David Gervais 1943-2015
Monday, 10 August 2015
David Gervais was a Lecturer in the English Department from 1971 to 1990, when he took early retirement. He remained highly active as a literary scholar and editor until his death from pneumonia in May 2015.
In later life David was best known for his book Literary Englands (1993), an influential study of the conflicting ideas of Englishness to be found in twentieth-century poets and novelists including Edward Thomas, D. H. Lawrence, John Betjeman, Philip Larkin and Geoffrey Hill. Literary Englands exemplifies the sensitivity and forthrightness of David’s literary criticism although it is in one sense unrepresentative of his critical output, which was markedly interdisciplinary. He was the author of two comparative studies of English and French culture, Flaubert and Henry James (1978) and John Cowper Powys, T. S. Eliot and French Literature (2004), and he also wrote widely on painting from Turner and Delacroix to the present. At Reading, he pioneered the study of modern literature and the visual arts in what became a joint MA course taught by the Departments of English and History of Art.
David read English at Clare College, Cambridge, where he was briefly a pupil of F. R. Leavis. He spent the years 1965-7 in Canada, first as a teaching fellow at the University of Toronto and then working in educational publishing. He returned to study in Paris and at the University of Edinburgh, where he held a temporary lectureship (1970-1) and obtained his PhD. While at Edinburgh he met his future wife Marie-Marthe, then a lectrice in the French Department. They were married immediately before he took up his post at Reading in 1971, and soon had two sons. Theirs was a close-knit family, and in 1978, when Marie-Marthe obtained her first permanent academic post at the then Portsmouth Polytechnic, they moved to Hampshire to be near her place of work.
From its inception in 1973, David was responsible for the day-to-day running of the MA course on ‘The Literary Response to the Visual Arts’ set up under the influence of an earlier generation of Reading scholars including Professors Ian Fletcher and D. J. Gordon. It was due to David’s quiet insistence that the course began with an in-depth study of the art criticism of John Ruskin, whose centrality to Victorian intellectual and cultural life was then being rediscovered. As a teacher David was meticulous, deeply conscientious, and the reverse of flamboyant, and his enthusiasm and depth of knowledge had a lasting influence on his colleagues and former students. He was responsible for liaison with the French Department, and built up close working relationships with several of its members. David took early retirement in 1990.
Once he had given up teaching David’s intellectual life continued unabated, and he was appointed to a Visiting Fellowship and then an Honorary Fellowship in the Department of English. Together with other ex-pupils of F. R. Leavis he edited the Cambridge Quarterly from 1981 to his death, and his many contributions to this journal, it has been said, reveal ‘a vertiginous mix of topics, all written with a profound sense of passion, love and great knowledge’. He reviewed many art exhibitions, and one of his last essays was a reappraisal of Picasso. David also wrote regularly on poetry for the journal PN Review. His criticism, full of plain language and striking yet down-to-earth observations, has a timeless quality since he always remained independent of intellectual fashions. He had a deep knowledge of French literature, but for all his Francophilia he remained deeply English rather than becoming (to use his own phrase) an ‘imitation Frenchman’. He continued to give occasional papers at literary conferences, and became an active, and much-admired, member of the Powys Society and the Edward Thomas Society. Few who met him in these capacities can have known of his battle against both physical and mental ailments. He remained determinedly optimistic, but it was the devoted support of Marie-Marthe and his family that kept him going through a long succession of crises, relapses and periods of hospitalisation. Nevertheless, his death came quite suddenly, towards the end of a family holiday in Italy where he had realised his long-held ambition of visiting the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini. His personal and intellectual presence will be very much missed.
Professor Patrick Parrinder