Gordon Millan obituary

Other lives: Strathclyde University professor who was a renowned expert on the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé

My friend Gordon Millan, who has died aged 74, was a scholar of French literature of the belle époque and an authority on the great French poet Stéphane Mallarmé.

Gordon was born in Kirkcaldy, in Fife, to Isobel (nee Hamilton) and Frederick, a baker. After Frederick’s death, Isobel moved to England, and Gordon and his twin brother, Freddie, swapped Kirkcaldy High school for Merrywood Grammar in Bristol, where his interest in languages was kindled.

Returning north to study French and Latin at the University of Edinburgh, he graduated in 1968 after a life-changing year as a language assistant in Tournon-sur-Rhône in the south of France, where Mallarmé spent three years of his life. Opting for payment in wine rather than cash, Gordon also became English tutor to the owner of Maison M. Chapoutier, one of the finest wine producers in the Rhône Valley. Before leaving Tournon he declined with regret Chapoutier’s offer of an internship.

Influenced by the Mallarmé specialist Carl Barbier, who was professor of French at Edinburgh, Gordon completed under Barbier’s supervision a PhD on the writer and socialite Pierre Louÿs. Appointed lecturer in French at the University of Strathclyde in 1976, he became professor, vice-dean and head of its school of modern languages before retiring in 2009.

His thesis was published as Pierre Louÿs ou le culte de l’amitié (1979) and he later edited the vast correspondence between Louÿs and his diplomat half-brother, Georges. Gordon’s main focus, however, was on Mallarmé, and after Barbier’s death he completed their definitive edition Stéphane Mallarmé: Poésies, Vers de circonstance (1983). Gordon wrote chiefly in French, but A Throw of the Dice; the Life of Stéphane Mallarmé (1994) remains indispensable for anglophone readers confronting the difficulties of Mallarmé’s work.

Gordon’s flair for unearthing information about Mallarmé’s circle continued with Les ‘Mardis’ de Stéphane Mallarmé: mythes et réalités (2008) and Mallarmé à Tournon et au-delà (2018). His last book, Marie Mallarmé: Le fantôme dans la glace (2019), is an account of Mallarmé’s German-born wife. These constitute a formidable body of scholarship about which he remained endearingly modest.

Convivial, independent-minded, indomitable in the face of longstanding health problems, Gordon was blessed with an irrepressible and irreverent sense of humour. No slave to academic fashion, especially if emanating from France, he devoted himself to the service of French literature, and was honoured by the French state when appointed an officer of the Ordre des Palmes académiques in 2004.

He is survived by his wife, Anne (nee Robbie), whom he married in 1970 after they met as students in Edinburgh, their children, David and Bryony, and by his brother.

Andrew Barker

The GuardianTramp

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