from Alistair Rolls and Greg Hainge
Greg and I started our journeys at Nottingham University as undergraduates in October 1990. They were days when the university experience was rather different, and I for one, as a first-in-family student from a working-class family was entirely out of my comfort zone. And I couldn’t have been happier. Among all the personalities who made up the French Department at Nottingham in those days (my memories are of academics with brilliant minds and teachers with “stage presence”) few lecturers could command a room better than Nick Hewitt. He was renowned for his dry and cutting wit but, above all, for his ability to fill students with awe while also – and this is a gift – getting his message through purposefully and didactically. I remember going into my final year knowing the department’s professor for his occasional lectures in team-taught literature courses and was surprised by the way that he engaged students in his courses on Céline (I read both Voyage au bout de la nuit and Mort à crédit twice that year, and I suspect that Greg would have done the same) and the popular culture of the Fourth Republic, but also his classes on journalistic French rhythm, which marked me deeply and which I have tried, with less success, to incorporate in my own language classes since. Greg went on to do a PhD on Céline, while I followed my interest in Vian, and we both had Nick as supervisor. It was in those years (1994 to 1998) that I discovered a true kindness that some people may not have suspected beneath the often confrontingly intellectual exterior. He had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, but he suffered me… And he supported me, often quietly and behind the scenes, and guided me to a successful outcome, something for which I shall be forever grateful. The most complimentary words he ever said about my work were not said to me, but instead to my parents, on the day of my PhD graduation ceremony. They felt more out of place there than I did (and to this day I hesitate as I walk onto university campuses for the first time), and those words meant more to them than he perhaps realized. That was very much a mark of the man.
Of his academic works, I shall always remember The Golden Age of Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Bloomsbury, 1987), France and the Mass Media (Palgrave Macmillan, 1991), which he edited Brian Rigby, which I read as an undergraduate, and his article on La Nausée, “Looking for Annie” (Journal of European Studies, 1982), which was a pioneering study of the novel’s other, non-philosophical side. Lastly, having discussed its progress with him over the years, I am yet to read Montmartre: A Cultural History. I plan to read it now, but it will be with a heavy heart. I owe Nick Hewitt a great deal and I shall miss his mentorship, his wit and his unfailing support.
“Nous voici encore seuls. Tout cela est si lent, si lourd, si triste… Bientôt je serai vieux. Et ce sera enfin fini.”
How else to begin a reflection on the life of Nick Hewitt than with these opening lines of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s second novel, Mort à credit. Given the fundamentally biological, medical vision of existence that permeates le Docteur Destouches’ literary universe, death is the only possible “vérité de ce monde” (Voyage au bout de la nuit). Given this, given the time that I have spent pondering such matters, thanks to Nick who introduced me to the works of Céline, one might think that news of his passing would be less of a shock, would seem less unreal.
More the fool me, for Bardamu continues his musing on death as follows: “La vérité de ce monde c’est la mort. Il faut choisir, mourir ou mentir. Je n’ai jamais pu me tuer moi”. Death, then, is our only truth, but it is one we attempt to dissimulate by telling stories that pretend this is not so, that there is some way to offset the crushing absurdity of a life thus defined, to laugh in the face of this very bleakest of visions and thus have the will to carry on living.
Now then is a time for telling stories, for remembering fondly how Nick lived and worked according to this kind of principle.
In his academic writing, Nick was an exemplary storyteller with a flair for readability that unfortunately didn’t always rub off on his doctoral students – don’t worry, I’m having a dig at myself, Alistair! His work The Golden Age of Louis-Ferdinand Céline remains to my mind the best critical work on Céline’s novels in the English language; it uncovered archival information never previously published that radically changed the interpretation of some key aspects of Céline’s novels, presented an incredibly rich and complex analysis of the texts that unpacked their deep and irreverent engagement with the (at the time) emergent theory of psychoanalysis, and yet managed to remain very accessible. His biography of Céline published with Blackwell went further still, being meticulous in its attention to detail and scholarly rigour while being a real page-turner.
That he managed so successfully to walk this fine line between erudition, rigour and readability is perhaps due to two things. Firstly, as Alistair notes, he had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly or, to put this slightly differently, he was not afraid to cut to the chase and call a cat a cat. This propensity for brutal honesty could be confronting to say the least: having read through what I thought was the final version of my thesis, I remember him saying to me, “it’s great, but it’s not a thesis”. Having picked myself up from the floor, our subsequent discussion about what precisely that meant remains one of the most valuable conversations I have had for thinking about my own writing and the advice that I provide to my students.
As well as talking and writing straight, though, the other key to the success of Nick’s work is the obvious love of the material that can be felt in his writing. This extends from his early work on Céline, through his mid-career work on other writers whose political positioning provides an alternative history of the inter-war years, perhaps reaching its apogee in his late career work on places in France dear to his heart. As surely befits its subject matter, Colin Jones concludes his review of Nick’s 2017 volume Montmartre: A Cultural History by noting that, “there is pleasure aplenty in this subtle and highly evocative account”. Let us then hope that we will soon have the opportunity to find more pleasure still in the pages of the book on Marseille that Nick was working on. “I’m in the final stages of sending the manuscript for the Marseille book off to the publishers, but, at the moment, it’s more or less on schedule”, he wrote to me in January. And this is wonderful news indeed, because if the stories we tell make life bearable while we are here, they also provide those who survive us, who cared for us and thus mourn us some small consolation when, finally, we can lie no more and must face the truth.