Robin Buss

Francophile writer and critic

Thursday 21 December 2006 01:00

Kenneth Robin Caron Buss, writer and translator: born London 10 May 1939; married 1963 Patricia Lams (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1995 Natasha Filatova (one stepdaughter); died London 16 December 2006.

When he was a schoolboy, Robin Buss would sit in a café in Soho and fantasise about being French. After half a century of devotion to French language and culture, the fantasy became unnecessary. As a translator, he tackled Zola, Sartre and Dumas with a strong sense of the weft of their prose. As a film critic, he championed the pleasures of the French film noir. As a journalist, he handled any subject with lightly worn scholarship and generous good-humour - Ealing comedy, Albert Camus, Minder, the search for the perfect blini - but he was never more at home than when introducing British readers to subjects from French culture and history.

This Francophilia was only the most obvious characteristic of an omnivorous literary and cultural life. Buss's expertise extended to Roman history, medieval art, Swedish poetry and Italian films. He never boasted of his knowledge. He never boasted about anything. If he ever had a malicious thought, he was too decent to express it - that's probably why they called him "Dormouse" at school. It would have been wrong to mistake this gentleness for passivity - though he could sometimes exhibit a donnish absent-mindedness: he once left for a holiday in the country leaving his week-old baby daughter behind in the house.

Robin Buss's father was a pilot in the First World War who had converted to Islam while on diplomatic service in the Middle East; his mother staffed the information bureau at Selfridges. For most of his childhood the family home was at Tilford in Surrey, where he watched birds and galloped after foxes. He hated his prep school in Twyford, but was happier on holiday in Wales, where he learned to love choral music and speak Welsh. He would eventually become fluent in Russian, Italian, Swedish and Spanish.

"Each language," he wrote, "opened the way to a cultural realm and each, perhaps, had an effect on the way that my mind perceives and processes reality." This was, perhaps, the secret of his mild and generous nature: though he held strong opinions of his own, he had a great facility for empathising with the views of others.

At 15, while he was a pupil at Westminster School, his father pulled strings to allow him to attend a course at the University of Lausanne. In 1958 he began a degree at the Sorbonne. Poverty obliged him to forage for cigarette butts on the pavement, but he loved the city: "When I was there I had no wish to be anywhere else. If I was not there, I thought chiefly of when or how I should return." He stayed to work on a doctoral thesis, and spent the 1960s shuttling between France and England. In February 1963 he married Patricia Lams, a local girl from Tilford. The marriage produced two children, Louis and Claudia.

He returned from Paris just before the tumultuous events of 1968 and took a job as a clerk at the British Museum. His real pleasures were extra-curricular - studying and copying medieval manuscripts, writing poetry, losing himself in the dark at the cinema. These passions sustained him through his work at the Foreign Office, collating data from the Soviet press and studying socialist groups in Arab countries.

After separating amicably from Patricia in 1984, he moved to a flat overlooking Greenwich Park, from where he transformed his private passions into a way of earning a living. Over the next decades he built up a monstrously thick portfolio of cultural journalism, which allowed him to leave his job teaching English at Woolwich College in south London. He was deputy film critic of The Independent on Sunday and television critic of the Times Educational Supplement. He wrote for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published critical studies of works by Vigny and Cocteau and three books on European cinema, The French Through Their Films (1988), Italian Films (1989) and French Film Noir (1994).

A press trip in 1992 to an animation studio in Moscow wrought an unlooked-for transformation upon his life. He kept in touch with his Russian translator, Natasha Filatova, and two years later she and her young daughter Kotya moved to Greenwich to be with him. The couple married in 1995, by which time he had become fluent in Russian. Relationships between stepfathers and stepdaughters are sometimes problematic, but every morning Robin made breakfast for Kotya, took her for an 8 o'clock swim and waved her off at the bus stop on the way to school. They were inseparable.

In 2000, a routine medical check revealed the presence of a cancerous tumour in one of his kidneys. The kidney was removed and the cancer did not recur - and his last six years of translations, reviews, essays and interviews read like the work of a man whose brush with death had increased his appetite for life and literature. He suffered a brain haemorrhage on Saturday morning, and died later that day. "If we have to die," he once wrote, " at least we can be helped to take charge of dying." In the end, he was unburdened of that responsibility.

For the next few months, his writing will appear almost as regularly as when he was alive: book recommendations in The Independent on Sunday, an essay on Josephine Baker for Sight and Sound, a translation of Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes (1913) for Penguin Classics. After that, there will be silence - as if he had been cut off in mid-sentence.

But his film books will remain essential reading for students of European cinema, his translations will ensure that anyone with a taste for Dumas or Zola or Balzac will be reading his work for years to come, and those that knew him will not forget him as a kind, quiet and authoritative presence in a professional world that tends to reward pushier characters.

Matthew Sweet

Robin Buss neither planned nor expected to become our leading translator of classic French fiction, writes Michael Church, nor was it his intention to become an authority on French film who was highly respected in France.

As the editor responsible for luring him out of teaching and into the precarious and underpaid life of a writer, I did not expect those things either, and was astonished to see how rapidly the shelf of his books lengthened. Cruelly, he died as he was reaching his productive prime. When we now read Cocteau, Camus, Balzac, Dumas and Zola in English, it is his voice we hear.

Le style c'est l'homme. There was never anything meretricious about Robin's style: his clean and supple prose - which scrupulously served its purpose, whether the work of the writer he was translating, or the film he was reviewing - expressed a distinctive authorial voice. That was pre-eminently the voice of an old-fashioned Utopian socialist, a fish out of water in Blair's Britain, but persisting in the struggle to make the world a better place. His amused horror at the rising tide of media trash was balanced by serious attendance at political demonstrations he believed might have an effect.

As one got to know Robin better, there were other surprises: Christmas cards from the Buss family were miniatures painted by him with Japanese grace; he discreetly designed book covers, and wrote poems. It seemed perfectly appropriate that the Greenwich flat he occupied with Natasha and Kotya should be more than a bit reminiscent of the apartment in the Garbo film Ninotchka, if a lot more comfortable.

It was also entirely in character that, when he was struck down by a virulent form of cancer, his overriding concern was for his family. The flip-side of the self-effacingness which could at time render him almost invisible was an acute sensitivity to the feelings of others: one could not imagine a sweeter or more supportive friend.

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