Geoff Davis (1943-2018): in Memoriam

Geoff

 

It is with great sadness that we write of the unexpected death of our dear colleague Geoff Davis, who was such a crucial member and leader of EACLALS during the past decades, and indeed throughout its history. Geoff became Chair of EACLALS in 2002, a position he renewed in 2005 and held until 2008; he was elected once again from 2011 to 2014. In the years in-between (2008-2011), he presided over ACLALS. All who attended academic gatherings during these periods, or in the previous decades, when he was a loyal and enthusiastic participant, will have had the chance to benefit from his knowledge in a number of areas, notably African literatures, but also from his cheerful generosity, his keen welcoming of young members into the field and his endless energy and creativity. Geoff’s vast contribution to our field is also found in his own publications and through his editing, of journals such as Matatu, and of the critical series Cross/Cultures. Readings in the Post/Colonial Literatures and Cultures in English, which he co-edited with Gordon Collier from 1990 and which holds such significant work for postcolonial studies.

As members of the present EACLALS Board, we have shared many conferences, happy moments and worries with Geoff, and we are in shock at the news that this will not continue to be so. At this sad moment, we can only thank him publicly and most sincerely for his work and feel grateful that we shared interests and some part of his life with him. We will be dedicating a place in the EACLALS webpage to tributes to Geoff, as a much-deserved homage to an essential member. If you have a message you would like to include, please email Melissa Kennedy, secretary@eaclals.eu. We include, after this message, the first of these, by Helga Ramsey-Kurz, Former Chair of EACLALS and member of the present Board, who worked closely with him as conference organizer and Board member 2011-2017.

In grief, and in fond memory of Geoff and his multiple achievements,

Isabel Carrera Suárez

on behalf of the EACLALS Board

Tributes from Friends and Scholars

In Memory of a Roving Scholar by Frank Schulze-Engler (Frankfurt)

In the early hours of 22nd November, 2018, three days before his 75th birthday, our teacher, colleague and friend Prof. Dr. Geoffrey V. Davis died in Aachen. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few weeks before; he underwent an operation that could not save his life, and after a short, hard battle lost out against a deadly antagonist that had taken him by surprise and plucked him out of an exceptional vita activa led with seemingly indomitable energy also years after his retirement. Our thoughts are with his wife Ingrid, his life companion of many decades, who was also by his side during his last weeks.
One of many vivid memories I have of Geoff Davis is that of a lecture on the exploits of the ‘roving reporter’ Egon Erwin Kisch in Australia delivered at the Conference of the Association for the Study of the New Literatures in English (ASNEL) in Kiel in 2005 (and published under the telling title “‘One step on Australian soil and you‘re history’: Nicholas Hasluck’s novel Our Man K., Egon Erwin Kisch and the White Australia Policy” in 2007). With his inimitable style combining scholarly erudition, political engagement and ironical humour, Geoff quickly had the audience roaring at the inept attempts of befuddled politicians to keep Australia safe from the ‘communist threat’ they saw embodied in the outspoken critic of Nazi Germany, and made the former marvel at Kisch’s transnational engagement for social justice and his indomitable courage (having been banned from setting foot on Australian soil, Kisch jumped from the ship that had brought him to Melbourne, broke his leg after a six-meter fall, and later successfully engaged in a legal battle for his right to go on a nationwide anti-war lecture tour).
The connection Geoff set up in that talk between German literary history and Australian politics was by no means fortuitous; nor was his interest in social justice and the political role of literature and culture in countries like South Africa. Geoff actually entered academia through German studies; he wrote his PhD on the work of Arnold Zweig, the socialist-humanist writer persecuted by the Nazi regime who emigrated to Palestine and returned to the German Democratic Republic after the end of World War II. Geoff retained a vivid interest in German literature throughout his academic career which soon after came to focus on a quite different province of world literature, however.
Born in Birmingham in 1943 and educated at Oxford, Geoff Davis belonged to an initially quite small group of pioneer scholars who sought to establish the study of what was then still called “Commonwealth Literature” in Germany and internationally. His influence in and impact on this rapidly expanding field soon extended far beyond the position of foreign language lecturer that he held at Aachen University from 1966 onwards. He was one of the founders of the Association for the Study of the New Literatures in English (GNEL/ASNEL) in 1989 and played a major role in the Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies both on a European level (he was Chair of EACLALS from 2002–2008 and from 2011–2014) and as International Chair of ACLALS from 2007–2010. He was co-editor of Cross/Cultures: Readings in Post/Colonial Literatures and Cultures in English, easily the most important and influential book series published in the field, and of MATATU: Journal for African Culture and Society, and author of a truly astonishing number of edited volumes, special issues and essays on African, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, South Asian, indigenous and Black and Asian British literatures and cultures. The two-volume Festschrift Engaging with Literature of Commitment (Rodopi 2012) pays ample tribute to the extraordinary contribution that Geoff, the “worldly scholar” (as the subtitle of the second volume aptly put it) had made to postcolonial anglophone literary and cultural studies – and testifies to a truly worldwide network of friends, colleagues and mentees that he built up during his long academic career. This career had by no means ended with his retirement; if anything, he had seemed to have become even more energetic, taking on new commitments as editor, conference organizer, and keynote speaker, and continuing his innumerable journeys across the globe that had already turned him into a legendary roving scholar in the 1980s.
In all these years, Geoff Davis truly kept a window onto the world open for many of us in German academia. His cosmopolitan academic interests and his firm commitment to the social responsibility of literature as well as of literary and cultural studies constantly reminded his audiences and readers of the farflung transcultural and transnational connections linking up Anglophone literatures and cultures across the globe – and of the extraordinary diversity of local and regional contexts in which these literatures have their being in a globalized world. As Arundhati Roy might put it, there is now a Geoff- shaped hole in the universe for all those privileged to have known and to have worked with him. But there is also an inspiring legacy of a scholarly life lived to the full, based on deep and loyal friendship, untiring conviviality and burning intellectual engagement. This we will need to recall as we grope towards understanding our loss.

Message from Helga Ramsey-Kurz (Innsbruck)

In one of our many conversations leading up to the 2014 EACLALS Triennial Conference in Innsbruck Geoff and I found ourselves musing melancholically about how difficult it would be in the not too distant future to find someone suited to give the Anna Rutherford Memorial Lecture by dint of having known Anna personally. I suggested that we should have something like a Geoff Davis Address, not instead, but as well. “Don’t you dare!” he exclaimed in absolute horror when he realised that I was serious. I guess he would be just as horrified to learn of anyone even thinking about having a Geoff Davis Memorial Lecture at one of our future conferences. Such was his modesty – memorable in itself and perhaps most appropriately remembered in silent affection along with his warmth and enthusiasm, his energy and unbending optimism. Here I want to make a point of these endearing qualities of his though, because they shaped the spirit of EACLALS and made the association a home for so many scholars like myself seeking more in the academy than fulfilment of professional ambitions. Many found what they were missing in the generosity with which Geoff would share his vast knowledge of literature, his passion for learning, his commitment to the Commonwealth Foundation and the countries it stands for. “It changed my life,” he used to say about his role as chair of EACLALS and ACLALS and he would go on, his blue eyes sparkling, to tell the stories he had gathered on his many travels of encounters with crooks and academics, rattlesnakes and writers. Brilliant raconteur that he was there was no way one could not be affected by his positive outlook on life and his generous way of seeing others. “Marvellous!” he would say and sigh with pleasure at a colleague’s achievements. “Marvellous,” he would judge a conference that had gone well. “Marvellous,” he would remark, always in genuine wonder and admiration, after a good talk or reading or performance. Marvellous one might duly call the massive enjoyment he himself managed to derive from his work and the incredibly diverse research he accomplished. In due course others will honour it in their obituaries that, naturally, will take time to write. At this point it is Geoff Davis, the friend, colleague, mentor, supporter, teacher, and companion, I would like us to recall with the fondness he used to give so generously to our association.

Message from Senath Walter Perera, chair of SLACLALS

I am so devastated by the news of Geoff Davis’s demise that I find it impossible to compose a suitable tribute. Nevertheless, I feel I have to contribute something on a person who had become a very good friend over the last nine years. I became chair of SLACLALS at about the same time that Geoff took over ACLALS. Since SLACLALS had been dormant for a while, it was very difficult for me to provide all the details required by the Commonwealth Foundation to obtain funding but Geoff was patient and understanding and gave me sufficient time to produce the material to make the ACLALS grant application complete. He was a great friend of the smaller ACLALS chapters witness his urging EACLALS to provide some funding for an issue of the SLACLALS journal Phoenix. I met him in ACLALS/EACLALS events in Cyprus, St Lucia, Innsbruck, Stellenbosch and Oviedo. Although there were others who had been associated with ACLALS for a longer period, I have no doubt whatsoever that it was Geoff who more than anyone else championed the core values of the organisation in recent years. He was so fond of ACLALS that he would often represent the association at meetings all over the world sometimes at his own expense. I remember him telling me that he dearly wanted to attend the CHOGM in Sri Lanka to promote the cause of ACLALS but his wife had “given notice” that there would be “dire consequences” if he went out of the country yet again that year. He turned up in Sri Lanka despite these warnings, however, to make a case for an organisation he loved so much. Unfortunately, heavy security around the hotels that housed the delegates prevented me from meeting him in my own country during that visit. As a person who shared many of his views on the identity of ACLALS, I found his presence at meetings very reassuring. His cheery demeanour and gregarious nature were always present whether discussing cricket, reminiscing on ACLALS triennials past over a drink, or relieving the tension of a contentious meeting with a joke. I looked forward to meeting him in the triennial at Auckland which sadly will not happen now. Rest in Peace, dear friend. I cannot believe that I will not hear your signature chuckle ever again.

Message from Alamgir Hashmi (Pakistan)

I am deeply saddened to hear about the untimely demise of Geoff Davis. I fondly recall our meetings at various literature conferences going a long way back, and the ones during 1980s-1990s, at San Francisco, Aachen, and Perth, stand out in my memory. Searching and assiduous in his scholarly pursuits, he was easy-going socially.
I remember several warm conversations (that included Anna Rutherford, Hena Maes- Jelinek, and some other colleagues) as well as happy hours of conviviality together, and I think it remarkable how joyful for him was the stewarding of professional work in literary studies of the Commonwealth and the Postcolony. Rest in peace, Geoff: you will continue to be a part of our reading lives.

Message from Alastair Niven (Harris Manchester College, Oxford)

Dear Melissa
We do not know each other but I think you are the appropriate person for me to write to in order to express my deep sorrow at the news of Geoff Davis’s sudden death. I am a former Secretary and Treasurer of EACLALS, though to my shame I have let my membership lapse because my career went in a different direction some years ago.
I last saw Geoff in Ljubljana earlier in the year when he and Russell McDougall interviewed me for the ACLALS archive. He was in his usual splendid form, full of projects and his characteristic enthusiasm. I can’t believe he has gone. I thought he was an immensely kind and generous person. My own friendship with him goes back the best part of thirty years. We met at conferences, worked together on publications, and had many a meal/drink rogether. It is not an exaggeration that I loved him dearly and saw him as a great force for good. My wife was very fond of him too. I could add more, but you get my gist. He was the best of ACLALS and of the literary world.

Message from Debbie (Chief Registrar at the National English Museum, Grahamstown, South Africa)

Dear Melissa
I am chief registrar at the National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown, South Africa and I met Geoff many years ago when he first visited the museum to do research. He was a generous supporter of NELM and was delighted when we moved into a brand new museum building 3 years ago. He visited us in the new building and I showed him around. We had not officially opened yet and he was really pleased with the new setup and huge exhibition and education venues we now have. I will miss his letters and his unstintingly generous donations of books that included articles on South African English literature. They would just arrive in the post with a note – “Hi Debbie, Thought you might like these for the research library. warm regards, Geoff.”
We will miss him and his lively conversations.

Message from Christine Vogt-William (Augsburg)

Dr. Geoff Davis was a fantastic friend, a grand colleague, a generous listener and an all-round wonderful person. I learnt much from him as a young scholar. His passing leaves a gaping hole in my academic and personal life. I will never forget EACLALS 2005 in Malta nor CHOTRO 2010 in Shimla and Delhi – amazing conferences powered by Geoff’s energy and joy. I will treasure his friendly advice, his comforting words, his cheerful encouragement. Geoff, dear friend, dear mentor, conferences will not be the same without you, chats, stories and jokes will lack that unique Davis touch, your humour and your big- heartedness will be missed. Geoff, you always brought out the best in people with your sharp observations and creative approaches to everything you undertook. I will sorely miss your curiosity about the world, your enthusiasm for literature, your zest for life. It was an honour and a privilege to be your friend, your student and your colleague and to have had you in my life.
Rest now, dear friend, and be at peace. You are loved. God bless you.

 

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