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My friend and colleague Alain Viala, who has died aged 73 of a heart attack, was emeritus professor of French literature at Oxford University. Alain was celebrated for his work on early modern France and his 20 books, 150 articles and seven CD audio box sets spanning his country’s literary history.
Alain was born in Saint-Affrique in the Aveyron region of south-western France into a family of limited means. His parents, Marie (nee Maurel) and Ernest Viala, were smallholders. Alain excelled at his state boarding school, the Lycée Ferdinand Foch in Rodez, which had running water and provided 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”.
An undergraduate in French literature at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University in Paris, Alain became an assistant lecturer in French literature there in the 1970s and wrote (under the pseudonym A Ranvier) for Le Peuple Français, a politically independent journal viewing history from a working-class perspective.
In 1985, he was appointed professor of French at the Sorbonne Nouvelle. He became interested in pedagogy and was asked in 1999 by the French government to reform literature teaching in secondary schools. After being initially adopted, his proposals were overturned by what the ministry of education called “seriously backward-looking elements” within the literary establishment.
Alain moved to the UK in 1997, to a post at Wadham College, Oxford, and in 2003 he was appointed to the chair of French literature at the university. His inaugural lecture was typical of the way he confronted the truths and deceptions of literature. It was a Letter to Rousseau, addressing and chastising the author with tact and understanding for denying the moral function of theatre. He retired in 2017.
Alain had many different readers. For some, he was the specialist of perhaps the greatest French playwright, Jean Racine, and editor of the standard works. For others, he was the writer of La France Galante, a socio-literary study that punctures certain French national myths. Or he was the generalist who put his erudition at the service of the general reader. His youngest readers know him from adaptations of Walt Disney stories.
Alain is survived by his partner Kate Tunstall, his son Frédéric, from a previous relationship, and his grandson, Maxime.