Professor A. D. Nuttall

Dazzling English scholar

Thursday 08 February 2007 01:00

Anthony David Nuttall, English scholar: born Hereford 25 April 1937; Assistant Lecturer, Sussex University 1962-70, Reader in English 1970-73, Professor of English 1973-84, Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1978-81; Fellow, New College, Oxford 1984-2004 (Emeritus); Reader in English, Oxford University 1990-92, Professor of English 1992-2004; FBA 1997; married 1960 Mary Donagh (one son, one daughter); died Oxford 24 January 2007.

A. D. Nuttall once gave a lecture at Sussex University about some difficulties in the Darwinian theory of natural selection, of which the first sentence was: "This lecture is the rashest act yet committed in an admittedly rather unadventurous life." No written account can capture the blend of frankness and self-deprecation in his voice as he said it, but the sentence is a splendid glimpse of the intellectual atmosphere of the early years of Sussex (a new university in 1961) which he did so much to create.

As a literary scholar, Tony Nuttall was willing to explore all intellectual issues that seemed to him to impinge on our way of seeing the world: not, as so many literary scholars used to do, by lamenting the heartless materialism of science, but by taking its challenges wholly seriously: he showed his lecture to his colleague John Maynard Smith, one of the world's leading Darwinians, who took its objections wholly seriously.

Since he passed his whole life in universities - teaching at Sussex for more than 20 years, and from 1984 at Oxford University, where from 1992 he was Professor of English - Nuttall was no doubt sincere in describing his life as unadventurous, though, when he later spent three years as Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Sussex during the years of student unrest, he found himself in the world of political conflict and tough bargaining, and handled it extremely well.

Anthony David Nuttall was born in Hereford in 1937, and educated at Hereford Cathedral School and Merton College, Oxford, where he read Classics. The way in which he moved naturally between disciplines is indicated by the fact that he then wrote his thesis on the philosophical issues raised by Shakespeare's The Tempest (one of his supervisors was Iris Murdoch): the thesis turned into his first book, Two Concepts of Allegory, published in 1967. This triple interest, in Classics, in philosophy and in English literature, remained with him all his life, is evident in virtually everything he wrote, and permeated his teaching.

At Sussex, where he was appointed Lecturer in 1962, becoming Professor of English in 1973, he played a leading part in the development of the contextual course on the Modern European Mind, which placed some of the great modernist writers in their intellectual context, so that students read Dostoevsky or Lawrence along with Freud, Conrad or Sartre along with Marx, Thomas Mann along with Nietzsche. This course was an unforgettable intellectual adventure for several generations of students - and for their teachers.

It led Nuttall to write a small book on Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment: murder as philosophical experiment, 1978), and also one of his most brilliant books, A Common Sky (1974, subtitled "Philosophy and the Literary Imagination"), about the connections between solipsism (the philosophical theory that no one except oneself exists) and the imaginative literature of the last two or three centuries. Exploring these connections leads him to some brilliant and highly original insights into Sterne, Wordsworth, Sartre and Eliot, among others.

All readers of Nuttall will have different favourites among his many books. Almost all of them begin from a puzzle that can be expressed either in literature or as philosophy - or even as theology, as in the short and fascinating Overheard by God (1980), subtitled "Fiction and Prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante and St John", which begins with a shock tactic: "Imagine - if you can - God reading this poem", it says, and then quotes George Herbert's "Dialogue", which is written as a dialogue between the poet and God. The book shows how Herbert paints himself into a corner, not in order to score a point over him, but to explore the logic of a human being trying to show that prayer is answered.

This short book was followed by a bigger book on current literary theories: A New Mimesis: Shakespeare and the representation of reality (1983). This attacks the radical scepticism of Jacques Derrida and his followers, which has been so influential in literary theory, and its rejection of modern scepticism is sophisticated but total: "Artists," it asserts, "always find new ways of imitating through form the indefinite richness of reality", and theorists who deny that we have any access to reality are shrinking, even undermining, the possibilities of literature.

Nuttall's interest in the past never prevented him from responding to recent and modern literature; and his interest in theory never prevented him from responding to the full richness of actual poems, novels and plays. This could be illustrated from almost any of his books - nowhere better than from his last published book, Dead from the Waist Down (2003), which contains a wonderful exploration of Tom Stoppard's picture of Housman in The Invention of Love, lovingly revealing how much meaning is packed into apparently casual dialogue.

Since the "revolution in English studies" hit universities in the 1970s, a popular view has contrasted the old-fashioned lovers of literature who live in the past and hate theory, with the sophisticated post-modernists, at home with deconstruction, semiotics and psycho-analysis, who read criticism rather than poems and novels. Nuttall was a living example of how misleading this contrast can be. He lived in the past but lived in the present as well. He loved theoretical argument but loved literature too. He admired and practised the famous doctrine of Occam's razor (don't multiply concepts beyond what is essential) but all his writings - as he himself occasionally remarked - could be described as "Occam's beard".

He retired in 2004 but remained active. He had begun to amuse himself by writing fiction and had finished two quirky and very readable novels, dealing with time travel and mythology in realistic modern settings. Almost nothing he wrote was without some reference to Shakespeare, and his big book on Shakespeare, Shakespeare the Thinker, now in the press, will, alas, appear posthumously.

Laurence Lerner

Tony Nuttall was a contemporary at the turn of the Sixties who dazzled me and half the girls at Oxford, writes Angela Lambert. (We were wasting our time. He was already deeply committed to Mary Donagh, whom he married in 1960.)

I met him and other members of a formidably brilliant Merton circle at a debating society called the Myrmidons, restricted to undergraduates from Merton College (at that time for men only) and St Hilda's (all women). Here, in the course of frivolous debates ("This House Prefers Cannelloni to Canaletto") all of us, but especially the men, vied with each other to make the best speeches and tell the wittiest stories.

Even in a group of exceptionally bright young men, Tony stood out. Iris Murdoch told me decades later that he and Stephen Medcalf, his tutorial partner and lifelong friend, were the most brilliant students she had ever taught. He was subtle, modest, charming and - with his dark curly hair, broad torso and handsome face - looked like a Greek god. No wonder we were infatuated.

The Merton group came regularly to tea in my tiny, cramped room at St Hilda's, arranging themselves along the bed or on the floor, scoffing crumpets and ginger biscuits. I reckon at least half my Oxford education was acquired during these sessions. Our conversations ranged over every possible subject, from classical Greek and Latin (which most of them could quote fluently) to a heated argument over whether one might reasonably compare W.B. Yeats with Picasso.

Tony's distinguished academic career was not what made him remarkable. He possessed acute moral awareness and sheer goodness; more so than any man I have ever known. His life was devoted to Mary, his family and his many friends, and to his students. He loved truth, beauty, hard work, intellectual integrity and Shakespeare. There can be no one left alive who knew as much about Shakespeare as Tony did, yet you'd never have guessed this from talking to him. He carried his talents lightly, gave them generously - and was immensely funny with it.

Only the important things mattered to him. He was utterly indifferent to fame, success, wealth, acclaim or sexual conquest.

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