With sadness and deep affection, we must record the passing of S. S. Prawer – Siegbert to all who knew him, and to know him was to be enthralled. We published what he declared was positively his final book twice, once in 1997 with Breeches and Metaphysics: Thackeray’s German Discourse and then again in 2010 with A Cultural Citizen of the World: Sigmund Freud’s Knowledge and Use of British and American Writings. He had a jackdaw’s eye for details, and recognised the jackdaw when he saw it in other writers, too: if a passage had a ghostly echo of Treasure Island about it, or an allusion to Bentham, or hinted at familiarity with a particular Hitchcock movie, he would identify it at once. That’s not a gift unknown among great critics, but Siegbert’s ability to take a complex pattern of findings and turn them into clear, elegant narrative was unmatched. His Thackeray book for us runs to 542pp, and although, as one reviewer put it, “I have the distinct impression that Prawer has really hunted down and rounded up every last German reference there is in Thackeray”, he did so with no footnotes.
Jim Reed’s obituary in the Times yesterday makes eye-opening reading, if you can find your way round the paywall. Siegbert was half-Polish, half-German, and Jewish, so we are lucky that he lived much past 14: “As a boy in Cologne he had witnessed Kristallnacht and seen Hitler open an SA building.” He escaped in 1939, but to Coventry, where Hitler caught up with him again: “he remembered dumping an unexploded fire-bomb in a bucket of sand”. Though he was devoted to English literature, he seems to have become a modern linguist because his tutor, E. M. W. Tillyard, thought his almost theatrically middle-European accent might be an impediment in academic job interviews. I probably shouldn’t say “almost” theatrical, though, because he had a cameo in the Merchant-Ivory movie of Howard’s End opposite Simon Callow, and – I can’t believe this, except that I can – he played God in a student production of Goethe’s Faust only last year.
Having tea with him, with his execrable but precious typescripts on one side of the table and our proofs on the other, was like being in the presence of – well, if not God, then at least Albus Dumbledore. Legenda owes him a debt of gratitude, too: his Thackeray book, no. 1 in our Studies in Comparative Literature series, helped put us on the map. It got us a review in the TLS, when we were just starting out as a press, and it was really a gesture of great good faith on Siegbert’s part that he was willing to give so major a work to an untried group of academics setting up a new imprint.
His farewell lecture, Childe Harold’s Jewish Pilgrimage: Byron Meets Yiddish Poetry in Expressionist Berlin, 1920-1923, appears as Oxford German Studies 41.1 (2012), 1-14. (Postscript: The lecture can now be read for free, that is, without need of a personal or institutional subscription: just click on the link.)