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Friday, August 20, 2010

Frank Kermode (1919–2010), leading literary critic of his generation

In his epilogue to the 2000 reissue of The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction, a collection of lectures Allen Tate has called “a landmark in twentieth-century critical thought,” Frank Kermode makes one of his signature observations:
It was my belief that in referring to the sound of a clock not as “tick-tick” but as “tick-tock” we substitute a fiction for the actual acoustic event, distinguishing between genesis of “tick” and apocalypse of “tock,” and conferring on the interval between them a significance it would otherwise lack. The fictive end purges the interval of simple chronicity. It achieves a “temporal integration”—it converts a blank into a kairos, charges it with meaning. So it can be argued that we have here a tiny model of all plots. . . . our sense of, or need for, an ending transforms our lives between “the tick of birth and the tock of death,” and stories simulate this transformation but must not do so too simply.
This brief excerpt illustrates what students of literature and even casual readers have come to cherish in Kermode’s criticism: the graceful, effortless movement from common observation to thought-provoking insight.

On Wednesday The London Review of Books posted a short notice that Frank Kermode died on August 17. What Kermode meant to the Review was quietly on display in the cascade of links below the notice: more than 200 articles and reviews he had contributed over the past thirty years. LRB’s blog linked to Kermode’s June 1979 article in The Observer that called for a new literary journal and prompted the Review’s founding.

Frank Kermode wrote his first book at the age of twenty, a study of Aaron Hill, the eighteenth-century theater manager who introduced castrato singing to England. The publication of his last book, Concerning E. M. Forster, was timed to coincide with his ninetieth birthday. In the intervening years Kermode published more than sixty books, held professorships at six different universities, served as a visiting professor at many colleges and universities in the United States, was a judge for the first Booker prize, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991, the first critic to be so honored since William Empson.

In 1963 Richard Poirier offered this appraisal: “Frank Kermode is generally regarded as the best practicing critic in England today, free of the polemical or theoretical limitations that have been ascribed to F. R. Leavis or I. A. Richards and credited with the power, which Matthew Arnold required of good criticism, “to ascertain the master-spirit.” Thirty-three years later, in 1996, David Lodge confirmed Kermode’s enduring status, writing “In my opinion, and that of many others, Frank Kermode is the finest English critic of his generation.” Writers also perceived a different sensibility at work in Kermode’s judgments. Philip Roth admitted that although he dislikes reading reviews, "if Frank Kermode reviewed my book I would read it".

Kermode’s breakthrough critical work came in 1957 with The Romantic Image, which John Mullan briefly summarized in his obituary for The Guardian:
It was an account of the continuities between Romanticism and Modernism, with the poetry of Yeats at its heart. With its easy erudition, but not a footnote in sight, this book seems a long way from today's average academic output. In range it is huge, reaching into European and classical literature, aesthetic philosophy as well as poetry, verse from the Renaissance as well as the 19th and 20th centuries–yet in tone it is modest, provisional (it calls itself an essay). Learning with a certain lightness was his style.
Throughout his career Kermode moved easily between modernism and other literary periods. “Wallace Stevens, as even hostile critics will admit, is a deeply interesting poet” begins Kermode’s short (just 134 pages) introduction to the prose and poetry of Wallace Stevens (1960), a book credited with introducing Stevens to the English speaking world as a “maker of worlds.” His Arden edition of The Tempest in 1961 set the standard for annotated editions of Shakespeare’s plays and Shakespeare’s Language (2000) became a bestseller in England.

Kermode’s writings often seemed ubiquitous. As Helen Vendler observed in the Washington Post obituary. “You were either reading a new book by Sir Frank or else reading a book he reviewed. He was always in the present." He patterned his “literary journalism” after Edmund Wilson. In his introduction to Continuities, one of his many collections of essays, he explains:
Wilson can deal justly with other writers without neglecting the meditative movement of his own mind, and he can satisfy, without loss of intellectual integrity, the non-specialist’s urgent and entirely proper demand for amenity of exposition and fine texture. This is the kind of journalism I call valuable and rare. It is rare not because those who could easily do it have better things to do, but because it is more demanding than most of what passes for scholarship. It calls incessantly for mental activity, fresh information, and civility into the bargain.
Kermode famously testified for the defense in 1966 when a Conservative Member of Parliament initiated a private prosecution to declare Last Exit to Brooklyn, by Hubert Selby Jr., obscene. The trial lasted nine days and the court found for the prosecution but when the decision was overturned in 1968 it was considered a turning point in British censorship law.

Alan Samson, Kermode’s publisher at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, revealed what he will miss to the Guardian's Alison Flood:
He's probably the greatest literary conversationalist I've ever known - it wasn't just the lectures and the monographs and the books, it's the fact that just talking about a writer he'd say incredibly pithy, intelligent things which would prompt you to go and read them again. He knew he had exceptional gifts, but there was a modest manner about him. He knew he was smarter than everyone else, but he was this pipe-smoking, beguiling man who listened to what you had to say.... It's the wreath of pipe smoke, and the benign smile and wisdom, which I'm really going to miss.
Readers can experience some of this beguiling modesty in the video of the ninety-minute interview Alan Macfarlane conducted with Kermode in February 2008.

As wide as his interests ranged, Kermode kept returning to one poet. As he put it in the epilogue to The Sense of an Ending:
[Wallace Stevens] remains the poet who, when the mood is right, speaks most directly to me; he understood fictions, and he understood the radiance associated with the notion of kairos, a radiance he sometimes associated with the seasons (kairos, after all, means “season”). He also understood that the imagination is always at the end of an era, and that “One day enriches a year.” . . . He wrote of midsummer that it was
. . . the last day of a certain year
Beyond which there is nothing left of time.
In 1997 Frank Kermode and Joan Richardson co-edited Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose. Reviewing it in The New York Review of Books. Helen Vendler wrote: “Now at last—in a handsome thousand pages [Kermode and Richardson] have given us—in the durable and elegant Library of America format—a Stevens for the foreseeable future.”

Excellent obituaries of Frank Kermode can also be found at The Telegraph and The New York Times.

Related LOA works: Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose; Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 30s

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