Obituary: Michael Butler

Scholar of German seeking the truths in literature that go beyond ideology

Michael Butler, who has died aged 72, was an incisive literary critic, a cultural mediator between Britain and German-speaking countries, and professor (later emeritus) of modern German literature (1986-2003) at Birmingham University. His academic reputation initially rested on his books on Max Frisch: The Novels of Max Frisch (1976) and The Plays of Max Frisch (1985). Michael concentrated on the way that modern writing grappled with the instability of identity and moral commitment. These problem areas remained his critical focus in editing literary-analytical volumes such as Rejection and Emancipation: Writing in German-speaking Switzerland 1945-1991 (edited with Malcolm Pender, 1991) or The Narrative Fiction of Heinrich Böll: Social Conscience and Literary Achievement (1994).

He distrusted much contemporary literary theory as too self-indulgent to kindle love of the literary text. Significantly, he regarded literature as a kind of secular successor to the ancient mythical epic and the pre-modern religious message, and was convinced that if there were any dignity left in modern life it was likely to be articulated at its best in literary narratives. This led him to read and interpret not only prose and drama but also lyric poetry, for which he felt a special affinity, having co-edited and contributed poems of his own to Samphire, a small journal of contemporary English poetry. He also edited a volume of English lyric poetry for German readers, published in Munich in 1981.

Although by no means averse to dealing with political, economic and cultural history - a fact attested to latterly by his general editorship, with William Paterson, of the Palgrave/Macmillan New Perspectives in German Studies series - he believed passionately that it was in literature that the deeper story of individuals and nations was revealed. Serious literature had a privileged position in that it not only opened up spaces of freedom from rigid ideologies but also served a subversive purpose in undermining them. Michael liked Böll's dictum that literature "is dynamite for all ruling orders".

His interest, particularly in modern literature, was guided by his conviction that it showed the predicaments of human life, for it was here that the great themes of love and death, anxiety and alienation, social conformity and critical distance, moral rectitude and the questioning of values were played out in their most sophisticated form. This is what he succeeded in imparting to his students right up until he died. They have lost an inspirational teacher.

A reluctant but effective head of his university's school of modern languages (1988-93), Michael thereafter was crucial in persuading the German Academic Exchange Service to award the funding for a new postgraduate institute for German studies at Birmingham. His advice was sought as an external assessor for senior appointments by some 25 universities and Birmingham made him its public orator. He knew the orator's performance gave the university a voice, augmenting its influence by conferring honour on others.

Born in Nottingham, he was educated there at High Pavement school and graduated from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, in 1957. He took a diploma of education at Trinity College, Oxford, in the following year. He taught German at King's school, Worcester (1948-61) and at the Reuchlin Gymnasium, Pforzheim, from 1961 to 1962, when he became head of German at Ipswich school. In 1970 he was appointed a lecturer at Birmingham, and there he developed his talents as a teacher, researcher, administrator and, eventually, public orator. He was a senior lecturer from 1980 until his appointment to the professorship.

A regular reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement, Michael also lectured in Germany for the German-British Society. His honours included his election as vice-president, then president, of the Conference of University Teachers of German (1994-99), a LittD from the University of Cambridge (1998) and the Cross of the Order of Merit (Bundesverdienstkreuz) of Germany (1999). His festschrift, The Writer's Morality (2000), brought together an international range of writers and academics.

His invigorating presence, lively wit and qualities as a raconteur will be greatly missed by his friends. He is survived by his wife Jean, son Julian and daughter Emma.

· Michael Gregory Butler, academic, born November 1 1935; died November 25 2007

Wilfried van der Will

The GuardianTramp

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