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Robert Nye obituary

Author, poet and critic whose novel Falstaff won the Guardian fiction prize and the Hawthornden

Robert Nye’s novel Falstaff, purportedly the memoirs of Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff dictated in 1459 by Johanis Fastolfe, or Fallstiff, or Talstof (as his name was variously rendered) himself, won the 1976 Guardian fiction prize, followed by the Hawthornden. Anthony Burgess accounted it, in Ninety-Nine Novels (1984), one of the finest novels since 1939. “We shall not be able to meet the great original,” Burgess asserted, “without thinking of this other Fallestelf or Farstalff.” It combined salacity, wit and sheer Rabelaisian fun with brilliant scholarship from Nye, who has died aged 77, and some Falstaffian “whoppers”.

Shakespeare was an abiding theme in Nye’s work – three of his nine novels concern William Shakespeare and another Shakespeare contemporary, Walter Raleigh – and sexual history furnished another. The Memoirs of Lord Byron (1989) reconstructed the memoirs thought so scandalous by Byron’s publisher, Murray, that they were burned in 1824, through surviving letters and journals, as if dictated by Byron’s drunken spirit. The Life and Death of My Lord Gilles de Rais (1990) mined the depravity of the nobleman who fought alongside Joan of Arc, and who, accused of witchcraft, heresy, sodomy and child murder, was said to be a model for Bluebeard; it took Nye 60 days to write and marked the apotheosis of his 35-year obsession with Joan of Arc and her marshal of France.

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