The Legacy of Charles Dedeyan, a Master of Comparative Literature

Richard Seaver

Charles Dedeyan (1910-2003) was a French-Armenian scholar, professor, and critic who devoted his life to the study of comparative literature. He was one of the pioneers of this field in France, and his influence and reputation extended beyond the borders of his country. He was also a mentor and inspiration for many students and writers, including the acclaimed American editor and translator Richard Seaver, who praised him in his autobiography “The Tender Hair of Twilights”.

Dedeyan’s Early Life and Education

Dedeyan was born in Smyrna (now Izmir), Turkey, in 1910, to a wealthy Armenian family. He witnessed the horrors of the Armenian Genocide and the Greco-Turkish War, which forced him and his family to flee to France in 1922. He settled in Paris, where he attended the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the Sorbonne University. He obtained his doctorate in 1942 with a thesis on Montaigne’s influence on the English Romanticism and Victorian literature.

Dedeyan’s Academic Career and Achievements

Dedeyan began his academic career as a lecturer at the University of Rennes in 1942, and then moved to the University of Lyon in 1945. In 1949, he was appointed as a professor of comparative literature at the Sorbonne, where he taught until his retirement in 1980. He was also a visiting professor at various universities around the world, such as Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, and Heidelberg.

Dedeyan’s research and publications covered a wide range of topics and authors, from Dante, Shakespeare, and Racine, to Goethe, Hugo, and Stendhal, to Rilke, Nerval, and Baudelaire. He was especially interested in the relations and influences between French and German literature, as well as the themes of Faust, cosmopolitanism, and the mal du siècle. He wrote more than 40 books and hundreds of articles, and received numerous awards and honors, such as the Prix Broquette-Gonin, the Prix France-Allemagne, the Prix du Rayonnement de la langue et de la littérature françaises, and the Prix Gustave Le Métais-Larivière from the Académie française. He was also an officer of the Légion d’honneur and a commander of the Palmes académiques.

Dedeyan’s Impact and Legacy

Dedeyan was not only a prolific and erudite scholar, but also a charismatic and passionate teacher, who captivated his students with his eloquence and enthusiasm. One of his most famous students was Richard Seaver, who later became a prominent editor and translator of avant-garde literature in the United States. Seaver recalled his years at the Sorbonne in his autobiography, and described Dedeyan as “the only exception to the doddering professor generalization”. He wrote: “Comparative literature was his domain, and he was clearly in love with his wide-ranging subject. His hour vanished in a trice, and he invariably, having kept us on the edges of our seats, finished with a flourish that, like the last scene of the serial movie, announced the exciting subject of next week’s episode.

Dedeyan’s legacy lives on through his works, his students, and his family. He was the father of the historian Gérard Dedeyan, and the grandfather of the writer Marina Dedeyan. He was also a friend and colleague of many eminent literary figures, such as André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Marguerite Yourcenar. He was a man of culture, a lover of literature, and a master of comparison. He died in Paris in 2003, at the age of 93.


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