Obituary: Prof Gordon Millan, academic who was fascinated by the Belle Epoque

Language to Gordon Millan ‘was like an ocean in which he swam with unstoppable fluidity’

Born: September 25, 1946;

Died: August 30, 2021.

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

His lifelong engagement with the period, and particularly the work of one of the late-19th century’s most significant poets, Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), had begun when he completed a PhD at Edinburgh University 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 would begin his publishing career with a study of Pierre Louÿs ou le culte de l’amitié (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 turned his attention to Marie Mallarmé, the poet’s wife, and returned again to the compelling figure of Louÿs, publishing a significant correspondence between the writer and his elder half-brother.

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

Some could not understand why a poet like Mallarmé, who did his level best to disappear from his own verse, and whose work partly inspired Roland Barthes’ later theories concerning the ‘death of the author’, needed a biography at all.

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

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

Nevertheless, it is probably as an editor and as an indefatigable researcher in archives that he did his best and most valuable work as a scholar. Working closely, initially, with Barbier, he prepared an edition of Mallarmé’s complete works for Flammarion in 1983 (reprinted 1992) and, around the millennium, published a range of books that gathered and annotated unpublished documents throwing further light on Mallarmé’s circle and its work.

Millan was the moving force behind the peer-reviewed journal, Etudes Stéphane Mallarmé. His significant contribution to the documentation and understanding of this period of French literature was formally recognised by the French State at the French Institute in Edinburgh in 2004 when he was made an ‘Officier dans l’ordre des palmes académiques’ for his services to French culture.

Gordon Millan was born and spent his formative years in Kirkcaldy attending Kirkcaldy High School. His father, Frederick, was a baker and when he died his widow, Isobel, moved with her children to Bristol. At grammar school there he developed an early love of both classics and modern languages. He eventually returned to Scotland, where he read for a degree in French with Latin at Edinburgh (1964-1968).

Although French poetry was at the heart of his interests, he was also a committed teacher of the French language and a lifelong Strathclyder. Appointed to a lectureship at the University of Strathclyde in 1976, he was promoted Senior Lecturer and then to a personal Chair in 1991, which he held until his retirement in 2009.

He served as Vice-Dean then as acting Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (1995-1998) but his main contribution in this area of activity were two long stints as Head of the Department of Modern Languages (1994-1998 and 2000-2006.

During these periods he undertook several initiatives designed to demonstrate the usefulness of modern language study, both to the power-brokers within his own institution and further afield.

In 1990 he co-founded a Languages for Business unit which won the Department of Trade and Industry’s Languages for Export Award; he was an enthusiastic enabler of French language programs designed for students of engineering.

As a teacher, his prose classes, involving the translation of passages out of English into French, were famous among students. The more able in particular seemed to appreciate the Rabelaisian cast of his humour and he never failed to supply the bon mot when someone got stuck.

But it was at exam boards, where the final classification of degrees was decided, that Gordon’s empathy with his students shone most clearly. Never a stickler for rules, he invariably counselled generosity and benefit of the doubt.

The 1990s and 2000s were difficult times for teachers of modern languages. Persuading governments and Funding Councils of their usefulness was often an uphill struggle and he threw himself into the task of alerting them to the real benefits and costs of teaching them at University level.

Between 2000 and 2008 he became the founding Chair of the University Council of Modern Languages (Scotland). During this time he came to believe that a more realistic financial assessment of what it actually cost to teach a modern language in Scotland was the key to a more generous funding model for languages and a way of alleviating the ‘deficit’ that afflicted modern language departments within the economies of their institutions.

It preoccupied him alongside those other pressures bearing down on University departments, most notably the increasingly burdensome Research Assessment Exercises – the Universities’ four- or five-yearly equivalent of the Olympic Games, in which their research athleticism is measured with inane doggedness. Millan’s final years at Strathclyde were undoubtedly beleaguered as a result and he was no doubt pleased to be able to retire in 2009 and devote his energies once again to scholarship.

Language to Gordon was like an ocean in which he swam with unstoppable fluidity. It was as if he felt that if he was not speaking then he was not working and therefore not helping. The nuggets of good sense were always interleaved with verbal puns both in French and English, some of them good, some of them less so. This could be irritating, even beyond the pale to some. It was frequently an amazing spectacle.

There can be no doubt that Gordon is currently arguing the toss with the god neither he, nor his hero Mallarmé believed in. A last throw 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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