In Memoriam Neil John Cornwell
20 April 2020
Emeritus Professor Neil Cornwell (1942-2020)
Neil’s former colleagues at Bristol were greatly saddened to learn of his death on 23 March, at the age of 77.
Having graduated from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies of the University of London in 1972, Neil lectured in the Department of Slavonic Studies at Queen’s University Belfast from 1973 to 1987, where he also gained his PhD (1983). In 1987 he transferred to the Department of Russian Studies at Bristol, where he was promoted to a chair in 1993 and became Emeritus Professor in 2007.
Neil was a highly productive scholar whose corpus of authored books, edited books, articles, chapters, and reviews spanned a wide field from nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature to comparative literature.
His first book, The Life, Times and Milieu of V. F. Odoyevsky (Athlone Press, 1986) is a comprehensive and still valuable study of an eccentric dilettante, polymath, and writer of prose fiction who made a colourful contribution to Russian literary and intellectual life in the age of Nicholas I (1825-1855). Neil often returned to this fruitful subject. In 1988, he published a Russian edition of Prince Odoevsky’s tales, with notes and bibliography. He also tried his hand at literary translation, producing an English edition of eight of Odoevsky’s stories under the title The Salamander and Other Gothic Tales (Bristol Classical Press, 1992). He authored two further books on Odoevsky, Vladimir Odoevsky and Romantic Poetics (Berghahn, 1998), and Odoevsky’s Four Pathways into Modern Fiction: A Comparative Study (Manchester University Press, 2010). The publication of the latter, and final, monograph of Neil’s career coincided with the appearance of his translation of two more of Odoevsky’s tales, under the title Two Princesses, with a foreword by Bridget Kendall (Hesperus Classics, 2010).
Besides his extensive, pioneering work on this previously little-known writer, Neil produced monographs on three major Russian authors of the classical period and the twentieth century. There was a thoughtful study of Alexander Pushkin’s tale ‘The Queen of Spades’ (Bristol Classical Press, 2001), which had been preceded by Pasternak's Novel: Perspectives on ‘Doctor Zhivago’ (Keele, 1986), and Vladimir Nabokov (Northcote House, 1999). However, Neil was a comparativist as much as a Russianist. His broader interest in European literature and literary movements was reflected in his books James Joyce and the Russians (Macmillan, 1992; translated into Russian and published in St Petersburg in 1998), The Literary Fantastic: From Gothic to Postmodernism (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990), and The Absurd in Literature (Manchester University Press, 2006). In numerous articles and contributions to books edited by others, his attention ranged too over other non-Russian authors writing within diverse traditions and at various times, from Umberto Eco, Thomas Hardy, Ernst Hoffman, Henry James, and Fitz-James O’Brien, to Orhan Pamuk, Jan Potocki, and Salman Rushdie. In his excursions into the work of such authors, Neil would generally keep in mind their relations or affinities to writers in the Russian canon.
Neil was also a skilled and energetic editor of valuable collections of essays and materials, such as a collaborative book on the early Soviet prose writer and poet Kharms (another enduring interest), Daniil Kharms and the Poetics of the Absurd: Essays and Materials (Macmillan, 1991). Some of his edited volumes arose from colloquia he himself had organized, notably The Society Tale in Russian Literature: from Odoevskii to Tolstoi (Rodopi, 1998), which contained 11 chapters, one by Neil himself in addition to his introduction, and The Gothic-Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature (Rodopi, 1999), containing 12 chapters and Neil’s substantial introductory essay.
Neil’s masterpiece, though, is surely his Reference Guide to Russian Literature (Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998), which perhaps most perfectly reflected his interests, methods, breadth of learning, and attention to detail. Running to almost a thousand pages, this volume is of enduring significance for students of Russian literature. It comprises over 500 entries, written by an international team of 180 contributors, on individual authors and works of literature. It also contains 13 introductory essays, ranging from a survey of old Russian literature to an essay on Russian literature in the post-Soviet period. It is monumental in several respects, besides its bulk: as a compendium of biographical and bibliographical information; as a painstaking feat of selection of Russian writers and literary texts; as the outcome of skilful editorial commissioning (the list of contributors is generously inclusive, admitting scholars who at the time represented all points in the spectrum of a scholarly career); as an example of meticulous editing skills; and in terms of its editorial apparatus (lists of writers and works, reading lists, a chronology, and a glossary) which aids readers as they search for very specific guidance. Some of the essays in the Guide formed the basis for a further volume, The Routledge Companion to Russian Literature, containing 20 chapters, including Neil’s introduction, which came out in 2001.
Neil’s editorial skills found expression in other ways as well. During the phase of his career that he spent in Belfast, he founded and managed the journal Irish Slavonic Studies, which he edited from 1980 to 1986. (A special issue on Irish-Russian contacts came out in 1984.) During the 1990s, after his arrival in Bristol, he served as editor of the series ‘Russian Texts’ and ‘Critical Studies in Russian Literature’ published by Bristol Classical Press, both of which became useful tools for scholars and undergraduates in the field of Russian studies. He was a respected member of the editorial board of the main national journal in our field, The Slavonic and East European Review.
Throughout his career, Neil was also active as a translator of writers who interested him, besides Odoevsky. He produced, for instance, an edition of his translations of ‘The Plummeting Old Women’ and other stories by Kharms (The Lilliput Press, 1989) and the first full English version, as ever with an introduction and notes, of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s account of his trip to the United States in 1925, My Discovery of America (Hesperus Press, 2005).
For a while, Neil ran the Twentieth-Century Study Group of the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES) and later he founded a Nineteenth-Century Study Group and for many years organized its annual colloquium. As a teacher, it should be added, Neil delivered or contributed to undergraduate courses on a wide range of subjects within the field of Russian culture and served as an erudite and conscientious supervisor of postgraduate students, who included Nicole Christian, the associate editor of his Reference Guide.
His colleagues will remember Neil for the breadth and abundance of his scholarship, which earned him an international reputation, and for his learned and amusing companionship at many a convivial celebration of our subject and our good fortune in being able to promote it among academic and student audiences. We offer our condolences to his widow, Maggie Malone, and their daughters Katerina and Juliet and their families.
Derek Offord, 17 April 2020