Gilbert Adair obituary

Witty, self-deprecating writer with a passion for cinema whose work shone 'like sparklers in the autumn gloom'

In Gilbert Adair's And Then There Was No One (2009), the third of his pastiches of Agatha Christie's detective stories, a writer called Gilbert Adair is lacerated thus by a reader: "The point, Gilbert, is that you've always been such a narcissistic writer. Which is why you've never had the popular touch … Postmodernism is dead … Nobody gives two hoots about self-referentiality any longer, just as nobody gives two hoots, or even a single hoot, about you. Your books are out of sight, out of sound, out of fashion and out of print."

Such self-referential gambits have exasperated some readers, but in Adair's staunchly postmodern, self-deprecating hands, the manoeuvre was disarming. Adair, who has died aged 66 of a brain haemorrhage, had often enjoyed playfully rehearsing his own literary erasure. In the 1990s he supplied the Guardian with columns that, in their eloquent analyses of popular culture, belatedly did for Britain what Roland Barthes's Mythologies had done for France. He once told us on the arts desk of what had happened when he rang one of his publishers. "You aren't by any chance Red Adair," asked a secretary to whom his name clearly meant nothing. "No," he snapped back, "I'm unread Adair." As a result, we fondly nicknamed this intellectually fastidious, gentle Francophile "Rouge".

No matter if the incident was apocryphal. Adair, among other things, could never resist a good gag, particularly if it had a postmodern twist. He once wrote a celebration of Charlie Chaplin called On First Looking into Chaplin's Humour, along with a collection of critical essays entitled The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice (1992). In his novel The Holy Innocents (1988), set in Paris in 1968, there is a gay club called The Four Hundred Blows.

But Adair was more than a literary joker. He was a fine critic, novelist, screenwriter and journalist, and a powerful theorist who made one of the most fruitful distinctions in postmodern culture, namely that between between art and culture. Adair's thesis was that you don't need to have experienced the former to do the latter. He wrote that it "would make not an iota of difference to the majority of people in this country, even those who consider themselves culturally informed, if the plays, films, books, operas, concerts and exhibitions that they have been ordered to see were totally chimerical entities, pure fictions collectively perpetrated by those whose profession or vocation it is to keep the culture industry oiled and operative".

He was best known thanks to adaptations of his novels. In the 1997 film of his novel Love and Death on Long Island, Giles De'Ath (John Hurt) finds himself in the wrong cinema. "This isn't EM Forster," De'Ath bawls fruitily at the screen. True. It is Hotpants College II, about randy undergraduates, starring Ronnie Bostock, with whom De'Ath becomes unrequitedly, but touchingly, obsessed, just as Von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice becomes obsessed with the boy Tadzio. Indeed, Adair wrote The Real Tadzio (2001), a biography of the boy who inspired Mann's novella. Bernardo Bertolucci's film The Dreamers (2003), about an incestuous student menage a trois, was adapted by Adair himself from The Holy Innocents and was in part autobiographical.

Adair was born in Edinburgh. He made few details about his early life public, a reticence perhaps befitting a writer who erased himself from his books so assiduously. He told one interviewer he did not want to mention the university he attended (where he studied modern languages). In the late 60s, he left Britain for Paris to indulge his love of cinema. At the Cinémathèque Française, he found not just a spiritual home, but also became both "politicised and eroticised". As he recalled: "It was a very sexy thing, and romantic, being with these young people watching old American movies, or being in the streets arm-in-arm …The whole thing was like a collective orgasm."

Amazingly to those of us who knew Adair as a gentle, fastidious, bookish wit, the young Gilbert threw stones at the police. "I had to be slightly careful, like Matthew [Michael Pitt's character in The Dreamers], because I was a foreigner, I taught at the university, so I was also employed by the state, and would have instantly been deported if I had been caught." That said, he was politically ardent – for a few weeks. "I truly believed that the world was going to change."

What really changed was Adair. "I went native, I began to think of myself as French." He immersed himself not just in cinema, but also in the books of Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Michel Foucault that seemed to be published by the hour. And he made friends with David Hockney: "I kept waiting for David to say, 'Gilbert, just sit over there and look sideways', and draw my portrait, but he never did." He was a single gay man in Paris, teaching, writing poems in French and living in the hotel where Baudelaire had composed some of Les Fleurs du Mal.

He returned to London in 1980, with the aim of getting published. Hollywood's Vietnam (1981) was followed by more books on the cinema such as A Night at the Pictures (with Nick Roddick, 1985) and Flickers (1995). He also translated and edited a collection of François Truffaut's letters, published in 1990. He had worked hard at developing his literary reputation, writing the screenplay for The Territory (1981), a philosophical thriller directed by Raúl Ruiz, and contributing to Sight and Sound magazine where, according to the journalist Kevin Jackson, his work "stood out from most of the surrounding texts (often worthy and learned, often plodding) like bright sparklers in the autumnal gloom".

His novels were like that too – metaphysical thrillers that deployed charmingly his deep fondness for postwar French thought. In 1995 he won the Scott Moncrieff prize for his virtuosic translation of Georges Perec's book La Disparition. Like the original, the entire translation omitted the letter E.

Adair had longed to write a book about mathematics. "I really left it too late," he said. "But one of the real reasons I love reading mathematics is that I know it will never be contaminated by the soundbite, the Starbucks culture."

Like the other "Gilbert Adair", the real one never had the popular touch, nor would he have wanted it.

He is survived by two brothers.

Ronald Bergan writes: I met Gilbert Adair in 1967 in Paris when we were both teaching English at Berlitz. He was very shy and blushed easily, though he already had a wicked tongue. Our first encounter was in the staffroom when I mentioned to someone that I had just seen DW Griffith's Intolerance at the Cinémathèque. Gilbert, who had been listening, interjected that the way Griffith had cut the crucifixion scene gave the impression that Christ would be saved at the last moment. Thus began a long, sometimes fractious, relationship, which Gilbert dubbed a platonic Beatrice and Benedict one. 

I think he initially accepted me as a friend because of my liking for Jean Cocteau, whom he idolised. In many ways he imitated Cocteau, even to his signature, although Gilbert made the A of Adair into a little Eiffel Tower. We were both almost nightly visitors to the Cinémathèque at the Palais de Chaillot, and had many arguments about films in a cafe at the Trocadero afterwards, most of which he won and some of which found their way into The Holy Innocents and The Dreamers.

We wrote two unperformed plays together, each of us vying to top each other's lines, with neither willing to accede to the other; not a recipe for a successful collaborative effort. Had I been more mature and honest with myself, I would have accepted his suggestions as being superior to mine most of the time. We started writing film books at the same time, he with his penetrating Hollywood's Vietnam, I with Sports in the Movies, neither subject being exactly up our streets. Gradually he moved on to novels, which were more suited to his brilliant and original turns of phrase. Flickers remains an exceptionally piece of film writing, with Gilbert somehow managing to avoid cliches, something every film critic has to resort to a great deal of the time. 

He was not an easy person to get on with because his standards were so high, so that being with him was not only stimulating – he kept you on your intellectual toes – but often infuriating in that he made you feel inferior, though without any malice intended.

He was always afraid of going blind like his father. (His novel A Closed Book is about a blind writer.) When he had a stroke about a year ago, he lost much of his sight. It was particularly tragic for Gilbert as he could no longer read – he was an omnivorous reader – or watch films or even write. I will miss him greatly.

• Gilbert Adair, writer, born 29 December 1944; died 8 December 2011


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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