Obituary: Prof. Gordon Millan, academic passionate about the Belle Epoque



Death: August 30, 2021.

The life of GORDON Millan was a good example of how the character of an individual’s personality can be reflected in that of their work and passions. Instinctively sociable and humorous, Millan, who died at the age of 74, was above all fascinated by the friendships and connections that animated the flamboyance of the period of French culture known as the Belle Epoque.

His lifelong commitment to this period, and in particular the work of one of the most important poets of the late 19th century, Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), began when he had completed a doctorate at the University of Edinburgh under the supervision of the late Carl Paul Barbier. on the 19th century French writer and socialite, Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925)

It was perhaps inevitable that he began his publishing career with a study on Pierre Lous or the cult of friendship (1979).

In 1994, Secker and Warburg published A Throw of the Dice, his biography of Mallarmé, the first such biography to appear in English in 50 years. More recently, he turns to Marie Mallarmé, the poet’s wife, and returns again to the essential figure of Louÿs, publishing an important correspondence between the writer and his older half-brother.

Mallarmé’s biography, however, was published with mixed responses. Many were disappointed with its traditional cast and the lack of engagement with the acres of critical theory that 20th century French thinkers devoted to this founding poet.

Some did not understand why a poet like Mallarmé, who did his best to disappear from his own verses, and whose work partly inspired Roland Barthes’ later theories on the “death of the author”, needed a biography.

Millan was level-headed enough to understand that when it came to a poet of Mallarmé’s importance, it was essential to know as much as possible about him. and continued his line of questioning with unwavering enthusiasm.

At the time of his death, he was working on a study on the friendship between Louÿs and the composer Debussy.

Nonetheless, it was probably as an editor and as a tireless archival researcher that he did his best and most valuable scholarly work. In close collaboration, initially, with Barbier, he prepared an edition of Mallarmé’s complete works for Flammarion in 1983 (reprinted in 1992) and, around the millennium, published a series of works which brought together and annotated unpublished documents enlightening more the circle of Mallarmé and his work. .

Millan was the driving force behind the peer-reviewed journal Etudes Stéphane Mallarmé. His significant contribution to the documentation and understanding of this period of French literature was officially recognized by the French state at the French Institute in Edinburgh in 2004 when he was appointed “Officer in the Order of Palms. academics ”for his services to French culture. .

Gordon Millan was born and spent his formative years in Kirkcaldy at Kirkcaldy High School. His father, Frederick, was a baker and when he died his widow, Isobel, moved with her children to Bristol. In high school, he developed a love for classical and modern languages ​​early on. He eventually returned to Scotland, where he graduated in French with Latin in Edinburgh (1964-1968).

Although French poetry was central to his interests, he was also a committed French teacher and a longtime Strathclyder. Appointed Senior Lecturer at the University of Strathclyde in 1976, he was promoted to Senior Lecturer and then holder of a Personal Chair in 1991, which he held until his retirement in 2009.

He was vice-dean then interim dean of the Faculty of Letters and Social Sciences (1995-1998) but his main contribution in this field of activity was two long stays at the head of the modern languages ​​department (1994-1998) and 2000-2006.

During these periods he undertook several initiatives aimed at demonstrating the usefulness of the study of modern languages, both for powers within his own institution and beyond.

In 1990, he co-founded a Languages ​​for Business unit which won the Languages ​​for Export award from the Ministry of Trade and Industry; he was an enthusiastic facilitator of French language programs designed for engineering students.

As a teacher, his prose lessons, involving the translation of passages from English into French, were famous among the students. The skilful in particular seemed to appreciate the Rabelaisian distribution of his humor and he never failed to deliver the right word when someone got stuck.

But it was at the examination boards, where the final ranking of diplomas was decided, that Gordon’s empathy with his students shone most clearly. Never straddling the rules, he invariably advised generosity and the benefit of the doubt.

The 1990s and 2000s were difficult times for modern language teachers. Convincing governments and funding boards of their usefulness was often an uphill struggle, and he set out to alert them to the real benefits and costs of their university education.

Between 2000 and 2008 he became the founding chairman of the University Council for Modern Languages ​​(Scotland). During this time, he came to believe that a more realistic financial assessment of what it actually costs to teach a modern language in Scotland was the key to a more generous funding model for languages ​​and a means of reduce the “deficit” that afflicted modern language departments. in the economies of their institutions.

This worried him along with these other pressures on university departments, including increasingly heavy research assessment exercises – the quadrennial or five-year equivalent of the universities’ Olympics, in which their athletic research is measured with a foolish relentlessness. Millan’s later years in Strathclyde were undoubtedly besieged as a result and he was no doubt happy to be able to retire in 2009 and return his energies to scholarship.

The tongue for Gordon was like an ocean in which he swam with unstoppable fluidity. It was as if he felt that if he didn’t speak, then he wasn’t working and therefore wasn’t helping. The nuggets of common sense were always intertwined with puns in French and English, some good, some less. It could be irritating, even beyond pallor for some. It was often an astonishing sight.

There is no doubt that Gordon is currently arguing with the god that neither he nor his hero Mallarme believed. One last roll of the dice.

Gordon is survived by his wife Anne, their children David and Bryony and his brother Freddie.

David Kinloch



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