September 7, 2010 | by Elisabeth Sifton
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.” Read More »