Saturday, August 21, 2010

Deceased--Frank Kermode

Frank Kermode
November 29th 1919 to August 17th, 2010

"Frank Kermode, 90, a Critic Who Wrote With Style, Is Dead"


Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

August 18th, 2010

The New York Times

Frank Kermode, who rose from humble origins to become one of England’s most respected and influential critics, died Tuesday at his home in Cambridge, England. He was 90.

His death was announced by The London Review of Books, which he helped create and to which he frequently contributed.

The author David Lodge called Mr. Kermode “the finest English critic of his generation,” and few disagreed with that assessment.

The author or editor of more than 50 books published over five decades, Mr. Kermode was probably best known for his studies of Shakespeare. But his range was wide, reaching from Beowulf to Philip Roth, from Homer to Ian McEwan, from the Bible to Don DeLillo. Along the way he devoted individual volumes to John Donne, Wallace Stevens and D. H. Lawrence. Unrelentingly productive, he published “Concerning E. M. Forster” just last December.

His collections of literary criticism and lectures — among them “The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction” (Oxford University Press, 1967 and 2000), “The Genesis of Secrecy” (Harvard University Press, 1979) and “The Art of Telling: Essays on Fiction” (Harvard, 1983) — became standard university texts. The poet and critic Allen Tate called “The Sense of an Ending” “a landmark in 20th-century critical thought.”

Mr. Kermode also wrote for the general book-reading audience, chiefly in The London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books, and his judgments were typically measured but pointed, whether reviewing Philip Roth, John Updike or Zadie Smith. His pungent take on Updike’s series of “Bech” novels managed at once to express a certain awe at the writer’s talents while discounting the books in question, calling them “works of the left hand.”

Yet despite the variety of his work, he almost invariably tied what he wrote to a recurring central concern of his: what the English literary critic Lawrence S. Rainey, writing in the London newspaper The Independent, described as “the conflict between the human need to make sense of the world through storytelling and our propensity to seek meaning in details (linguistic, symbolic, anecdotal) that are indifferent, even hostile, to story.”

For instance, in his best-known book, “The Sense of an Ending,” Mr. Kermode analyzed the fictions we invent to bring meaning and order to a world that often seems chaotic and hurtling toward catastrophe. Between the tick and the tock of the clock, as he put it, we want a connection as well as the suggestion of an arrow shooting eschatologically toward some final judgment.

Yet, as he pointed out in “The Genesis of Secrecy,” narratives, just like life, can include details that defy interpretation, like the Man in the Mackintosh who keeps showing up in Joyce’s “Ulysses” or the young man who runs away naked when Jesus is arrested at Gethsemane in the Gospel according to Mark.

Mr. Kermode’s critics sometimes faulted him for a deliberately difficult style and what Mr. Lodge called “intellectual dandyism.” Although in “The Art of Telling” Mr. Kermode suggested that innovative French approaches to literary criticism like structuralism and deconstructionism might eventually find at least some place in the mainstream, he took to task some of the more radical attempts to subvert traditional texts through gender or racial perspectives. In “An Appetite for Poetry” (Harvard, 1989) he reaffirmed his belief in the value of reading literary classics as a way of gauging both ideals of permanence and the forces of change.

The view of him as uppermost an establishmentarian was only reinforced in 1974, when he attained what is considered the pre-eminent post in English literary criticism: the King Edward VII chair of English literature at King’s College, Cambridge University, an appointment made by the crown at the suggestion of the prime minister. In 1991 he was knighted.

But even his occasional detractors respected him for his brilliance, his evenhandedness and his humaneness. The critic Richard Poirier, reviewing “Puzzles and Epiphanies” (Chilmark, 1962) for The New York Review of Books, praised Mr. Kermode’s criticism for its freedom from “polemical or theoretical limitations” and for possessing “the power, which Arnold required of good criticism, ‘to ascertain the master-spirit in the literature of an epoch.’ ”

John Frank Kermode was born on Nov. 29, 1919, in Douglas, Isle of Man, the only son of John Pritchard Kermode, a storeroom keeper who earned three pounds a week, and the former Doris Kennedy, a farm girl who had been a waitress and who had given her son his unwanted “habit of deference” and had inspired his love of words, as he wrote in his memoir “Not Entitled” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1995).

He transcended his unpromising background beyond all expectations, winning scholarships to the local high school and to Liverpool University, from which he graduated in 1940. He learned to read Greek and Latin as well as French, Italian and German, and he went on to become a professor of Renaissance and modern English literature.

Yet as a child he was a disappointment to his father, “being fat, plain, shortsighted, clumsy, idle, dirty,” as he wrote in “Not Entitled,” “and very unlikely to add to the family store of sporting cups and medals.”

He devoted a full third of that book to the six years he spent in the Royal Navy, much of it in Iceland, after graduating from Liverpool, rising to the rank of lieutenant. But he chose not to write about his two marriages, the first to Maureen Eccles, from 1947 to 1970, the second to Anita Van Vactor; or his two children, Mark and Deborah, both of whom survive him. Nor did he mention his knighthood.

He wrote modestly, perhaps ruefully, of his career prospects, concluding that his incapacity “at least to be able to surmise how very complicated things are done” — or “even simple ones” — prevented him from becoming a playwright or novelist.

“It was also emerging that my poetry wasn’t up to much,” he added, “so there was nothing left for me except to become a critic, preferably with a paying job in a university.”

That career took him to a series of teaching posts in English and American universities and eventually to his appointment in 1967 as Lord Northcliffe professor of modern English literature at University College London, where he was credited with helping to introduce contemporary French critical theory to Britain.

Before taking that post, he also served as co-editor (with Melvin J. Lasky) of the prestigious magazine Encounter, where he succeeded Stephen Spender in 1964. But he resigned in 1966 on learning that the magazine, sponsored by the Congress of Cultural Freedom, had received money from the Central Intelligence Agency.

From London he went on, seven years later, to his prestigious chair at Cambridge, leaving in 1982, in part because of an unsuccessful tenure battle on behalf of the structuralist-oriented film and literary scholar Colin MacCabe, then a junior lecturer.

He then moved to the United States and taught for the next few years at several universities. He was for many years the Julian Clarence Levi professor emeritus in the humanities at Columbia.

His writing, though, reached beyond academia. His “Shakespeare’s Language” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000) — which traced the development of the playwright through the evolution of his poetry and concluded that “Hamlet” signified a major turning point — was a best seller in England.

At the time he worried about the book’s accessibility, telling an interviewer for The Irish Times: “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.”

Perhaps there was a touch of sarcasm in the comment, a bit of grumbling. But he clearly had little patience for critics who seemed to write only for other critics. As he wrote in “Pieces of My Mind: Essays and Criticism 1958-2002” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), criticism “can be quite humbly and sometimes even quite magnificently useful.” But it must also “give pleasure,” he added, “like the other arts.”

"Sir Frank Kermode"

Sir Frank Kermode, who died on August 17 aged 90, was the most eminent critic of English literature since FR Leavis; his teaching career culminated in the senior English professorship at Cambridge University, a post he surrendered in 1982 in the aftermath of a widely reported doctrinal rift within the faculty.

August 18th, 2010

Like the "Two Cultures" spat between Leavis and CP Snow in the 1960s (which Kermode had helped initiate by acclaiming Snow as a novelist in the "great tradition" approved by Leavis), the later row also concerned the correct approach to education in the modern age.

Though at the time he was seen as a supporter of progressive theories, Kermode's attitude ultimately became one of alarm at the widening gulf between academic ideas about literature and the experience of books had by the ordinary reader. Kermode had always tried to act as a bridge between these two worlds, particularly by writing for newspapers. In doing so he (perhaps unwittingly) embodied the transformation of the popularising academic from man of letters to media don.

Kermode had initially been a scholar of the Renaissance, notably of Shakespeare, Spenser and Donne, but he came to the attention of fellow academics with Romantic Image (1957), a study of the use of imagery in poetry by romantic and modern writers.

He continued thereafter to combine Renaissance and modern studies, but in both his preoccupations remained broadly the same – the relationship between art and order, and that between writers and the changing world of which they had tried to form a coherent vision. He also came to be keenly interested in the obverse of this latter theme, namely whether the changing sensibilities of the world renders the vision of some past writers redundant.

As well as noteworthy studies of Milton (1960) and the American poet Wallace Stevens (also 1960) – a particular influence on Kermode's sometimes oblique style – his most important criticism included The Classic (1975), which explored the response of modern writers to a secularised world; The Genesis of Secrecy (1979), which examined the nature of narrative; and The Sense of an Ending (1967).

This last was a brilliant investigation of the idea that the longing for an ending brings order to both life and literature, giving shape to the endless flux of time. Kermode, who was also a considerable cultural historian, used apocalyptic fiction as his model, and showed none of the lack of stamina in argument that sometimes undermined his broadest criticism.

The Sense of an Ending gave notice of Kermode's increasing tolerance of modern literary criticism and of its interest less in the content of a work than in its form and structure. From 1967 to 1974 he taught at University College, London, a period that witnessed the birth of new literary theories, notably structuralism and deconstruction. These held that readers should no longer study a text with a view to discerning an objective meaning, since in the modern world texts might have an infinite number of equally valid meanings, each of equal cultural weight, each peculiar to the reader.

Although Kermode was later capable of castigating the gibberish written by many proponents of these ideas, he was always open-minded, and in the late 1960s was an important supporter of the further investigation of these new theories. In a celebrated coup, he arranged for the structuralist Roland Barthes to lecture at UCL.

Such contemporaneity of attitude soon brought Kermode, who consistently disclaimed such ambitions, a clutch of public appointments. Already a stalwart of higher journalism as a reviewer for the New Statesman and The Guardian, in 1967 he took part in that most Sixties of events: giving evidence that a book (in this case Last Exit to Brooklyn) was not obscene. By the early 1970s he had judged the first Booker Prize, was on the Arts Council, had run an Arts Lab at the South Bank and was editing a series of guides to Masters of Modern Thought. His career moved a wryly jealous Philip Larkin to doggerel:

If I could talk, I'd be a worthless prof

Every other year off

Just a jetset egghead, TLS toff

Not old toad: Frank Kermode

Less kindly ridicule had greeted Kermode's earlier incarnation as a leading light of fashionable thought. In 1966, he had been persuaded to take on, with Stephen Spender, the co-editorship of Encounter, a forum for political and literary thought and the best-funded monthly in Britain. Unhappily, it emerged that most of its funding came not from literati but from Langley, Virginia; the magazine was effectively owned by the CIA.

Having been told by Encounter's publisher, Melvin Lasky, that the periodical was not in the front line of the Cold War, Kermode was for some time duped into giving false assurances about his magazine's neutrality. He and Spender duly resigned when the truth was revealed in 1967.

For despite his worldly success, Kermode was not politically astute. He was genuinely more interested in ideas than in infighting, and it was the absence of like-minded colleagues that finally wearied him of Cambridge.

When he was offered the Regius Professorship in 1974, he hesitated to accept, as he was happy in London and had been warned about the atmosphere at Cambridge. Once there, he found a badly-organised faculty which was ill-disposed to change. Kermode later said that the happiest of his eight years at Cambridge was the one he spent as a visiting professor at Harvard.

The row that brought about his resignation in 1982 was presented in the press as a conflict in teaching methods between the traditionalists and the modernists, among whose ranks was Kermode. In reality, the dispute revolved around a junior lecturer, the structuralist Colin MacCabe, whose promotion the traditionalists had tried to block. Kermode's support was not so much for a dogma as for a talented colleague he thought had been unjustly treated; but his arguments did not carry the day. Shortly afterwards he resigned his post and fled Cambridge for a post in New York.

John Frank Kermode was born at Douglas, Isle of Man, on November 29 1919. His father was a harbourside storekeeper, his mother a former waitress who had been abandoned at the age of a week by her parents, who were emigrating to America. This sense of not being wanted, of alienation, passed to her son, whose feeling of exclusion was exacerbated by a narrowly provincial childhood on an island separated by 80 miles of water from the mainland.

The perception that he was an outsider remained with him throughout his career, and was the guiding tone of his more than usually ruminative memoirs, Not Entitled (1996).

Frank was educated at Douglas High School, where he overcame undiagnosed short-sightedness and a nervous breakdown brought on by parental expectations. At Liverpool University he was convinced that he was less intellectually developed than his peers, a belief that prompted him to write his first book at 20. This was a study of Aaron Hill, the 18th-century theatre manager who introduced castrato singing to England.

On graduating in 1940, Kermode joined the Navy, spending much of the war making ever more futile attempts to lay booms off the stormy coast of Iceland. He also served as secretary to an increasingly lunatic series of superannuated captains.

One of Kermode's commanding officers attended the funeral of his first officer while drunk. He assured the widow that her husband was not really dead, otherwise he, the captain, would have been informed of the fact by the Admiralty. Kermode was later the last visitor to have lunch on Hood before she was destroyed by Bismarck. On being demobbed in 1946, Kermode decided that he lacked the imagination to be a writer and decided on a career as a critic. After being pipped for a post at Leeds by two rivals named Kettle and Fisch, he began steadily to climb the ranks of English lectureships. In 1949 he took a job at Reading.

His seven years there were among the happiest and most fruitful of his career. He began to review for the Third Programme on the BBC and profited from the influence of John Wain, who was also teaching at the university. Having edited only a volume of pastoral poetry and an edition of The Tempest, Kermode then made his name in critical circles with Romantic Image.

This and a study of Donne secured him a professorship at Manchester in 1958, whence he moved first to Bristol in 1965 and then, as Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature, to UCL in 1967. While there, and at Cambridge, he contributed a fortnightly literary causerie to The Daily Telegraph.

After leaving Cambridge, he continued to review books, notably for the London Review of Books, which he had helped to found. Kermode was no unthinking dogmatist, and his reviews showed a characteristic willingness to give ideas a run for their money, as well as a grasp of when to question them.

He retired in 1989, and in his last years became a critic of the grip exerted on academic thought by the modern theories that had once interested him. He championed instead the idea that a work had inherent value and argued that the study of a text must not be elevated above the text itself. The content of the literary canon could be questioned, but there must continue to be a canon. It was a view that informed, among others, his book Shakespeare's Language (2000), which dealt, unfashionably, with the playwright as a writer.

He continued to publish into old age, producing eight books in his eighties, including a collection of his own essays, Pieces of My Mind (2003), and a new edition of The Duchess of Malfi (2005), which he edited. His final book, Concerning EM Forster, was timed to coincide with his 90th birthday last year. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1973 and knighted for his services to literature in 1991.

Frank Kermode was in private a genial man, fond of a good pipe, and many felt for him when he was the victim of a highly unfortunate incident in 1996. Expecting the arrival of some men to help him move house, he blithely handed the 50 cardboard boxes containing his library of 2,500 books, including many rare volumes, to the two burly types who knocked on his door. The entire collection was duly lost to the compressor of the municipal dustcart.

He married first, in 1947 (dissolved 1970), Maureen Eccles; they had a twin son and daughter. His second marriage, in 1976, to Anita Van Vactor, was also dissolved.

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