensely private man, spoke of the period very little, and never remarried.

His career took a decisive turn when he lost his newspaper job and began to think of writing a biography of Jules Laforgue, the 19th-century symbolist post whose work was highly influential on T.S. Eliot and other modernist writers. While he was researching the life, Arkell worked in close association with the editors of Laforgue's Complete Works, which were then in preparation. His obsessive interest in his subject and tenacity over following up even the most unpromising leads paid off when Arkell discovered the identity of Laforgue's English wife, Leah Lee, and found her grave in Teignmouth. It was a significant contribution to Laforgue scholarship, although Arkell was both too modest, and valued too highly his position as an outsider, to press his own claims as a scholar.

After the publication of Looking for Laforgue in 1979, Arkell turned his attention to Henri Alain-Fournier, the author of Le Grand Meaulnes, who died in action in the First World War. His book, Alain-Fournier: a brief life (1986) was another extraordinarily intense and absorbing biography, demonstrating Arkell's gift of sympathy and imaginative engagement with his subject.

He had a remarkable memory for small and telling detail, and was especially sensitive to the importance of place in writers' lives. Walking around London with him was always memorable; every street, church or hotel had its literary connection or bizarre secret, from Tissot to Whitman to Zola to Katharine Mansfield. For the past 20 years, Arkell had been contributing a series of biographical articles to the literary quarterly PN Review which showed his encyclopaedic knowledge of literary London and ingenuity as a sleuth. The titles of these charming pieces, which were collected in Ententes Cordiales (1989) give some idea of his approach: "Zola and the Lost Hairpins", "Villiers Comes to Town", "The Candlesticks of R. Radiguet", "When the Commune came to Fitzrovia". His last article for the magazine, "Stendhal as a Lion in Love", published in December, reveals how the climax of Stendhal's long-maturing relationship with Guilia Rinieri coincided with the beginning of the composition of La Chartreuse de Parme. It shows Arkell's typical concern not with what writers may be trying to hide or reveal of themselves in their work, but of what motivates them in a subtler way. As a biographer he never set out to prove or disprove a personal theory, but to get as clear and factual a picture as possible, and let it tell its own story, or not.

David Arkell was extraordinarily generous with his time and advice, and entered into the spirit of other people's research as energetically as his own. His tiny flat in Covent Garden, which retained an air of Sixties chic, was the most delightful destination. He would emerge from the minute kitchen with a tray of tea and cream cakes in a gold-ribboned patisserie box and sit down with relish to discuss the latest news from 1875, essentially a romantic in his life as well as his work.

When I returned from a Japanese prison in 1945, writes Ronald Searle, David Arkell had recently returned from four years in a German prison camp in France. We met at the offices of the magazine London Opinion. David had found a job there as a sub-editor and I was trying to sell them bread-and-butter drawings. We immediately became close friends.

He seemed to have quite a cluster of girlfriends in the theatre having been more or less born in a green-room. As a consequence he always had a batch of first-night tickets in his pocket. He would generously keep one for me and, as a newcomer to the Big City, it was very exotic to be present in David's erudite company at the opening of Oklahoma!, or the premiere of the season of Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris.

The friendship that began then continued uninterrupted, at the rate of a letter or two a week after I left England until, recently, he suffered the massive stroke that ended his life.

David was always amused that Poetry Review called him their "literary sleuth". He revelled in wandering off to Grenoble, for example, in the hope of discovering what Stendhal had for breakfast on the Tuesday before he sent his boots for repair. Or he would nose around the rue Monsieur le Prince in Paris, hoping to spot a mislaid graffiti by Jules Laforgue, in case he might want to bring his biography of him up to date. He was thrilled when Alain-Fournier's bones were finally identified and decently laid to rest.

David's intellectual curiosity and his investigations into the "Avant Siecle" French literary field, his great love, belonged to an almost lost era of peaceful, unhurried scholarship in which it is as important to battle over the precise placing of a comma in a translation of Laforgue's word-juggling poetry as it is to look out of the bedroom window of Stendhal's Aunt Elizabeth to see what she might have seen of the Place Granette in Grenoble.

David had what might be called a quiet authority. That, allied to the nose of a determined bloodhound and a very readable style, placed him in the front rank of that special band of biographical researchers who enrich our knowledge of great writers through an unquenchable thirst for hidden detail.

For over half a century David would set off on his adventures of literary discovery from his base in Endell Street with all the sustained excitement and enthusiasm of an ethnologist seeking out an as yet unrecorded tribal custom. For 50 years we met and exchanged letters. It was a great privilege for me to be admitted to his special world.

David Arkell, journalist, translator and biographer: born Weybridge, Surrey 23 August 1913; married 1957 Maguy Anglade (died 1962); died London 3 April 1997.