OBITUARY: Professor Lloyd Austin

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The Independent Online
Lloyd Austin was an internationally revered figure in the field of French Literature, who will be remembered both for his dedication to teaching (the encouragement of innovative research in particular) and for the important part he played in creating what might be called a ``Republic of Letters'', linking French studies in Britain, France, the United States and elsewhere.

Born and brought up in Melbourne, Australia, and, like his three gifted brothers, quickly distinguishing himself academically, he proceeded from research in Paris on the early Symbolist critic Paul Bourget to a lectureship in the University of Melbourne, interrupted in 1942-45 by active service in the South Pacific (RANVR), and from there to posts in St Andrews, Cambridge (Jesus College) and Manchester, where he held the Chair of Modern French Literature (1956) returning to Cambridge in 1961, where he became Drapers Professor of French and Head of the French Department.

Centring his own main research on three leading modern French poets of the critical imagination, Baudelaire, Mallarm and Valry, Austin typically set aside his own planned trilogy (the first volume, on Baudelaire, had appeared in 1956) in order to collaborate in the publication of Mallarm's Correspondence, begun jointly in 1959, but which, with the death of his co-editor, Henri Mondor, in 1962, he continued to publish single-handed: an immensely complex undertaking resulting in 11 meticulously annotated volumes indispensable to understanding the Symbolist epoch. As many as 150 innovative essays, critical editions, reviews and papers to learned societies none the less continued to appear, skilfully combined with the multiple tasks of university teaching and administration, not the least service on the Editorial Boards of international committees such as, the AIEF in Paris, of which he was elected President (1969-72), or, in Britain, the Society for French Studies, of which, in 1967, he became General Editor.

One of the many Symbolist poems interpreted by Austin with his unique combination of personal discovery and attentiveness to the work of predecessors, was Valry's address to the so-called ``negative'' plane-tree, where the tossing tree seems to refuse the welter of wishful meanings and associations pinned to it by the beholding mind. And refusal of a kind could be said to be a central branch of his own incisive and independent intellect: refusal of pretentiousness, refusal of facile panaceas, religious or otherwise, refusals based in turn on a lucidly defended belief in traditional values of Art, which, over-suspicious as he may often have seemed to some of the alleged newness and orientation of much contemporary literary theory, could not have been further from a mere unthinking conservatism.

But there is a second, not unrelated tree in Valry's poetry on which Austin wrote and lectured inspiringly: the palm-tree, symbolising the thinker enriched by the giving of his own hard-won gifts, rigour and tenderness harmoniously combined. Indeed, it is generosity towards the potential achievements of others, colleagues, friends and research workers of all ages, for which he will be remembered most of all: an unstinting giving of his time and interest.

Throughout his richly committed intellectual life, its exigencies going far beyond the outstanding erudition of the pure scholar, Austin never succumbed to the temptations of the chameleon, wanting to be liked by all and sundry. Instead he remained forthright, not afraid to disagree openly with possible opponents, and to speak with clarity, if not wry humour, against whatever he saw as the most damaging failings of the university and wider, socio-political world. It was his particular achievement to maintain, side by side or perhaps even synonymously with the capacity for sustained hard work, an infectious sense of enjoyment in life, be it in reading, travel, appreciating music and painting, sharing the life of his much-loved family, or watching from his window a game of cricket on Parker's Piece. Indeed, his untiring attempts to encourage others to appreciate and discover for themselves the joys and passions of art and literature were in some ways most exemplified by the convivial hospitality offered in the elegant, book-filled houses kept in Cambridge and, outside Paris, in Lozre-sur-Yvette, by himself and his supportive, French-born wife.

Whether puzzling over the ``Clues'' of a Mallarm poem with his characteristic wish, almost a critical method in itself, to establish first and foremost the precise, given sense of words from which wider interpretations might later be allowed to ramify, or working to organise some recalcitrant piece of university administration, Austin thrived on challenge. It is no surprise that one of his favourite axioms was from Goethe's Faust: "They alone deserve life and freedom who must daily conquer it for themselves." Many an old student or colleague has profited from his strongly imparted sense of the rewards of long-term effort, and will experience the paradoxical conjunction of lasting influence and irreplaceable loss.

Lloyd James Austin, scholar of French literature: born Melbourne, Australia 4 November 1915; Fellow, Jesus College, Cambridge 1955-56, 1961-80 (Emeritus), Librarian 1965-68, 1972-73; Professor of Modern French Literature, Manchester University 1956-61; Lecturer in French, Cambridge University 1961-66, Reader 1966-67, Drapers Professor of French and Head of French Department 1967-80 (Emeritus); FBA 1968; married 1939 Jeanne Franoise Gurin (three sons, one daughter); died Cambridge 30 December 1994.