Sunday, August 22, 2010

Frank Kermode


Frank Kermode's essays and criticism have always struck me as shockingly (I use this adverb almost literally) calm, sensible and thoughtful, and, accordingly, I rarely ignore an opportunity to read him. Last week, Kermode, who was often and very eagerly called Britain's greatest literary critic, died. The New York Times ran an obituary [link] (as did many publications: The Guardian [link] and The Washington Post [link]), which included the following remark, made by Kermode, in a recent interview, describing quite neatly what, in my eyes, was so impressive about his writing: 
What I do is despised by some younger critics, who want everything to sound extremely technical. I spent a long time developing an intelligible style. But these critics despise people who don’t use unintelligible jargon.  
Many of Kermode's essays can be read the London Review of Books website [link]. Last year, Kermode reviewed a biography of William Golding for the LRB [link], which included a curious and shadowy story, which I have copied below. I smiled as I read:
Somewhere about 1961 or 1962 there occurred this episode. At the time I was teaching at Manchester University, and I answered an unexpected summons to lunch from two very eminent physicists. These men lived constantly aware of a horrific but ill-defined threat from ‘certain structures’, of the existence of which, they said, their work daily reminded them. They could not understand why there seemed to be no real public awareness of this immediate threat, and had decided that it must be given wide and powerful publicity. To whom should they turn for advice? Naively, they chose the professor of English. Of course they were not asking me to sound the alarm myself, but to nominate for the job a literary personage highly esteemed by both his professional peers and the general public. There was plenty of money available to fund the enterprise, and it seemed that nothing but good could come of it.
Various names were mentioned, but Golding’s easily prevailed. Having agreed, not cheerfully, to give the idea a try he came north and was given a dinner, during which he said almost nothing. The physicists talked and drew sketches and finally remarked that if you threw six dice you can be pretty sure they will not all come to rest with the sixes on top. But if you threw them thousands of times it might well happen at least once, and the odds on the catastrophe that was troubling them were as good as that.
Golding said little and was still silent as we drove back to my place, but when we were settled in he complained a bit about being dragged into a position in which his false reputation for wisdom had betrayed him. After much thought he offered a solution that depended on the availability of copious television advertising time. One of the professors should be shown, live, every half-hour or so, rolling his dice. Perhaps there would be suitable music, a few well-chosen and alarming words, or other inducements to listen and watch. It was a rotten idea, and he knew it, and I was sorry to have let him in for it. It was an odd part of the price he paid for innocently radiating wisdom, for somehow allowing himself to be treated as the sort of sage he had no ambition to be. For, as he wrote in one of the pieces in A Moving Target, he was, when all was said, ‘an ageing novelist, floundering in all the complexities of 20th-century living, all the muddle of part beliefs’. Better still, he was just an artist, that was his job.
And, for a less sympathetic, somewhat ideologically skewed, although convincingly fiery view of Kermode's writing and life, see Joseph Epstein's blood-spilling essay, A Passage to Forster [link], which was published earlier this year, in honour, so to speak, of Kermode's most recent book, Concerning E. M. Forster [link]. Even though I do not agree with the article, I had intended to quote, but it would be so hardhearted; yes, Epstein is merciless.

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