Gordon Millan obituary | Poetry
My friend Gordon Millan, who died at the age of 74, was a specialist in French literature of the Belle Epoque and an authority on the great French poet Stéphane Mallarmé.
Gordon was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, to Isobel (née Hamilton) and Frederick, a baker. After Frederick’s death, Isobel moved to England, and Gordon and his twin brother, Freddie, swapped Kirkcaldy’s high school for Merrywood Grammar in Bristol, where his interest in languages was awakened.
Returning to the north to study French and Latin at the University of Edinburgh, he graduated in 1968 after a decisive year as a language assistant at Tournon-sur-Rhône in the south of France, where Mallarmé spent three years of his life. Opting for payment in wine rather than cash, Gordon also became the English tutor to Maison owner M. Chapoutier, one of the best wine producers in the Rhône Valley. Before leaving Tournon, he regretfully declined Chapoutier’s internship offer.
Influenced by Mallarmé’s specialist Carl Barbier, who was professor of French in Edinburgh, Gordon completed under Barbier’s supervision a doctorate on the writer and socialite Pierre Louÿs. Appointed lecturer in French at the University of Strathclyde in 1976, he became professor, vice-dean and director of his school of modern languages before retiring in 2009.
His thesis was published under the title Pierre Lous or the Cult of Friendship (1979) and he later edited the extensive correspondence between Louÿs and his diplomatic half-brother, Georges. Gordon’s main emphasis, however, was on Mallarmé, and after Barbier’s death he completed their definitive edition Stéphane Mallarmé: Poésies, Vers de Circumstance (1983). Gordon wrote mainly in French, but A Throw of the Dice; the Life of Stéphane Mallarmé (1994) remains essential for English-speaking readers confronted with the difficulties of Mallarmé’s work.
Gordon’s flair for unearthing information on Mallarmé’s circle continued with Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘Mardis’: mythes et réalités (2008) and Mallarmé in Tournon and beyond. (2018). Her latest book, Marie Mallarmé: Le fantôme dans la glace (2019), is a story by Mallarmé’s wife of German origin. These constitute a formidable body of erudition on which he remains of an endearing modesty.
Friendly, independent-minded, indomitable in the face of long-standing health issues, Gordon was blessed with an irrepressible and irreverent sense of humor. Not a slave to academic fashion, especially if he came from France, he devoted himself to the service of French literature and was honored by the French State when he was appointed an officer of the Order of Academic Palms in 2004.
He is survived by his wife, Anne (née Robbie), whom he married in 1970 after they met while they were students in Edinburgh, their children, David and Bryony, and his brother.