Linguist with a passion for bon mot is tipped for top

January 6, 2006

OUP says Richard Scholar is an author to watch. Mandy Garner meets him

Modern languages may be languishing in universities, but for Richard Scholar they herald a bright future in publishing. Scholar, a French lecturer at Oriel College, Oxford, is tipped for great things in 2006. Oxford University Press, home to many first-time academic authors, has singled him out as one to watch in the new year.

His first book, The Je-Ne-Sais-Quoi in Early Modern Europe: Encounters with a Certain Something , was published in October and is beginning to surface in the media. In January, Divided Cities , based on the Oxford Amnesty Lectures of the same name, and edited by Scholar, will hit the bookshops.

Scholar, 32, lectures in early modern French literature. He says the idea for his book came from a fascination with what it is that literary writing can express that other forms of writing cannot - "things," he says, "that other modes of thinking do not talk about or interest themselves in".

"In early modern writing, you see powerful experiences of love at first sight, hate at first sight and so on described. They are powerful experiences of the world that in some sense resist explanation - even though politics and science try to explain them, they resist," Scholar says. "Literary writing uses the resources of the imagination to find a way to put those experiences into words."

By tracing how the phrase " je ne sais quoi " came into the French language - surprisingly, this quintessentially French phrase originated in Italy - Scholar used "the history of words to trace developments in different ways of thinking". He says his book shows the importance of learning languages.

"If the ability they offer of thinking in different ways about the world is lost, it would be like losing a species, like losing a part of the richness of the world."

Scholar adds that, although the English tried to translate " je ne sais quoi " in the 17th century, they decided to leave it in French, which emphasised how it described "things beyond the available resources of language". "Different languages can increase our awareness of things," he says.

Scholar has "shyly" mentioned the book to his students and some have "discreetly" borrowed it from the library. They may also be interested in the Amnesty book, which will raise money for the human rights organisation.

Scholar says he was particularly interested in the subject of divided cities because of his work on early modern Europe, studying the connections between urban literary thinking and literary forms of utopia, which explore how best to organise political life. He is fascinated by how this links to 20th-century interest in "how to organise things so that they address questions of social justice". His next work is likely to look at the work of the French philosopher and writer Montaigne, whom he wants to bring to a wider audience. OUP clearly believes he will pull it off.

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