A version of my obituary for Micky Sheringham appeared in today’s Telegraph.
In tribute, and in recognition of my profound gratitude to Micky for his support and inspiration, I post the full version of the text below:
Professor Michael Sheringham
Professor Michael Sheringham, who has died from prostate cancer aged 67, was one of the finest French studies scholars of his time and one of the field’s most eloquent advocates. Professor of French at the University of Kent in Canterbury and then at Royal Holloway, he spent the final decade of his career as Marshal Foch Chair of French in Oxford and as a Fellow of All Souls. He acted as what the French call a passeur between academic disciplines and traditions, and was active on both sides of the Atlantic, maintaining numerous highly fruitful collaborations in France and North America. Equally at home in French as in English, Michael knew Paris particularly well. A committed reader of Baudelaire and a dedicated flâneur, he took great pleasure exploring the everyday life of the city. An initial interest in the surrealist poet André Breton and avant-garde fiction developed into a wide-ranging commitment to studying contemporary French literature, a field on which he made a profound impact through definitive contributions to the study of autobiography, the everyday and, latterly, archival memory. Michael’s intellectual interests were driven by genuine curiosity and a great enthusiasm for his subject. A highly perceptive reader of contemporary French texts, he wrote widely on authors such as Yves Bonnefoy, Jacques Réda, Jacques Roubaud, Marie NDiaye and Pierre Michon, and was responsible for bringing a number of them to wider public attention, not least through his lucid and memorably insightful contributions to the Times Literary Supplement over a period of nearly thirty years.
His books were the result of sustained, detailed reflection, and of meticulous attention to textual subtleties. Prominent among them was French Autobiography: Devices and Desires, which appeared in 1993, a study that presents autobiography as a persistently hybrid genre in which any sense of coherent self-projection on the part of the author is challenged by tensions between the present of writing and the past being recalled; Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present followed in 2006 (with a widely commented French translation published in 2013), a genuinely engrossing book that offers what one critic called ‘a seriously learned and spiritedly engaged study of the rich variety of response to the quotidian in the thought and writing of twentieth-century France’. At his death, Michael was near completion of a major book on the archive in contemporary French literature and culture, with the working title of The Afterlives of Pierre Rivière: Foucault/Archive/Film.
Michael was born in Cairo in 1948. His mother Yvette (née Habib) was from an Egyptian Copt background, and a poet. His father John (son of Hugh Tempest Sheringham, one of the finest angling writers of the twentieth century) was serving then in the Colonial Administration of Palestine, before going on to join the BBC monitoring service in Caversham. Returning to England, Michael was a pupil at Wallingford Grammar School and then studied French at the University of Kent in Canterbury from 1966. After two terms teaching at the New University of Ulster in Coleraine, he returned to Kent from 1974 to 1995, initially as Lecturer and Senior Lecturer before becoming Professor of French Literature in 1992. It was there that he met and married Priscilla Duhamel and that their two children, Sam and Olivia, were born. Appointed to a chair at Royal Holloway in 1995, he spent almost a decade at the institution before his election to the Marshal Foch Chair of French in Oxford in 2004. This was the post he held, together with a Fellowship of All Souls, until his recent retirement in 2015.
Michael was an active contributor to the fields in which he worked, serving as General Editor of Cambridge Studies in French from 1996 until 2001, as President of the Society for French Studies between 2002 and 2004, as a member of the French RAE subpanel in 2001 and 2008, and as Chair of the Committee of the Maison Française d’Oxford. He held numerous visiting professorships in France, including at the Collège de France in 2007, and also spent a particularly fulfilling period at Berkeley in 2006. On each occasion, he made lasting friendships and maintained significant academic ties. For two periods, in 2010 and 2012, he was a Camargo Foundation Fellow in Cassis, flourishing in the magnificent surroundings and enjoying being part of a diverse and creative community of artists and scholars. Appointed Chevalier in the Ordre des Palmes académiques in 1998, he was promoted to Officier in 2006, and the rare grade of Commandeur will be awarded posthumously later this year. He was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 2010.
Michael had an infectious sense of conviviality, a genuine gift for friendship, and a great generosity of spirit. Despite challenging times during his illness, especially in the final few months, he maintained his good humour as well as his curiosity for the many subjects to which he had devoted his career. He was always an attentive listener and a witty, genial interlocutor. He made those with whom he interacted feel that their own ideas were significant. This was particularly true of his many graduate students, for whom he was not only an inspirational teacher, but also a great source of encouragement. The week before his death, a conference was held in his honour at All Souls on the theme of ‘What forms can do’. The event, gathering friends, colleagues and former students associated with various periods in Michael’s life as well as the numerous strands of his interests, revealed not only the enduring impact of his work, but also the great affection and esteem in which he was held.
Wearing his knowledge lightly, Michael was consistently modest about his many achievements. Amid the many demands on his time, his family remained of paramount importance to him, and the only time he expressed anything approaching pride was when he talked about his son and daughter. His wife Priscilla survives him, with their two children, Sam and Olivia, and grandchildren, Eva, Jack, Leo and Daniel.
Professor Michael Hugh Tempest Sheringham, born June 2 1948, died January 21 2016