Alastair Reid obituary

Essayist who graced the columns of the New Yorker for 40 years, poet, and translator of many Hispanic authors

Alastair Reid, who has died aged 88, was a Scottish writer whose imagination dwelt in the Hispanic world. He was at least as well known for his translations of Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and other Spanish-speaking writers as for his own poetry. Reid was also a superb writer of prose, the larger part of which appeared in the New Yorker, where he was a staff writer for 40 years during the magazine's heyday. Memoirs of his stormy friendship with the writer Robert Graves, chronicles of his life in a village in Spain, and latterly excursions into contemporary Scottish life, among other essays, appeared first in the New Yorker before being collected in books, including Passwords (1964) and Whereabouts (1987).

Reid was born in Whithorn, in Galloway, south-west Scotland. He called it his "personal Eden". His father was a Church of Scotland minister, his mother a doctor. A taste for the itinerant life, to which he would eventually dedicate himself, was acquired from the "tinkers" who came from Ireland to Galloway for seasonal labour. "They always came by our house next to the church. I used to ask my father, 'Where are they going?' And he would say, 'They don't know.'" Seventy-five years later, Reid could still relish his response: "How exciting."

Conscripted into the navy in 1944, Reid took a course in ciphering and coding. "We were put to sea, and opened sealed orders only afterwards – so nobody knew where we were going." His ship was headed for action in the far east when news arrived of the bombing of Hiroshima. He believed that it saved his life, but he also felt that "the war changed us. It broke everything. It divided my life."

Back in Scotland, Reid studied classics at St Andrews University. He was already immersed in poetry, but his wartime experience brought the welcome revelation that the rules and rigidity of Scottish life, particularly for a son of the manse, were not universally fixed. The Americans he had encountered in foreign ports during the war seemed to breathe a lighter air, and move to easier rhythms. The severity of a Galloway kirkyard did not apply in Greenwich Village. "I thought I'd like to see the country where these people came from," Reid said in an interview in Musselburgh, outside Edinburgh, in 2008.

After teaching classics for a few years at Sarah Lawrence College, New York, he travelled to Mallorca, where he met Graves. Reid was "overwhelmed" by Spain, in which he found an antidote to Calvin. He felt that the close relationship he developed with the language gave birth to a new self. "If I had my way," he wrote on the subject of the Scottish sabbath, "I would have all the Scots transported to Spain, and swallowed up once and for all in the sheer good humour of one Spanish Sunday, so that they flew home singing, and hung John Knox in the cupboard."

In his well-known poem Scotland, he takes a similarly dim view of this aspect of the national temperament. The poet addresses a woman in a shop, praising the beauty of the day. "Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves / as she spoke with their ancient misery: / 'We'll pay for it, we'll pay for it …'." The poem was collected in Weathering: Poems and Translations (1978). Towards the end of his life, when he was once again spending lengthy periods of time in Scotland, he was pleased to observe that his poem was less relevant than it had once been.

In Mallorca, Reid came under Graves's spell, and became his apprentice. The versatility of the writer's trade – poems, reportage, translation – was passed from master to pupil. Graves's translation of The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius was actually given its first English draft by Reid. He claimed that the older man's revisions – "not looking at the Latin, but scribbling on my English" – helped make "my best English better". The friendship soured dramatically and irreversibly when Reid fell in love and eloped with one of Graves's "muses", Margot Callas.

The couple left their partners – Reid was by then married, to Mary Mortimer-Maddox, with an infant son, Jasper – and went to live in the Basque country. Within a year, Callas patched it up with Graves (she later married the film director Mike Nichols), but Reid was never forgiven. Graves wrote a poem about his rival, in which the phrase "witty devil" is coupled in rhyme with "oozing evil". Reid never sought revenge for these and other spiteful acts. Instead, he wrote a judicious memoir, Remembering Robert Graves, published in the New Yorker in 1995, and later included in his selected prose, Outside In (2008).

The two other crucial literary relationships in his life developed in the wake of the estrangement. One was with William Shawn, the eccentric and much-loved editor of the New Yorker; the other with Borges, whose insistence on referring to all his writings as "fictions" appealed to Reid. His translations of Borges's poetry and prose are highly regarded, as are his versions of the Chilean poet Neruda. Reid was fond of recalling Neruda's instruction: "Don't just translate my poems. I want you to improve them." The duty of the translator, he felt, was to "make the thrill of the original come across".

In the 1960s, Reid lived in a houseboat on the Thames at Chelsea Reach. He oversaw Jasper's upbringing and education. His arrangement with the New Yorker was such that he could live and write anywhere, and for many years he had a house in a Spanish village, in which he enjoyed a barefoot life, without electricity, running water or even, so he claimed, a clock. His chronicle From a Spanish Village appeared in the New Yorker over a 20-year period, alongside reportage from Barcelona and elsewhere. Among other writers whose work he translated were the Cuban Heberto Padilla, the Venezuelan Eugenio Montejo and the Mexican José Emilio Pachedo. He also indulged in the Borgesian jape of publishing "translations" of poems which were in fact his own.

His inventiveness landed Reid in trouble in 1984, when in the course of a lecture at Yale University he admitted that he had sometimes fabricated situations in his Spanish dispatches, in the cause of a greater authenticity. A conversation that had taken place in a house might be transposed to a bar, for example. A television set might be imported, with General Franco's face on the screen, giving rise to comments heard here, there and everywhere. Many writers would own up to similar devices, but the New Yorker's reputation was founded on "the accuracy of its reporting", as one old hand put it, and Reid's candour caused a scandal. The editor (whom he always addressed as "Mr Shawn") supported him, but the embarrassment lingered.

Some admirers felt that a rare literary gift such as Reid possessed deserved more exposure. In person, he was easy-going and charming, tall and handsome even in old age, capable of utterances that matched the eloquence of his prose. Muriel Spark, a colleague at the New Yorker, once described him as the "second worst dressed man in New York" (who the worst was, she never said) – Reid regarded it as a compliment. His melodious Scottish accent was barely affected by six decades' expatriation.

He was the embodiment of "live the way you want to". Among other adventures, he sailed across the Atlantic, and tried his hand at hang-gliding, resulting in an accident which left a legacy of back pain.

His marriage to Mary ended in divorce. For the last 25 years he lived in a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village with his second wife, the film-maker Leslie Clark. She survives him, along with Jasper; another son, Michael, from another relationship; his grandchildren, Ian and Ella; and a sister, Lesley.

Alastair Reid, writer, born 21 March 1926; died 22 September 2014


James Campbell

The GuardianTramp

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