Obituary: Peter Hoy

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Peter Charles Hoy, teacher and publisher: born Aldershot 13 June 1934; married 1958 Dorothy Horleston (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1975), 1976 Alysoun Henschel (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1988); died Oxford 16 July 1993.

PETER HOY, scholar, bibliographer, writer, translator and teacher, was born into an army family in Aldershot in 1934. The parents took Peter and his sister on an army posting to India for a couple of years, but returned at the outbreak of war. It was decided they should move to Prestatyn, relatively safer than Aldershot. His brother was born there after the war. Peter attended Rhyl Grammar School and proceeded to the University of Wales (Bangor), where he achieved a First in French. He did his Masters thesis on Julien Green, an author who remained close to his heart and mind and in whose diaries he is mentioned with approbation. A serious work on Green was one of several books Peter Hoy was exceptionally well qualified to write but never did, despite the urgings of many people.

In Leicester, where he taught at the university from 1963 till 1967, Hoy met Rigby Graham and other devotees of private-press books and fine printing, which remained an abiding passion throughout his life; he built up a fine collection including books in every possible shape and was on the editorial board of the annual journal Private Press Books from 1964 till 1990: his particular responsibility was listings, which dovetailed with another great passion, the art and science of bibliography. In later years he became well-known in specialised academic circles for his scholarly and creative work in this field. He was associated with Bill Alden's annual critical bibliography French Twenty for 30 years, editing it for many of them. For the French publisher Minard, he edited a series of bibliographies, writing several himself, including those on Julien Gracq and Camus. At the drop of an urgent phone call he would supply a mini-bibliography immediately.

Hoy wrote and spoke French like an angel. I once showed a typically brief text of his to a great French poet who was astonished to learn that these words had been written in a second language. But such texts, whether in English or French, were rare. The problem with bibliography and teaching was that they were plausible and honourable excuses for not writing - not writing critical books and, above all, not writing the poems in prose, short metafictions and other texts he had it in him to compose and badly wanted to compose. I published at least three of his short fictions in my postcard series printed by the late Derek Maggs. Among Hoy's masters were Maurice Blanchot, Borges and Beckett, and I surmise that he was inhibited rather than inspired by the example of these great writers; inhibited too by his qualities of heart, in particular his extraordinary gifts as a caring teacher and friend. Perhaps he was not ruthless enough to deliver as a writer.

I got to know Hoy in 1968, early in his Oxford career, after reading an advertisement he placed in John Cotton's periodical Priapus, inviting contributions to Fishpaste and other periodicals. Fishpaste was a typically enchanting Hoy/Graham product: a series of illustrated postcards, hand- printed, and hand-coloured by several people including Dorothy, his first wife, with texts which included Peter's own translations and mini- essays. Peter Hoy was a superb translator of the prose of poets, especially Francis Ponge and Rene Char.

An exchange of letters between us led to the suggestion that he, I and Brenda Rudolf (my then wife) begin a magazine devoted to poetry in translation: The Journals of Pierre Menard, the forerunner of the Menard Press. For 25 years we were in constant touch as friends, colleagues and mutual advisers. We would give each other support when the private life was dodgy and I would advise him about matters within my more mundane professional competence and regularly plead with him to reduce his commitments and concentrate on what he said he wanted to do. But he could be a dreadful procrastinator and this led us to sever his formal links with Menard Press, thus enabling us to remain friends. His procrastination was surely due to over-commitment of a self-sabotaging kind.

Hoy's entire time at Oxford was spent as fellow and tutor in French at Merton College where he did more than his fair share of administrative work, culminating in his election as Fellow Librarian of Merton College library, one of the great libraries in Europe. His brilliance and deep involvement as a teacher became legendary and I like to think the feedback from former students sometimes consoled him in darker moments in the desert of non-writing, in the jungle of bibliographical minutiae. Several of them, including his second wife, have told me of his inspirational work, not only in literature with its tempting subject matter but in proses and translation where he would bring to life language as such. Many of his students went on to teach others and their own books are part of his legacy.

In addition to being a devoted and active father, a loved companion, an affectionate friend, a bibliographer non-pareil and an inspirational teacher, he was a loyal member of the college he served for 30 years. This last relationship was not always easy. If this big-hearted man sometimes came across as undiplomatic and bloody-minded in committee, at high table and elsewhere, it was because his total integrity plus his emotional, reasoned and principled commitment to a certain idea of higher education and the proper way to secure it, were not always reciprocated.

Hoy made many trips to France, to research in the Bibliotheque Nationale and to work with his editors. He also researched in the archives of publishers like Gallimard, where he unearthed texts by Camus and others, anonymous blurbs and publicity material ('prieres d'inserer') of great interest whose provenance he authenticated. I introduced him to writers of later generations than his old masters: poets like Edmond Jabes and Yves Bonnefoy; and Claude Royet-Journoud and Anne-Marie Albiach, whose magazine Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwillantysiliogogogoch he published over several years. Jabes was one of several distinguished contributors.

Peter Hoy's two marriages, to fine women of different generations and styles, produced two pairs of daughters and a grandson. The end of his second marriage saw a very different Peter from the one at the end of his first. The second time round, having weathered a quadruple heart bypass operation in 1980, he lost his nerve and remained lonely and ill at ease until by the grace of providence he met Tyler Jo Smith, an archaeologist who was his devoted companion for the last two years of his life.

(Photograph and Illustration omitted)