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Professor Alain Viala

Professor Alain Viala was the moving spirit behind so much in French studies, and a kind, generous, erudite spirit who spanned the Francophone and Anglophone worlds. Celebrated for his work on what it meant to be a writer in ‘le grand siècle’, he was more than a specialist in Early Modern literature and society. His twenty books, one hundred and fifty articles and seven CD audio box-sets cover the entire span of literary history in French and both rejoice in and subtly critique a literary culture. His work on literature and theatre from all periods shows how societies are powerfully shaped by these practices.

Born in the small town of Saint-Affrique in the sud-Aveyron into a family of very limited means, he excelled at his State boarding school with its study spaces and regular meals. Later in life, sitting before the remains of a plentiful meal in his Oxford college, he would quietly aver that ‘nothing should be wasted’. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in French literature at the highly selective École Normale Supérieure in Cachan (near Paris) during the period of the student uprisings in the late 1960s, he became an assistant lecturer at Paris 3 — Sorbonne Nouvelle, and embarked on a prolific writing career. He wrote regularly (under the pseudonym ‘A. Ranvier’) for Le Peuple français, a politically independent journal concerned with viewing history through a working-class lens and providing an enlightened alternative to the narrow orthodoxy of popular history magazines like Historia. He began a life-long collaboration with Michel P. Schmitt with whom he wrote a number of books on the teaching of literature and reading in schools. Under the supervision of the seventeenth-century specialist Jacques Morel at the Sorbonne Nouvelle, he began ambitious doctoral research on the interplay between writers and the formal or informal literary institutions of the Ancien Régime. Published with the highly respected Éditions de Minuit as Naissance de l’écrivain in 1985, it was awarded a ‘prix spécial’ by the Société des Lettres the following year. These were the foundation years, establishing his lifelong interests in literature, theatre, society and pedagogy at all levels.

He was appointed to a permanent position at Paris 3 — Sorbonne Nouvelle in 1985, and first visited Oxford two years later to deliver a research paper. A young graduate student hosting him at the time remembers initially feeling anxious in the presence of the reputed professor, but rapidly feeling charmed by his almost childlike curiosity about Oxford and how it functioned. This was the same curious, easy-going and equitable outlook that subsequently led to many fruitful visiting professorships around the world (Liège, Laval, Atlanta, Chicago, Tel Aviv…). He held posts in seven countries in addition to France.

His life and career took an unusual turn for a French literary academic in 1997 when he accepted a five-year professorship in Oxford, funded by the French government, and in 2003 when he was appointed to the permanent Chair of French. His inaugural lecture was typical of the way he did not just study literature, but confronted its truths and deceptions. It was a ‘Letter to Rousseau’ (published in 2005), addressing the author directly and chastising him with eminent tact and understanding for denying the aesthetic, moral and social functions of theatre. The calm energy and commitment in his response to Rousseau was felt in the myriad ways he engaged with academic life in Oxford. With doctoral students – whether they were his own or not — he wore his erudition lightly and especially warmly, sharing and encouraging them in ways which they felt were fundamental for their development. With colleagues, he was unstinting in his efforts to collaborate on intellectual ventures and contribute to the life of the university’s institutions. He was a stalwart of the Voltaire Foundation and of the Maison française d’Oxford, an assiduous convenor and member of the French Early Modern Seminar, a co-organiser of the Oxford-Fribourg doctoral programme, and a permanent catalyst for Anglo-French academic relations.

He continued to enrich French academia, co-founding the GRIHL (Groupe de Recherches Interdisciplinaires sur l’Histoire du Littéraire) in 1996 with the historian Christian Jouhaud at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and Paris 3 — Sorbonne Nouvelle. One of the many publication projects he was involved in at the moment of his untimely death was the preparation of a volume introducing the GRIHL’s work to Anglophone audiences. In 1999, he was given the polemical task of overhauling the teaching of literature in lycées (upper secondary schools) in France: his revised syllabus was adopted but then overturned by what a Ministry of Education source criticised as ‘seriously backward looking’ elements within the French literature establishment. The scholar of polemics and quarrels that Alain Viala was regarded this real-life experience with wry cynicism, and it in no way dampened his creative zeal. He was very proud of the ‘Rencontres, Recherches et Création’ project which he co-organised at the Avignon Festival every year, bringing together academics, theatre directors and actors. It was typical of him to see theatre as a living art form needing to escape the pages of a published script, and to see academia as an open forum for a wide public to enjoy.

When he retired in 2017, his many students and collaborators over the years repaid his generosity with a two-volume Festschrift, Littéraire, containing seventy-two contributions and including essays, memories, translations, tributes, photographs, and pictures. It is a reflection of the breadth of his interests. For some contributors, Alain Viala was the Racine specialist who edited the standard works through three editions, published numerous scholarly editions of plays and wrote Racine: la stratégie du caméléon (1990). For others he was the writer of La France galante (2008) and La Galanterie (2019) which combine astute sociological analysis with sensitive reading of texts to skewer certain French national myths. Or he was the generalist who put his erudition and lively style at the service of the student or general reader in books like La Culture littéraire (2009), and at the service of the scholarly one with Le Théâtre en France des origines à nos jours (1996) and the co-edited Dictionnaire du littéraire (2002). In the catalogue of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, you will even find that between 1988 and 1992, he adapted a series of Walt Disney stories: Rox et RoukyRobin des bois, Taram et le chaudron magique, not to mention Basil détective privé, are all his. During the Covid lockdowns, unable to leave France, he completed two as yet unpublished books which will broaden his scope further still: L’Adhésion littéraire which analyses the social and political work of the literary, and a fictionalised memoir of the life of his uncle, a shepherd.

We will continue to read and learn from his work, but we will always miss our friend, the zest with which he would announce that ‘nous avons bien travaillé’, the cheery way he would use his preferred English word ‘anyway’ (generally in the middle of a French sentence), his characterful email sign-offs – from the learned ‘Tibi’ to the inimitable ‘Tnaks you very much’. We will miss his kindness and his encouragement; we are the lesser without him. We extend our deepest condolences to his son Frédéric, to Frédéric’s mother Anne-Marie Viala, and to Kate Tunstall, his partner since 2006.

Edward Nye, Chair of the French Sub-Faculty and Caroline Warman, Secretary of the French Sub-Faculty

A shorter version of this tribute appeared in The Guardian on Wednesday 13 October 2021.


The death of Alain Viala is a great loss for early modern French studies. And, since Alain always made the early modern speak large, understanding the period both in its own right and as a prism for thinking at other scales, it is a loss more broadly for all littéraires. Over the course of some twenty books, one hundred and fifty articles, and seven CD box-sets, as well as innumerable seminars and post-seminar ciga- rettes, his work covered the full range of French literary history. It also made clear how literature and its formation is entangled with and must be understood as a form of political life.

Alain was born on the edge of the town of Saint-Affrique, in the sud-Aveyron, to a family of paysans who knew and worked the land. His lifelong respect for varied forms of knowledge, and his characteristic curiosity about and watchfulness over landscapes cultural and otherwise, retained much of that heritage. Our thanks must go to the teacher who spotted a child who could flourish in the state internat, and to that same republican system which allowed someone of limited means to rise in the way he did; thanks also to the dog which, Alain said, was good enough to let him read a little when he was meant to be herding the goats. If we learn anything from Alain’s work on the literary, it must be that our own successes are variously enabled or constrained by the institutions and places in which we find ourselves, and by the ways in which those institutions find us.

From school in Rodez Alain went on to prépa in Toulouse and then in the late 1960s, highly-charged years, to further study at ENSET, the École normale supér- ieure de l’enseignement technique (later ENS Cachan); he became agrégé in lettres modernes in 1971. As an assistant lecturer at Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle, he still made space for writing outside the academic system, writing regularly (as ‘A. Ranvier’) for Le Peuple français, a journal exploring history through a working- class lens. These years also saw the start of a life-long collaboration with Michel P. Schmitt, with whom he wrote a number of books on the place of literature and reading in schools (Faire-lire, 1979; Savoir-lire, 1982). With Jacques Morel at the Sorbonne Nouvelle as his doctoral supervisor he also began research on writers and their entanglements with all forms of literary institutions in the ancien régime, pro- ducing a thesis on La naissance des institutions de la vie littéraire en France (1643-1665).

But if Morel was his official supervisor, he was also learning in these years from the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, and when in 1985 his thesis became a book, pitched somewhat differently as Naissance de l’écrivain: sociologie de la littérature à l’âge Classique, it appeared in the collection Bourdieu directed at Éditions de Minuit. The book received a ‘prix spécial’ from the Société des Lettres the following year, and has gone on shaping generations of readers – and writers – since that date. A bold book in its redrafting of how literary work of the period might be under- stood, and in its rejection of formalism’s stranglehold on studies of the period, it nonetheless ends with suggesting that in all its complexity this period’s literature ‘incite à la modestie.’ This mingling of intellectual audacity (and at times plain chee- kiness) with a real if rhetorically deft modesty would characterise Alain throughout his career.

In the same year as the publication of Naissance, he was appointed to a perma- nent position at Paris 3-Sorbonne Nouvelle in 1985, also going on to hold visiting professorships around the world, where he built lasting connections: Alain was always ready to put others in touch with colleagues in Liège, Laval, Atlanta, Chicago, Tel Aviv and the many other places he had worked. Closer to home, in 1999 he was appointed president of the groupe technique disciplinaire charged with overhauling the teaching of literature in lycées, a project close to the heart of someone who had thought through pedagogy since the start of his career. His revised syllabus was adopted but then overturned by more conservative forces. The Paris stir in reaction to this was immense, but by this time Alain was already exploring new horizons.

In 1997 Alain had accepted a five-year professorship in Oxford, funded by the French government, and in 2003 he was appointed to a permanent Chair of French there, and became a Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall. Alain was an excellent fellow, in all senses of that term; the great reader of institutional operations had found a home. He loved the college gardeners and was instrumental in the creation of the college’s wildflower meadow. It was a brave move, to leave the heart of French literary culture for a place in which French is just another foreign oddity, but Alain navigated the dissonance with aplomb and generosity, turning his hand to marking proses like the good pedagogue he had always been.

At the university level, Alain brought a rather inward-looking Oxford into rich conversation with French and other Francophone institutions, focussing especially on the need for doctoral students in different places to encounter each other’s work; his work as co-organiser of the Oxford-Fribourg doctoral programme, as well as his habitual “Tiens, tu devrais connaître ... ”, has brought about many connections professional and personal, a hugely supportive network which has been even more apparent in the wake of his death. That same community-building was central to the work he did as convener of the Early Modern French Seminar, work which continued in lively fashion at the pub and at Al-Shami Lebanese restau- rant. One colleague – not, formally, a student of Alain – noted that his thesis began to take shape when Alain scribbled some notes for him on the back of his cigarette packet; others think of their book as hinging on “juste une petite remarque” made at just the right moment. For a man who worked on querelles, and at times courted them, he also knew how to bring people together in extraordinarily enriching ways.

Alain’s fostering of intellectual communities went back much further than those Thursdays at the Maison Française d’Oxford. In 1996 he had co-founded the GRIHL (Groupe de recherches interdisciplinaires sur l’histoire du littéraire) with the historian Christian Jouhaud, a co-adventure of the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and Paris 3. Twenty-five this year and still going strong, the GRIHL has raised a large number of extraordinary and now established scholars. It has something of a terrifying reputation, but scholars of the seventeenth-century theatre know that terror can stimulate great reflection. The seminar’s robust exchanges, breadth of inquiry, and characteristic care for both precision and large-stake arguments all owe much to Alain; its ongoing success under the brilliant direction of Dinah Ribard will be a lasting tribute to him. At the moment of his unti- mely death, Alain was involved in the preparation of a volume introducing the GRIHL’s work to Anglophone audiences; we look forward to this work introducing new readers to this vibrant research community.

For the GRIHL, as for Alain, the early modern has been a central but not exclu- sive prism through which to tackle questions about the place of the literary. Alain’s capacity to make the early modern speak large can be seen at work in La France galante: essai historique sur une catégorie culturelle (2008) and its ‘sequel’ La Galanterie: une mythologie française (2019), in which a tracing of historical beha- viours, textual and otherwise, prises open the long history of a platitude central to French self-mythologising and still painfully relevant today. (We’re proud that one of the early iterations of this project, on ‘Les querelles galantes’, was heard when the Society for Seventeenth-Century French Studies picked Alain as the plenary at the giant seventeenth-century conference of 2006, which brought together UK, US and French colleagues in Oxford.) Alain’s memorable last presentation to the GRIHL, in May of this year, was on popular songs of the First World War, marking a new path that took him back to old interests.

Alain’s particular affinity for the theatre can be seen in his work on Racine, as editor and biographer: Racine: la stratégie du caméleon (1990) is a work which manages to be both puncturing and enabling, shaking the dust off a received Racine and allowing readers to trace a career carefully wrought in relation to powerful institutions and individuals. This care for the theatre in all its forms could be seen more broadly in Le Théâtre en France des origines à nos jours (1996), and, as ever, in the creation of new places of exchange, like the exciting ‘Rencontres, Recherches et Création’ project which he co-organised at the Avignon Festival every year, bringing together academics, theatre directors and actors. Participants will remember Alain smiling gently from the back of the room, moving capably from whispered conferrals on some urgent practical matter to come forward with a characteristically underplayed and yet illuminating question. Fittingly, one of Alain’s most significant prises de position was in the form of a Lettre à Rousseau sur l’intérêt litteraire (2005), which spoke back to Jean- Jacques to defend the aesthetic, moral and social functions of theatre.

I’ve focused here on what Alain could do with and for an institution, on the page, in the seminar room and in the pub; he leaves also a long bibliography, too long to detail here, which leaves us traces of his wry poise and gracious erudition in some- times surprising places. Between 1988 and 1992, he adapted a series of Walt Disney stories: Rox et Rouky, Robin des bois, Taram et le chaudron magique, not to mention Basil détective privé; all merit a detour on the way to treasures like the Dic- tionnaire du littéraire (co-edited, 2002) or Qu’est-ce qu’un classique? (1993). We look forward, too, to two as yet unpublished books, written during the last hard year of lockdown: L’Adhésion littéraire which analyses the social and political work of the literary, and a fictionalised memoir of the life of his uncle the berger.

Alain was an Aveyronnais, a man with roots, but he was also a traveller, making connections from Indonesia to Israel, and most crucially a shuttler between Paris and Oxford, bringing home the small Coke cans of Eurostar like glittering trophies. It’s particularly hard to lose him in this period when such travel has been so diffi- cult, and when he was so missed in his Oxford home. Visitors there will remember his pleasure in a tiny garden in East Oxford, in rugby seen from an English perspec- tive, and above all in the great shared joy of his life with Kate Tunstall, whose pres- ence had in turn made possible Alain’s pleasure in the much larger garden at the house in Saint-Affrique that they restored to life together. Alain leaves a son, Frédé- ric, Frédéric’s mother Anne-Marie Viala, many sore-hearted colleagues and friends, and his beloved Kate, his partner since 2006. Our grief is immense, but we will take pleasure in rereading and remembering our friend, our colleague, our teacher.

Katherine Ibbett (2021) Alain Viala, 20th November 1947 – 30th June 2021, Early Modern French Studies, 43:2, 124-127. Reproduced with kind permission of the editor.


« Juste deux ou trois petites remarques » : de sa voix doucement rauque, au timbre cendré, et à la lisière de l’audible, il nous a apporté du feu, à nous autres, early modernists de l’université d’Oxford ; car il voyait bien qu’il nous en fallait, pour ranimer notre vie intellectuelle, devenue avec le temps plutôt tiède, blafarde, sinon maussade. De semaine en semaine, avec ses deux ou trois petites remarques en forme de méandre, il exemplifiait, témoignait, faisait preuve d’un savoir, d’une intelligence et d’une générosité insolites, inextinguibles. Sachant prêter attention – et passer la parole – aux jeunes chercheuses et chercheurs en particulier, il faisait décongeler notre habitus, et (comme si de rien n’était) il nous apprenait de nouveaux arts de faire. De la seminar room de la Maison Française d’Oxford jusqu’à la back room du Rose and Crown ou de l’Al Shami, le pub ou le restaurant libanais où la discussion se poursuivait, parfois jusqu’au petit matin, de nouvelles formes de sociabilité lumineuses s’esquissaient, de nouvelles traditions intellectuelles s’inventèrent. Une dynamique de groupe chaleureuse, fructueuse et critique s’est installée chez nous, et nous y avons tous gagné.

Gardien d’un savoir-faire et d’un respect pour les fonctions et les charges administratives qui est plutôt rare chez les universitaires, il n’oubliait pas non plus l’importance de la chose publique : le cursus scolaire, les comités interuniversitaires, le financement. Restructuring and reform ne lui faisaient pas peur, et tout en aimant, beaucoup, Oxford et ses formes de collégialité particulières, il nous incitait à passer outre les murs de l’université, les bornes de notre petit îlot, et à revivifier (nonobstant le malheur du Brexit…) la collaboration internationale. Du projet AGON qui a tant marqué le chemin intellectuel et professionnel de toute une génération de jeunes chercheuses et chercheurs devenus professeurs par la suite, jusqu’au partenariat entre l’ANR, le festival d’Avignon et TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), il nous apprenait à renforcer et à approfondir l’intérêt du public pour la recherche. Si, à Oxford, cette année, l’hiver s’annonce froid, c’est qu’il nous manquera, notre improbable Prométhée, qui était, comme l’a bien dit un collègue : « un sacré bonhomme and a real Mensch ».

Pour Alain Viala. Hommage[1]


Professor Wes Williams

[1] Original publication : Presses universitaires du Midi : « Littératures classiques » 2021/2 N° 105 | pages 5 à 13 ISSN 0992-5279 ISBN 9782810707591 //