Professor Keith Reader

Keith Reader’s favourite comedian was W.C.Fields, who has a famous scene in his completely chaotic and untidy office when a specific document is requested. Fields walks over to vertiginous piles of paper and pulls out precisely the one required. Keith’s first appearance to some might have been equally shambolic, but within there lay a sharp, creative, and, needless to say, humorous mind. My first encounter was at an ASMCF conference in September 1982, when, looking slightly the worse for wear, he gave a comprehensive dissection, indeed demolition, of the nouveaux philosophes and particularly of one of his lifetime bêtes noires, Bernard-Henri Lévy. At the first SFS conference I attended, at Oxford in 1984, a revolutionary innovation in those hallowed halls had Jill Forbes (on Jean-Louis Baudry) and Keith (on La Règle du jeu, which was screened) speak in the first ever session on cinema. Keith took no nonsense from representatives of an old French Studies guard (who shall remain nameless, but let us say of a conservative estimation…) who condescendingly revealed in the discussion afterwards that the talk in the bar had been of Renoir’s film being ‘not very gooood’. As I got to know Keith better and vice versa, he once tested the waters of what I might find to be acceptable discourse: in a conversation about some of the more, let us say, specialised articles in the journal French Studies, on the etymology of ‘concierge’ to be precise (no offence to the author of the piece), he proposed a literal translation of the first then second syllable, glancing up to check my reaction.

Those interested in probing further the Reader psyche would do well to read his hilarious contribution to the special issue of French Cultural Studies (October 1999) edited by Brian Rigby, ‘Personal Voices, Personal Experiences’ when some of us were asked to write autobiographical accounts of our life in French studies. ‘Jottings from the Gallic Gynaeceum’ offers us not only insights into his love life, but also into the sources of his many other loves, notably cinema, the French language, and of course Paris. Along with the self-awareness and self-humour to be found in this article, and the lapsed Catholicism which contributed to the seriousness underpinning his work, these elements shine through in his best writing: for example, the recent books on the Marais and the Place de la Bastille, the study of Robert Bresson, his innovative work on gender and cross-dressing in Renoir. Keith’s scholarly itinerary was not unusual for his generation (thesis on a canonical literary figure – Stendhal – followed by a broadening out), but his prolific output was further fuelled by a limitless intellectual curiosity, and by the challenges and pleasures of border crossings which no doubt began in those journeys from Crawley to Oxbridge as well as France, and which continued with his international conference and other speaking invitations. Beneath the humour, there was a melancholy side, and he was of course appalled by political events of the past few years. We shall miss him enormously.

Bill Marshall, University of Stirling

We were honoured that Keith chose the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP) for the final teaching role in his long and illustrious career. Refusing any suggestion of a restful retirement, Keith shuttled regularly back and forth on the Eurostar, giving undergraduate and postgraduate students the benefit of his wit and erudition in courses on French cinema while completing the research for The Marais: the story of a quartier (LUP 2021). Assuming the role of elder statesman, he endeared himself to the Institute's small community of staff and students as much through his grumbling - whether about the quality of the teabags or the on-going marketisation of UK HE - as through the expression of his incisive intellect and the sharing of his vast knowledge. He was also an instinctive and generous mentor to younger academics following in his footsteps, as remembered below:

I first knew Keith as my lecturer and then my PhD supervisor at the University of Glasgow. He then became my colleague at ULIP, and, finally, my friend. It will come as a surprise to nobody that Keith made a lasting impression in all of these roles. Keith’s list of academic achievements is long and we will all take comfort in seeing his books displayed on the ULIP library’s shelves. Despite his sizeable intellectual presence, however, what I will miss most about Keith is his warm, generous and wickedly funny nature. As a colleague, he was a great champion of younger staff, a defender of research time in the face of increasing academic pressures and a prolific sigher during long staff meetings. As a friend, he was a great source of advice, a hilarious critic of political culture and an endearingly honest man. He will be greatly missed.

Louise Lyle and Catriona MacLeod, University of London Institute in Paris

Keith Reader was broad in his academic interests and equally at ease in any of the strands of French studies. No doubt his heart was in the French cinema, and he wrote with great erudition about many aspects of it, particularly from the 1930s onwards. His piece on Robert Bresson (October 1986) was one of the first articles on cinema to be published by French Studies, and he often returned to Bresson, writing a volume on him in the French Film Directors Series for Manchester UP (2000).

But his sympathies were always broader. His first book was on Intellectuals and the Left in France since 1968 (1987), and that was an arena in which he felt at home, like many of his contemporaries. He gave strikingly original accounts of writers like Régis Debray and Pierre Bourdieu before they became widely known and was an astute commentator of the then-neglected links that avant-garde thinkers like Lacan, Althusser or Derrida maintained with their religious backgrounds.

When the concept of French Cultural Studies emerged in the late 1980s, Keith was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the new approach. He was a contributor to the first issue of the journal French Cultural Studies, with an article on Simone Weil’s La Pesanteur et la grâce (February 1990) which engaged in a characteristic self-reflection on his own stance in commenting on the work. He also contributed to the volume French Cultural Studies: an Introduction(1995), which I edited with the late Jill Forbes, a great friend and fellow spirit of Keith’s.

He was astonishingly well read and had a wide network of eminent contacts in the French-speaking world. He had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of French culture. This is shown in the Encyclopedia of Contemporary French Culture (1998), which he co-edited with Alex Hughes. Keith’s many entries on French cinema are pithy encapsulations and he added dozens of short summaries of cultural figures from Anouk Aimée to Marguerite Yourcenar.

Keith was generous with his knowledge and insights and was always happy to pass them on to students and younger scholars, many of whom regarded him as an unofficial mentor. He shared his erudition with great bonhomie, expressing himself with a carefully articulated wit that was always worth listening to. Inevitably, he was deeply out of sympathy with the UK governments of recent years. His sharp analyses of current affairs attracted many comments from like-minded friends on social media, even as his comments became increasingly acerbic.

Keith was great company. It was a delight to sit down with him for a drink or a meal after a day’s conference and mull over what had gone on. I once shared a road trip with him in California and remember enjoying the stream of anecdotes he maintained, finding French connections with moments on the route from Stanford to Big Sur. John Steinbeck’s visits to Paris naturally arose as we passed through Salinas and Monterey, Steinbeck’s stamping grounds. Keith faisait feu de tout bois and was always ready to share. Those of us who knew him were all the richer for it, and now mourn his passing.

Michael Kelly, University of Southampton