Frank Kermode

Mary-Kay Wilmers

Papers speak through their writers. And of all the London Review’s writers Frank Kermode was the one through whom we spoke most often and most eloquently. In all he wrote nearly 250 pieces for the LRB, the first in October 1979, a review of J.F.C. Harrison’s book on millenarianism, the last, in May this year, a review of Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. ‘Eloquently’: was that the right word? Not really. Frank’s writing was so much more exact, more stylish, more patient, more ironic, more playful, more attentive, more cunning, more cagey than ‘eloquence’ can suggest. ‘Stealthy’ is another possibility – a word Michael Wood used in introducing the collection of Frank’s essays we published to mark his 90th birthday. But as I pile on the epithets I hear Frank’s voice in my head and I stop.

Last February Frank gave a lecture at the British Museum – one of three LRB ‘Winter Lectures’. It had been going to be a talk about Shakespeare, to be called ‘The Shudder’, he said when asked for a title; he also said he had no idea what it would be about. In the event the ‘shudder’ turned out to have little to do with Shakespeare and much to do with T.S. Eliot, and also with Frank. When we printed the piece in the paper, Don Coles, a Canadian poet, wrote in to say that he thought ‘the four pages of this essay the finest I have read in the LRB, this issue or any other’. Before publishing the letter we sent it to Frank. ‘What an odd fan letter that was,’ he replied while thanking us for sending it. ‘Still, no harm done.’

In 2004 Profile published an anthology of LRB pieces, for which Frank wrote a short introduction. In the course of it he said:

Andrew O’Hagan, an echt LRB writer, displays all the best qualities of this kind of journalism: while writing about Scottish nationalism he has a go at a senior contributor, Neal Ascherson, along the way. In the same spirit Stefan Collini takes a disparaging glance at Christopher Hitchens, a former contributor well known for his repertory of disparaging glances. No hard feelings, one hopes.

‘No harm done.’ ‘No hard feelings, one hopes.’ Inscrutable? Ironic? Playful? Or just Frank-like?

It is by now well known that the LRB owes its existence to Frank, whose call to action when the TLS had temporarily disappeared from view in 1979 brought three papers into being, of which two, the Literary Review and the LRB, survive more than 30 years later. Though he could be steely and didn’t easily change his mind (if you queried something in a piece he had written he only pretended to change it), he didn’t represent himself as someone who could make things happen. His tone more often hovered between self-deprecatory (‘can’t seem to do any better at the moment’) and doleful (‘do you really mean you would slog up here to have lunch with me’). Although Concerning E.M. Forster was published earlier this year and he’d been working on it for some time, the default suggestion when asked what he would like said about him in his contributor’s note was ‘FK exists in Cambridge.’ ‘Please use it again,’ he would say on the next occasion, ‘I can’t think of anything else as true.’ And again and again:

I’m afraid it will have to do.

Sorry can’t think of anything snappier.

I wish I could say I was moving to Spitzbergen.

The central figure in Harrison’s book about millenarianism is Richard Brothers, a late 18th-century reader of signs who believed he was destined to lead the Jews back to the Holy Land (‘sorting out the Jews is often a precondition of the millennium,’ Frank noted in passing). ‘Perhaps the value of knowing about such people as Brothers and their absurd delusions,’ Frank wrote at the end of the piece, ‘is simply that they exhibit, in a form that proved harmless, the motives which, endowed with political power, can bring tyranny and destruction on a scale undreamed of by calm intellectuals who know a myth from a fiction and a fiction from a fact.’ Frank, I suppose, was a calm intellectual (though not too calm), a scholar and decoder of myths and of fictions who observed the necessary distinctions.

It’s a coincidence but not a surprise that his first and last LRB pieces were about Christianity. Not because he was a Christian (he wasn’t: ‘a faint absenteeist affection’ for the Church of England was all he could muster), but in part at least because he loved stories, in particular stories that came with many variations and inconsistencies, biblical stories. ‘The charm of this book lies in its seriousness about the story it tells,’ he said of Pullman’s novel, ‘and about its being a story. Christ, the survivor, the writer, gets excited about the possibilities he sees in the record of Jesus’ life – he wants “to play with it … to give it a better shape … to knot the details together neatly to make patterns and show correspondences” – and of course the book at present in our hands is the result of agile manoeuvres and devious inspirations of exactly that kind.’

Not many reviewers would have used ‘devious’ as a term of praise. Or not without making a fuss of it. In Frank’s hands the word glides by almost unnoticed, as if approbation was what it was meant for. He wasn’t much given to more straightforward praise; he admired where admiration was due, but he isn’t quoted on dust-jackets and often it wasn’t immediately clear that there was quite a lot he hadn’t liked about the book he’d been reading. He was known in the office as Sly Sir Frank and sometimes we wondered how many times an author had had to read Frank’s review of his book before he’d realised that Frank hadn’t thought that much of it. He had an extraordinary gift for finding things interesting, whether he liked them or not.

Writing about Frank in the Guardian, John Sutherland called him a ‘fierce reader’ and the phrase was picked up by several newspapers here and in other countries. As he himself says, Sutherland was adapting Frank’s own expression, ‘fierce reading’, which comes at the start of his review of Martin Amis’s book about Stalin, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. It was intended to characterise the reading Amis had done and wasn’t entirely well meant. He also spoke about ‘fierce readers’ in the ‘Shudder’ lecture: readers who read their own meaning into other people’s words, ‘especially when they have positions to defend’. ‘Fierce reader’ would have seemed right but one can’t be too careful. Frank was a reader like no other reader and there ought to be many ways of saying that. But when I try I hear his voice again. No harm done.