Dang and dang and dang

I just heard that Alain Renoir died December 12th.
I'm so sad to hear this.

Renoir was the son/ grandson of the filmmaker/artist.
And an impressive person in his own right.
He trained as a cameraman with his father.
He fought in WWII ("the only person you'll ever meet who rode off to war on a horse, with a saber.")
And ended up coming to America and bumming around Big Sur, before going to study Old English at Harvard.
Which he always managed to make sound as if it had been done as some kind of lark.
He had the best laugh ever, and a great goofy accent.

He taught at UC Berkeley for years.
He founded the Comparative Literature Department there, the department I studied in, but left it in a snit shortly before I came.
But he was still over in the English Department, and you could take Chaucer, and Beowulf, and Old English Readings, and History of English, and MORE Old English Readings from him.
All of it worth taking, and great entertainment value at the same time.
Yes, as I remember someone saying, all the classes were basically just Alain on Alain.
But somehow you still ended up learning a heck of a lot.

I took the Chaucer class from him when I was working on campus, having dropped out of college a couple of years earlier.
It made me go start Latin.
And finish my B.A. (he wrote me a letter).
And go to graduate school (he wrote me a letter).
He was utterly supportive of his students, had the administrative savvy and connections to help them, and was completely generous with his time, attention, ideas, anything.
And at the same time he had enough distance on the whole academic game, and enough cynicism about it, that his advice was always based on the real world.

For example, the story I heard about why he walked out of Comp Lit was this:
Comp Lit had a horrendous system of exams.
The original old system was basically that everything was fair game, and you had no dictionary.
(For the Ph.D. that would be five day-long essays, including a translation of a hunk of text related to the question. Then an oral exam as well, where issues from the writtens would be addressed, as well as new material.)
He stood strongly for the no dictionary part of this, although there was strong student feeling on the subject.

His explanation was that the program needed this to have credibility in the job market, where – for example – a student doing French as a main language (out of three) would be competing against students from the French Department.
And that it would be doing the students no favors to weaken the exams only to make them then seem less strong candidates to potential interviewers.
And if there were issues about the difficulty of the exam process, the impossible amount of material to be covered and
all that, they would be ironed out between the students and their committees.
And then, while he was away on break, the faculty – people he had recruited – voted to allow dictionaries despite his known opposition.
Which he considered to have been done behind his back.
Which I suppose it was

And he went off to the English Department.

Then when he retired from UC, he uprooted himself entirely.
He walked away from his marriage, moved out of town, and basically had nothing else to do with the university.
I was busy having a baby at the time, and never really manged to connect with him after that.
I saw him briefly at Ralph Rader's funeral, but that was the last time I spoke with him.
Some people I know dropped in on him up in Dixon, but I never quite managed to track him down in his new incarnation out in the countryside.
I gather there was a pet duck, and space, and quiet.

I hope his passing was gentle.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. hmmm. interesting. RIP. where btw is dixon? the name, not location, vaguely rings a bell …


  2. Dixon is north of the Bay Area, a bit below Davis.Farming country.


  3. I had a great professor for Chaucer. He railed against the translations, and read to us in Middle English, which often sounded more like German than English. Your friend sounds like one in a million. Beautiful eulogy, and I concur: I hope his passing was peaceful.


  4. ah, yes, Davis. old college friend had parents who lived there & considered attending vet school myself …


  5. Oh man…that's too bad…


  6. So sorry to hear this, lauo. He sounds like an incredible person.


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