A life of literature

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The Article

It is not entirely surprising when someone dies, at the age of 90, unless, like Frank Kermode, he was still at the height of his powers. The famous literary critic had just written a characteristically perceptive and entertaining book on E.M. Forster, and was projecting one on T.S. Eliot, when suddenly this week he took his leave.

It’s as if the last English professor died. Or rather, not “as if,” for he belonged to a species that stopped reproducing itself decades ago. So long as he lived, and his reviews kept appearing in places like the London Review of Books, it seemed possible that the species might somehow regenerate.

My reader may perhaps remember the image: the tweed jacket, the lit pipe, the “fino” (very dry, pale) sherry. Like all stereotypes, it was essentially true, and especially true of Kermode, who never hesitated to embrace his fate, from the moment in the late 1940s when he realized that he lacked the gifts to become a great playwright or novelist.

He could read, however; had already mastered Greek, Latin, and several modern European languages; and could explain the background of Elizabethan and Jacobean literature to reasonably intelligent young persons. So he got a job lecturing at one of the provincial English universities, and never looked back. He had escaped the Isle of Man, and his background as the only son of a Douglas storeroom keeper, with an extremely deferential wife. He was perforce reasonably happy.

Kermode went on to hold almost every major endowed English professorship on either side of the Atlantic; to decorate faculties at London, Cambridge, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia—and the red-brick University of Reading, where in early middle age he did his most memorable work, culminating in his “masterpiece,” The Sense of an Ending (1967; revised 2000).

I remember it with the suspicious reverence one reserves for influences on one’s own youth; it wrestled with the motivation for writing fiction, and its function in society.

It argued that this “sense of an ending”—of the eschatological, the apocalyptic—is written ineradicably into human nature. Clock time carries on, “between tock and tick,” with events that follow each other senselessly, but our inner demand that they come to a conclusion, to a resolution, requires the re-arrangement of a story.

The literary artist struggles with the tension between “story” and “reality,” between supplying “the irreducible minimum of geometry,” and exhibiting his “clerical scepticism.” He is trying in effect to serve two masters: to satisfy our demand for structure and result, while presenting things as they really are. And the reader is captured within this tension.

Looking back upon this, I suspect it was all bosh.

Here was the Kermode who brought Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault and (oh dear!) Jacques Lacan into the English-speaking world, where they would inspire English faculties to engage with “pure theory”—in which the intentions of authors and the contents of their books would be progressively ignored, in a cat’s cradle of ever more tangled pseudo-specialist jargon. From this, Kermode himself walked away, returning to the old-fashioned task of explaining authors and books to their readers.

By some coincidence, about the time I had discovered The Sense of an Ending, I had also strayed into John Amos Comenius, the 17th-century Czech pedagogue, whose work seemed strangely to parallel Kermode’s argument at a higher level. The title of that work, from 1631, comes near to explaining it: The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart.

Kermode, it seemed, was slandering “clock time,” without fully realizing why he was doing so. In turn he found himself compelled to slander “story,” too—as some necessary but arbitrarily imposed order, that must itself be meaningless in the end. It was a reduction, not an enhancement, of literature.

Yet in his everyday life as an English prof, reaching out to the masses with improving essays in the Sunday papers, he was always enhancing. And in his role as a leisurely book reviewer, he challenged readers (like me) to go back and find what they’d stupidly passed over.

For decades I compulsively bought any review with his byline on the cover, and I can’t remember ever having been disappointed by his piece.

As to whether he was a nice man, I don’t know or care.

His own little memoir, dryly entitled, Not Entitled (1995), leaves the impression of a doleful and reticent dandy—like an elegant if dimpled tin, kicked around the world. It tells us nothing about his failed marriages, or any inner passions at all.

That’s exactly what English professors were—rather humble dandies—professionally dislocated, ingeniously pointless, yet useful for the very miscellaneity of their knowledge, and worthy of a rather deep affection, never rising to love.

David Warren
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