Obituary: Piers Gray

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The Independent Online
Piers Gray was one of the most gifted literary critics of his generation. He was also the most witty, erudite and perceptive of companions, someone whose vast learning and hard-won wisdom would as easily illuminate a cricket match as a poem, a social gathering as a philosophical thesis.

His father had alternated work as a pathologist between England and Canada and Gray started his studies in philosophy at Dalhousie University in Can-ada. Literature, however, was always his passion and F.R. Leavis the model for criticism. To Cam-bridge then he came and matriculated at Trinity College in 1967, where Theo Redpath was Director of Studies in English.

If his early perspective was a classic Leavisism which seemed anachronistic to fellow students in Cambridge of the late Sixties, this fundamental commitment to the analysis of the individual life expressed in language was soon to be philosophically deepened and historically enriched.

The assiduous undergraduate scholar had been little affected by either the politics or the culture of May 1968, but as a more relaxed graduate student his perspective broadened so that his investigation of T.S. Eliot's early philosophical idealism was informed by deep engagement with Walter Benjamin and the thought of Henri Bergson's meditations on matter and memory that was so vital to both the German thinker and Anglo-American poet.

The matter of his dissertation, supervised by Jeremy Prynne, was the central paradox of the idealist tradition in which Eliot was philosophically formed. How could one move from the incommunicable opacities of individual experience to the possibilities of historical and social being? Gray's dissertation, published as T.S. Eliot's Intellectual and Poetic Development 1909-1922 (Harvester, 1982), remains the best single introduction to Eliot's thought and its relation to the early poetry. It also makes clear that Eliot's Anglo-Catholic solution, which linked individual and society through the church, was simply unacceptable.

This unacceptability was made the more evident to Gray after he joined the English department of Hong Kong University at the beginning of 1977. The initial contact with Chinese culture was liberating, as was the immersion in a department where both language and linguistics were taken seriously. Eliot's Eurocentrism, once dismissed as intellectually untenable, was now perceived as politically wicked.

Gray turned to the problem of how an anti-Semitic American had come to speak for an Englishness which discounted the world. For Gray a major part of the answer was to be found in the First World War and the way in which Gray's own chosen ethnicity had foundered in the trenches. His unjustly neglected Marginal Men (Macmillan, 1991) examines through the disparate works of Ivor Gurney, Edward Thomas and J.R. Ackerley the kinds of emotional and spiritual impasses in which Englishness all but ended.

The impasses were, unfortunately, all too real for Gray himself. The early engagement with China turned to a sulky hopelessness, the pleasures of the languages and linguistic department, and in particular the presence of Roy Harris (who came from the Oxford chair of Linguistics), turned to despair at the grind of teaching English literature to students for whom English was a second language. And alcohol became his master.

The thought continued to develop that the methods of Leavisism were applied, with deep linguistic and historical knowledge across a range of text which would have appalled the Cambridge critic. Oscar Wilde's dialogue at his trial with the prosecuting counsel Edward Carson, Stalin's theory of linguistics, the use of language in American pulp fiction; all these were submitted to the most acute and brilliant analysis. But the work went largely unrecognised, the novels unpublished, the plays unperformed and Gray was finally invalided out of the university at the end of last year.

It would be simple to talk of a wasted life, but so to do would be to fall into the cliches of language Piers Gray so despised. He died just after leaving one close friend's party, and preparing to go to another, in the middle of sharing the joys of England's progress through Euro 96 with his beloved brother Simon and eagerly awaiting the arrival from Hong Kong of his devoted partner Annie Carver and a summer of cricket with his stepson Gordon.

Piers Michael Davidson Gray, English scholar: born London 26 May 1947; died London 28 June 1996.