Jean Bollack in the SLA

Jean Bollack is born into a Jewish family in Alsace in 1923. He is scarcely two years old when his family crosses the border, leaving Alsace to settle in Basel. The change is not just geographical but also linguistic and cultural: Jean Bollack adds German to his native French and grows up bilingual. 

Bollack Family, Photo: Swiss National Library, Simon Schmid
Jean Bollack with his maternal grandmother Diane Kahn (née Bollack)

Some years later, while still a student at the Humanistisches Gymnasium, Bollack attends seminars at the University of Basel, where Peter von der Mühll introduces him to the critical philology that Bollack will later call “German philology”. Albert Béguin teaches French literature at the same institution, and through him, Bollack discovers Resistance and contemporary poets including Saint-John Perse, René Char and André Frenaud. He goes on to study at the Sorbonne where, between 1951 and 1965, he writes his doctoral thesis on Empedocles under the supervision of Pierre Chantraine. 

From 1955 to 1958, he teaches seminars on Empedocles and Parmenides at the Free University of Berlin. There he meets Peter Szondi, who is in the process of reviving German literary hermeneutics. With him, Bollack finds the intellectual solidarity he needs to lay the foundations of his Franco-German critical philology. It is also through Szondi that Bollack meets the poet Paul Celan.

Appointed Professor of Greek Language and Literature at the University of Lille in 1958, Bollack begins setting up the Lille Centre for Philological Research (“Centre de recherche philologique de Lille”) in 1967, along with his wife Mayotte and the scholar Heinz Wismann. Initially, scholars such as Philippe Rousseau, Pierre Judet de la Combe, André Laks, Barbara Cassin and Fabienne Blaise are involved; they are later joined by others including Christoph König, Denis Thouard, Werner Wögerbauer and Rossella Saetta-Cottone.

Bollack remains an avid interpreter of texts both ancient and modern until his death in 2012, often working with his wife and colleagues. He publishes numerous studies and translations of Greek authors including Homer, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles; among modern writers, he is especially interested in the work of Paul Celan and a number of others including Rainer Maria Rilke and Saint-John Perse.

Last modification 07.12.2023

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