C A Mayer - The Obituary

The Independent  The Independent

David H. Walker
Monday 1st June 1998

CLAUDE Albert (Klaus) Mayer was an international authority on the poet Clement Marot who introduced the sonnet into France, and a leading historian of Renaissance thought. He was also an inspiring teacher who at a time of upheaval and questioning in the university world instilled into a generation of would-be subversives the abiding importance of culture, scholarship and critical values.

Mayer was born in the week that saw the end of the First World War; his escape from history was short-lived. Having begun his education in his native Mainz at the Humanistiches Gymnasium, he was compelled to flee Germany when Hitler seized power in 1933, and for the next three years attended the Lycee Janson de Sailly in Paris.

Mayer's family then moved to England as the Nazis occupied the Rhineland, and he completed his secondary education at the Lycee Francais in London. After obtaining the baccalaureat he switched languages yet again in 1938 to embark on a degree at University College London. War finally caught up with him shortly thereafter, and he enlisted in the British army, serving in the Pioneer Corps from 1940 to 1943 and from 1943 to 1946 in the Intelligence Corps, where between 1945 and 1946 he was involved in investigations into war crimes.

The disruptions, migrations and turbulence amid which he grew to manhood were to mark him for life, though they could not halt his determination to pursue his academic career. A mere three years after becoming a naturalised British citizen in 1946, he had obtained a first class degree in French from London University - and a PhD for research on "Satire in French Literature from 1525 to 1560".

His thesis was a pioneering, extraordinarily original work which explored the sources of the dissident and atheist thought that formed the backdrop to the Renaissance, as well as the techniques which its proponents adopted to disseminate it. Four decades later, his magisterial Lucien de Samosate et la Renaissance francaise of 1984 synthesised a lifetime's work on the satirical legacy of the Greek writer. His many other publications illuminated Rabelais, Montaigne and Moliere among others; but Mayer will perhaps chiefly be remembered for his monumental devotion to the poet Clement Marot.

From his Bibliographie des Oeuvres de Clement Marot of 1954, through the multi-volume critical edition of the complete works, taking in the study La Religion de Marot (1960), and the critical biography Clement Marot (1972), Mayer provided authoritative texts, critical apparatus of the highest order, and scholarly exegesis informed at once by painstaking research and vigorously held opinions. For Mayer the artists and thinkers of the Renaissance had no truck with metaphysics and concentrated on ethics. This view is by no means universally shared, but he championed it untiringly, through debate, controversy and scholarly exchanges which sometimes attained a rare truculence.

As he advanced from Assistant Lecturer to Senior Lecturer in the universities of Hull, Southampton and London, he supervised a number of distinguished doctoral theses and began to form new generations of scholars. Appointed to the Chair of French at Liverpool University in 1965, he adopted his own distinctive style with the undergraduates of the post-war baby boom.

All teaching was to be done in French, with no concessions to the linguistic hesitancy of provincial 18-year-olds (or that of their junior lecturers); the curriculum was to feature the great figures of French Literature. To grammar-school pupils of whom many were the first of their ilk ever to see the inside of a university, all this mattered little in any case: they took it on trust, and were glad to do so. But sink or swim it was, and the robust atmosphere, though intimidating for many, proved exhilarating for some.

The man manifestly cared about what he lectured on. He set little store by personal style, whether the students were uncouth or cool, providing he perceived the intelligence and sensibility urgently making their way. Often uneasy himself in social settings, he perhaps empathised with the graceless youngsters aspiring to overreach themselves. Not only did he share his love of Ronsard with them during tutorials at his home, but this superb cook also initiated many into the wine and gastronomy the poet celebrates.

Fiercely committed to art, to knowledge and to beauty, he did not remain aloof from the unformed tastes of his students: "Cela ne vaut pas Mozart," he was heard merely to declare after undergoing exposure to the music of Jethro Tull during a party following one of the many theatrical productions he masterminded.

An iconoclast himself, and an arch-opponent of fanaticism, it is oddly appropriate that this peremptory mentor became for some inseparable from the liberation the Sixties brought. And at the turn of this heady decade came a vindication of sorts: the first cohort of his students to graduate produced six first class degrees in one year, and his eminence was recognised when he was elected President of the Society for French Studies in 1970.

Bon viveur and intellectual, larger-than-life humanist, nothing could be more alien to Klaus Mayer than the contemporary ethos of bureaucratised Teaching Quality and Research Assessment Exercises; and though we might heave a sigh of relief that he was spared such indignities, the three current professors of French who owe their start to him are certain that universities are poorer places with the passing of his like.

Klaus (Claude) Albert Mayer, French and Renaissance scholar: born Mainz, Germany 16 November 1918; Professor of French, Liverpool University 1965-78; married Dana Bentley-Cranch (one son); died Wisbech St Mary, Cambridgeshire 21 May 1998.

Illustration: St Martin's Cathedral, Mainz, a print of about 1840 by Tombleson

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