The writer and critic Frank Kermode, who died last month at the age of 91, was, for the many colleagues and readers who loved and admired him in America and England, sui generis. Over more than sixty years, in more than fifty books and hundreds—no, thousands—of vigorous, elegant review articles, not to mention his classes and lectures, we came to know his never-failing equipoise; his stupendous literary, scholastic and philosophical learning; and a precision and lightness of touch that gave even his most difficult work an aura of grace.
What was he up to? He was much more than a professor of literature, as his label described him, however high-minded and admirable that profession may be. For one thing, he disregarded the usual boundaries, teaching and writing about literature from the Renaissance to the present day—dramas, novels, histories, letters, scriptures, poetry. He analyzed the way criticism of various genres evolved, how readers and writers treated novelty or adhered to tradition; he instructed us on the many strategies developed for trying to understand what writers of this poem or that narrative meant to say—wie es eigentlich gemeint, to paraphrase the great Ranke. And he gave us unforced judgments on the greatest literary works ancient and modern, whose breathtaking splendors, which he clearly loved, he taught us to comprehend.
Where did this amazing person come from? Who was he? In a fine memoir composed in his seventies, Not Entitled, Kermode wrote about his childhood in Douglas, the capital of the Isle of Man, where his father was a grocery clerk and his mother a café waitress. It’s all there in his early years, of course, or a lot of it—the mother with no parents, no family, no past, but with a rich sense of language, both Manx and English, along with a practiced, lively social style that was deferential to strangers yet easy with them, to whom Frank owed, as he put it, not only his “early training in politeness and motiveless civility” but also the “association of gaiety with terror, giggling with desolation”; the father, well-liked, very hardworking, strong, hot-tempered yet anxious, whose characteristic “patient good humour” was eventually destroyed by “disappointment, hard labour and diabetes.” And then there was their oblique, many-layered awareness of England as a foreign governing power, and their attachment to the Anglican Church, which conveniently signaled that the Kermodes were not, in the Manx world, either low-born “dissenters” or, worse, Irish Catholic. These were parents who didn’t quite know what to do with their mysteriously gifted though clumsy and short-sighted son, except to complain about him (his father) or push him to try harder (his mother). If nothing else, they taught Frank “what it meant to work, however unseasonably, however against the grain.”
Not Entitled also contains a remarkable account of Kermode”s youthful “secret life” and of “the climax of my philosophical career,” as he called it. This transcendent pre-adolescent moment, which in his telling foreshadows much of his life and work, occurred at sunset, as he was walking home from a household errand, during which he decided to “(have) a word with God.” It was, he wrote in one of many magical passages in this magical book, “an experience of unusual fullness and integrity, comprising: the smoke falling from a dense array of chimney-pots into the chilly dark of the street, the lights of Newby”s shops brightening … pretty Marion clattering her pails, many possibilities of presence that belong to the word if not to the world … The faint smudged pink of the sky above the church complied with the noises of unilluminated persons who had no notion of the plenitude of which they were a part.” As the boy considered the people on the street, measuring “their planetary distance and difference from myself as well as the indications of close resemblance, I put a question that had been exercising me: Did other persons, when they ate oranges, experience the taste I had of orange?”
“Why this question?” asked the seventy-something-year-old writer. After all it wasn’t “by any means the first time God has been asked to comment on problems of this sort.” He continued: “Possibly what I had discovered was a reason why … the creatures have hitherto decided they must have gods … The next step was, as might be foretold, to enter the prison house of my own incommunicable intuitions, and soon to be committed to the long labour of learning how to pretend to know something a little better than I did, and to know how to say it with apparent clarity to others.”
With luck—a factor he greatly respected—with patience, skill, a huge literary talent, and ardor, Kermode negotiated the next stages of his life: his years at the University of Liverpool, where he began his fervent study of literature and his skeptical assessment of England’s elaborate social codes; the tedious years of naval duty during World War II serving under a series of “mad captains” and playing interminable games of bridge; the apprenticeship years at Reading, where, he wrote, “my education continued most vigorously to flourish”; then full flowering at Manchester and Bristol. His scholarship became well-known from his very first books (among them studies of Wallace Stevens and John Donne, as well as various works on Shakespeare), and certainly by The Sense of an Ending (1967) it had become “a true instrument of understanding, beauty, and power,” as he wrote of someone else’s. The learning was massive—and not just in literature but in theology, philosophy, art history, music, and literary theory, which he mastered when it was still fresh and interesting, long before it became a tedious, obtuse, and boring career business for minor scholars; in the 1970s he was instrumental in bringing the works of French theorists to the attention of late-coming Anglo-Saxons (he liked to characterize Roland Barthes as the “king of critics”). He transcended national boundaries, obviously, being at home in the intellectual worlds of America, Britain, France, Italy and Germany. He seemed especially to love Italy.
There were more and more books and articles; his influence as a teacher, interpreter, and academic powerhouse increased exponentially. One might have expected that his ascension, in the last four decades of the century, to the rather grand professorships he held successively at University College London, Cambridge, Harvard and Columbia would increase his distance from “general readers ‘in their inconceivable stupidity,’” as he once wryly noted Conrad had called them, readers who were anyway, by Kermode’s time, said to be dying off. But on the contrary. He was devoted to them, and his sometimes juicy, sometimes severe, highly original, and often surprising review-essays in the New York Review of Books and London Review of Books (which he helped to found) encouraged them, as they encouraged writers, too.
Kermode was often exasperated by the organizational stupidities of the publishing business, but he seemed to enjoy getting into print, and why not. He always paid close attention to the complex dynamic by which public enthusiasms, capabilities, and ambitions evolve in relation to what writers are actually writing, and he was always up to his elbows in the work of ensuring that the interpretations be done as intelligently and intelligibly as possible. His own description of a “long labour of learning how to pretend to know something a little better than I did, and to know how to say it with apparent clarity to others” does not do justice to his actual accomplishments, and it downplays the likelihood that “others” often included ignorant, misled, and even bored readers and students. Kermode knew that if the reader was deaf, blind, or moribund, then the reader would have to be cured, healed, resuscitated, if not resurrected. Like a good doctor, Kermode first did no harm, which is more than you can say for most critics, and of course he went on to restore his readers to vigorous good health. The consequences were huge.
Notwithstanding his fierce intelligence, his prodigious learning, his skill at marshalling his arguments, it may well be that the habits Kermode learned from his parents are what marked him the most unforgettably. You can’t decipher the weirdly uncertain universe of literature without selfless and never-ending labor on the texts. You can’t achieve his extraordinary wisdom—about people, their words, their actions—without living a life of watchful generosity, unforced civility, merriment, common sense, and social grace. And you can’t interpret those texts unless you approach them with love and gratitude, as he always did.
Elisabeth Sifton has edited and published books at The Viking Press, Alfred Knopf and, since 1993, at Farrar Straus and Giroux.