Michael Sheringham obituary

Scholar, critic and teacher whose work focused on the intricacies of French literature

Michael Sheringham, who has died of prostate cancer aged 67, was a leading figure in the field of French studies in Britain, Ireland and the US. In France, too, he earned widespread recognition for his achievements as a literary and cultural critic of the first order.

Sheringham’s first two books were a bibliography (1971) for the French surrealist André Breton and a critical guide to Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy (Samuel Beckett: Molloy, 1986). French Autobiography: Devices and Desires (1993) addressed the contexts of life-writing and specifically the materials and devices at the disposal of the autobiographer. The book, which explored the indelible influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the genre, went on to draw out with relish the ways in which later practitioners including Stendhal, Sartre, Michel Leiris and Simone de Beauvoir handled the rhetoric of autobiographical practice.

To take just one striking example, Sheringham reflected on the extravagant frame for autobiography proposed by Chateaubriand, émigré, diplomat and writer-on-the-move, who saw the work of tracing the many strands of his earlier life as a writing from beyond the tomb, as the title of his Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe suggests. As Sheringham put it, Chateaubriand was “converting the immediate into the posthumous”. Of Leiris, he observed that he was the “consummate autobiographer”, one for whom the act of living was indistinguishable from the written reflection on it. French Autobiography was a tour de force, holding together 200 years of French tradition and inspiring other researchers to extend the critical scrutiny of the life-writing furrow.

Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present (2006) proved to be another landmark publication in French literary criticism in the anglophone world. Sheringham put together this wide-ranging, pioneering work with creativity, energy and patience. He drew fruitfully on the philosopher Michel de Certeau’s view set out in L’Invention du Quotidien (The Practice of Everyday Life) that routines like walking, talking and reading – the very things that are central to daily living – are somehow held outside specialised, established forms of knowledge. Sheringham’s critical manoeuvre was to analyse the “practitioners” of the everyday, among them Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, Georges Perec and Annie Ernaux.

The book also celebrated with brio urban itineraries in French literature: Breton’s reflection on “Les Pas Perdus” (the thousands of “lost steps” of the individual walker); the figure of the street as championed by writers such as Baudelaire, Zola and the historian Arlette Farge; and the workings of what became known in France in the 1980s as “une ethnographie de proximité”, a proximate ethnography, as evidenced by the work of Marc Augé in his Un Ethnologue dans le Métro (In the Metro). Sheringham made the compelling case for the everyday as a serious object of study, with its incidents, “micropractices” and inventiveness.

The translation of Everyday Life into French – Traversées du Quotidien: Des Surréalistes aux Postmodernes (2013) – cemented Sheringham’s position in France as a critic to be reckoned with. In an interview with the radio station France-Culture to mark the publication, he reminded his listeners of Maurice Blanchot’s paradoxical observation that the everyday was “the hardest thing to discover”. In the same broadcast, he paid a handsome tribute to the work of Certeau for its capacity to stimulate and subvert.

Sheringham was born in Cairo. His father, John, a civil servant, was working at the time in Palestine as part of the British Mandate. His mother, Yvette (nee Habib) was a francophone Egyptian Copt, a poet and journalist who inspired Sheringham’s love of French literature. From Wallingford county grammar school, Oxfordshire, he went on to take a BA in French at the then newly opened University of Kent, in Canterbury. After a year lecturing in French at the University of Ulster, he returned to Canterbury in 1974, and was appointed professor in 1992.

Three years later, he went to Royal Holloway, University of London. Between 2002 and 2004, he was president of the Society for French Studies. In 2004 he was appointed Marshal Foch professor of French literature at the University of Oxford and a fellow of All Souls College. He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 2010, and at the start of this year was made a Commandeur des Palmes Académiques.

As a critic and teacher, Sheringham was energised by the whole encounter with French literature. He worked closely with a number of contemporary French writers, among them the poet Yves Bonnefoy. By the time of his death, he had come close to completing a new book on Michel Foucault and a 19th-century French archive, with the title The Afterlives of Pierre Rivière: Foucault/Archive/Film.

More broadly, France was a culture and a country that he embraced. He once cycled with his young family from St-Malo down to the Lot and, as an avid walker, he enjoyed the country’s varied topography. In his books and numerous journal articles, in seminars and private conversations over the years, Sheringham took his listeners to corners of French literature that they might never have known otherwise. Generous in debate and exchange with students and colleagues, he was intensely alive to the appeal of reading and textual production. Both studious and gregarious, he was a persuasive advocate of the power of literature.

He is survived by his wife, Priscilla (nee Duhamel), whom he married in 1974, their children, Sam and Olivia, and four grandchildren.

• Michael Hugh Tempest Sheringham, French scholar, born 2 June 1948; died 21 January 2016


Edward Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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