Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Remarks on the Life and Works of Michael Riffaterre

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Remarks on the Life and Works of Michael Riffaterre

Article excerpt

The first thing to say is that Michael Riffaterre had the most brilliant career one could imagine. Ph.D. in 1955, full professor in 1964, appointed to a named chair in 1975, university professor in 1982 (he was extremely proud of that and rightly so; it is a very rare distinction).

But saying that captures little of what made him so unique. One very important thing is the fact that he was an immigrant who started a new life in this country. The kind of work he did and the intellectual trajectory he had were possible only in America. Michael was very aware of that and he was always grateful to this country and to this university.

I did a little bit of research about Michael and came across an interview he gave to a student newspaper in 1957 (the year he published his first book). In it, he says he now considers himself totally American. He says that when he lived in France, he had two fits of anger every day: once in the morning when reading Le Figaro and once in the afternoon when reading Le Monde. "Now," he adds, "I read the New York Times on Sunday and remain completely unruffled." At the end of the interview, he extends his hand to the interviewer, French-style, and he says: "Sometimes my French background cannot be suppressed." This reminds me of a joke that was popular among graduate students at Columbia in the 1980s. It said that you could not graduate from Columbia if you could not do a passable imitation of Riffaterre's French accent.

If Michael Riffaterre turned his back on France as a country with outdated institutions and intellectual habits, he was very much in love with France's language and its literature. …

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