- Remembering Claude Pichois
Although, in recent years, Claude Pichois tended to speak more and more of his life as a peau de chagrin he could sense diminishing, few scholars have been as generous as he with their time, both to the great literary figures with whom his name is so profoundly associated, and to friends and colleagues, senior and junior alike.
Born in Paris in 1929, Claude Pichois initially followed the interests of his family, studying at the École des Hautes Études Commerciales, before turning to literature, gaining a Diplôme d'études supérieures in classics and then a Doctorat ès lettres from the Sorbonne. His passion for Baudelaire was fired above all when, in 1950, he met Jacques Crépet, who, with his father Eugène Crépet, had specialized in Baudelaire, as he liked to joke, since the time of Louis xiv.
Claude's vision of literature, however, was always comparative and wide-ranging, founded in a conviction of the complex interrelationship of writer and society. It is this conviction that underpins his early studies of that wonderfully eccentric German writer and humorist, Jean-Paul Richter, and the critic, angliciste and writer of fantastic tales, Philarète Chasles. His own openness to different cultures led him to work in a variety of different university cities, from Aix-en-Provence and Basel, to Madison, Wisconsin. In 1970 W. T. Bandy invited him to move to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where, together with a truly remarkable group of Baudelaireans, he helped build up the Centre W. T. Bandy d'Études Baudelairiennes et de Français Moderne. While he would also accept a post at the Sorbonne, replacing the Rimbaud specialist Etiemble, Claude Pichois continued to teach and work for half of each year at Vanderbilt, imparting to his students a sense of what truly mattered in life. Once, when the tornado sirens had been sounding for some time without altering the intensity of his lecture, students tried to draw his attention to the possible danger. "Ah oui," he is reported as responding, "effectivement, mais comme je disais, au dix-neuvième siècle…" [End Page 240]
Three literary figures dominated his work, and to each of them he devoted a biography, a series of editions, and a succession of articles, revealing new texts, questioning standard readings or datings of established texts, extending our awareness of the writer's relationships, responsibilities, and reactions to his or her world. If his name is so intricately associated with that of Baudelaire that the Magazine littéraire recently called him the Prince of Baudelaireans, he also made himself a great scholar of Nerval and Colette. His apparently boundless energy and curiosity led him, moreover, to write on the discipline of comparative literature, on the importance of changes in the speed of travel to human perception of the world around us, on images of Belgium in French literature in the mid-nineteenth-century, and on Baudelaire's adventurous if impractical publisher, Auguste Poulet-Malassis. His reading was, indeed, vast, eclectic and unpredictable. If he visited Nantucket one fall, it was because of Melville, while one of his all time favorites was Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat.
His extraordinary generosity to younger scholars was legendary: how many of us have picked up the telephone to hear him demanding to know why we hadn't contacted him last time we were in Paris, encouraging us on our publications, declaring himself – he to whom this must have happened innumerable times – "fier comme un pou" that a book had been dedicated to him, exhorting, sympathizing, or simply conveying the warmth of his friendship. "Vous êtes chez Baudelaire" he would say, welcoming us into his apartment, with its memorabilia of the poet of Les Fleurs du Mal: maybe so, but we were also, and above all, chez Pichois, in the presence of a vigorous mind, a wonderful sense of fun, and impeccably high standards.
His most recent publications, written in conjunction with Jean-Claude Avice, are typical of him: a Baudelaire dictionary, and yet another exploration of Baudelaire's delight in images, wonderfully titled Passion Baudelaire. At his death he was in...