Frank Kermode

Frank Kermode, who died on 17 August 2010 at the age of 90, was the author of many books, including Romantic Image (1957), The Sense of an Ending (1967) and Shakespeare’s Language (2000). He was the Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London and the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge University. He inspired the founding of the London Review in 1979, and wrote more than 200 pieces for the paper.

This book describes itself on its jacket as ‘a retelling of the life of Jesus’ and also as a book about ‘how stories become stories’; which might lead one to expect some sort of refined Jamesian experiment, for it was James who thought a novel, if thoroughly ‘done’, was as much about itself as about its ostensible topic. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel...

Eliot and the Shudder: The Shudder

Frank Kermode, 13 May 2010

Eliot had a sort of physiology of poetry. In his lecture ‘The Three Voices of Poetry’ he agreed with Gottfried Benn when he spoke of an imagined meeting between a ‘creative germ’ and language. The poet ‘cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words’. The nascent poem is a burden, relief follows its birth: the poet ‘may experience a moment of exhaustion, of appeasement, of absolution, and of something very near annihilation’. Here is a remarkable mixture of satisfactions, physical, spiritual, close to mortal, and we need to remind ourselves that the metaphor is obstetric, shadowing a dangerous childbirth, a cause of shuddering. Eliot believed, with Housman, that there was a connection between illness and creativity, as once there was held to be in melancholia.

Our Supersubstantial Bread: God’s Plot

Frank Kermode, 25 March 2010

Eamon Duffy, whose opinion of this book will not be lightly disputed, remarks on its jacket that ‘everyone who reads it will learn things they didn’t know.’ Most lay reviewers will think this an understatement; yet the scope of the project, its distance from anything that might be described as parochial, may persuade them that the records of Christianity, preserved and...

Topping Entertainment: Britten

Frank Kermode, 28 January 2010

A two-volume collection of Britten’s letters and diaries, entitled Letters from a Life and edited by Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed, appeared in 1991, and its first volume covers the same period as this new collection; but there was plenty of work for the new editor, John Evans. The diaries were begun when Britten was 15 and ended, rather abruptly, when he was 25. They were written in...

Theophany: William Golding

Frank Kermode, 5 November 2009

John Carey has had access to voluminous archives stored in the Faber basement or in the keeping of William Golding’s family. No one else may see them; he alone can quote from unpublished novels, journals, memoirs, correspondence and conversations. He has made excellent use of these privileges, and the result is a full, friendly, and on proper occasions candid, account of a remarkable...

Fictioneering: J.M. Coetzee

Frank Kermode, 8 October 2009

Subtitled ‘Scenes from Provincial Life’, Summertime is described as the final volume of a trilogy, the others being Boyhood and Youth. These books are instalments of a sort of autobiography. The first two volumes could pass as memoirs, though only Boyhood is actually given that description. Each of these earlier books is a portrait of the artist at the relevant age. This new...

Martin Stannard, the author of an immense biography of Evelyn Waugh, now publishes this excellent and far from brief life of Muriel Spark. The book was well under way while the novelist was still alive, and he expresses his gratitude for her ‘consent, encouragement and active assistance . . . She patiently answered my questions, offered interviews and engaged in a huge...

In this brilliant new book Kazuo Ishiguro maintains his preference for first-person narrative. The voice of both the first and last of this suite of five stories is that of a guitarist who plays in a café orchestra in the Piazza San Marco in Venice. He knows a lot about guitars and enough about the class of music appropriate to the setting. The first tale he tells concerns a crooner,...

The Cambridge Edition of Jane Austen is a production on the most monumental scale, involving nine beautiful but heavy volumes and something like a dozen editors, with a powerful editorial board and a team of learned commentators. One volume apiece goes to the major novels – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which...

Hysterical Vigour

Frank Kermode, 23 October 2008

Roth's young men often come from New Jersey and are the sons of middle-class Jewish fathers: insurance salesmen, say, or jewellers. In this instance the father is a kosher butcher. Marcus helps in the shop, and unless seeking a career in that profession one could hardly want to know more about it than we get from Marcus's description of the day's work. So the story begins and ends in blood.

Sly Digs: E.M. Forster as Critic

Frank Kermode, 25 September 2008

This volume contains 30 broadcasts and 40 uncollected essays, talks and lectures written by E.M. Forster between his time as a 19th-century undergraduate and his candid old age, when, in his eighties, he jotted down a memorandum about his sex life. The broadcasts and essays fill about three hundred pages of this collection, which means some five hundred pages are occupied by appendices, a...

Doris Lessing is now saying she finds it more of a nuisance than a pleasure to have won the Nobel Prize. Considering the scope of her achievements it seems that a convergence of the twain – Lessing and the prize, the Titanic and the iceberg – was fated, but it is understandable that the impact has been disagreeable; she cannot think celebrity is her business. Intent on exploring...

Offered to the Gods: Sacrifice

Frank Kermode, 5 June 2008

This extraordinary book examines the practice and the cultural contexts of human sacrifice, more or less from its speculative prehistoric beginnings to Margaret Atwood’s recent novel The Blind Assassin. To succeed in such an enterprise an author must be fantastically well read, expert in the disposition of large tracts of material in various languages, some of it by great artists and...

Did It Happen on 9 April?

Frank Kermode, 20 March 2008

In about 56 AD, St Paul writing to the Christians of Corinth, made his position very clear. Somebody had been suggesting that the dead cannot be resurrected, and this was his response: ‘If there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen; and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain and your faith is also vain.’ The creeds still require the faithful to...

With Slip and Slapdash: Auden’s Prose

Frank Kermode, 7 February 2008

Auden more than once explained that his business was poetry and that he wrote prose to earn his keep while pursuing that ill-paid vocation. Luckily he had another powerful reason for writing prose: ‘unless I write something, anything, good, indifferent, or trashy, every day,’ he told his friend James Stern, ‘I feel ill.’ Spurred on by these complementary inducements...

Not Just Yet: The Literature of Old Age

Frank Kermode, 13 December 2007

In the opening pages of Plato’s Republic Cephalus tells Socrates that when old men of his acquaintance get together they tend to spend their time bemoaning the lost pleasures of youth. Since sex, feasting and other laddish benefits have been curtailed or withdrawn they feel they might as well not be alive at all. But Cephalus also reports that the poet Sophocles, asked how the sex was...

When A.E. Housman failed his final examinations at Oxford he went to London to work as a clerk in the Patent Office. After ten years of that, he was appointed, at the age of 33, to the chair of Latin at University College London. In his application for the job he very properly drew attention to his Oxford failure. Not, you might think, a glowing CV, especially as he couldn’t claim any teaching experience. Yet these manifest disadvantages failed to deter the electors to the chair. They had their own criteria of eminence and saw that Housman was already one of the few.

E.M. Forster wrote a surprising amount of criticism of one kind or another, but he believed that criticism was of almost no use to art or to artists. He certainly regarded himself as an artist, and his own art was fiction, but he said firmly, in a broadcast of 1944, that ‘the novel . . . has not any rules and so there is no such thing as the art of fiction.’ This remark...

The survival of poetry, especially if written before the invention of print, has often been a matter of luck or accident. Consigned to caves in the deserts of the Middle East, it might be preserved by the hot, dry climate for a couple of thousand years before somebody stumbled on it. And we are told that some hot, dry Alexandrian bureaucrat, no poetry lover, decided that seven plays by Sophocles, enough for one codex, would serve for the teaching of grammar and rhetoric. The surplus hundred-odd went for scrap.

Was it a supernova? the Nativity

Frank Kermode, 4 January 2007

Very few schoolboys know that of the four Gospels only two offer any account of the conception and birth of Jesus, and even those schoolboys probably care little that Matthew and Luke, the two which do provide Nativity narratives, fail to agree about many important details. Moreover, there are received ideas about the Nativity narrative that have no warrant in either version. So, it may be asked, who cares? Yet to look into these matters is to come on problems both interesting and intractable and, to some people, important.

‘Disgusting’: remembering William Empson

Frank Kermode, 16 November 2006

In 1940 Empson was back in England, having spent much of the previous decade in Japan and China. His arrival in China had coincided with the Japanese invasion and the resulting southward migration of the National Peking University. He went along, rather enjoyed the hardships of the trek, relying on his excellent memory to teach English with little aid from books. In the autumn of 1939 he made his way homeward via the United States. Arriving the following January he settled in his flat in Marchmont Street and considered his future, at least as uncertain at this date as anybody else’s.

Going Against: Is There a Late Style?

Frank Kermode, 5 October 2006

The odd thing is that most of the contributors to these books doubt whether it is possible to offer a clear and distinct idea of the subject under discussion. Indeed, Karen Painter, one of the editors of the Getty volume, says right out that ‘late style does not exist in any real sense.’ But she and her colleagues continue to search for distinguishing marks of lateness in the work of major artists in their last years, to ask whether they give evidence of failing powers, such as might in the ordinary course of things be expected: senescence; illness; the decay of the senses; the certainty that death, always feared at a distance but now in the room, is taking a hand. Will these afflictions be reflected in a style markedly different from those they used in the periods of early promise and full maturity?

This memoir takes its title and its epigraph from Wordsworth:

I have owed to them In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart.

The poet laureate thus salutes a distinguished predecessor. Yet there is nothing particularly Wordsworthian about Andrew Motion’s book. The only character who uses the expression ‘in the blood’ is the poet’s father, and what he means is that when the time comes Andrew is bound to enjoy hunting. There is little evidence here of childish wildness or wickedness, no hint of Wordsworth’s animating discipline of fear – ‘more like a man/Flying from something that he dreads, than one/Who sought the thing he loved’ – and even less in the way of ‘aching joys’ and ‘dizzy raptures’.

Christine Brooke-Rose, being in her eighties and suffering many intractable illnesses and disabilities, recognises that her life must be near its end. Since her retirement from the University of Paris (Vincennes) she has lived alone in a village near Avignon. Being well acquainted with illness, she has offered as her main reason for choosing to spend her old age in France the conviction that the French health services are far superior to the British, an opinion she has not had occasion to revise.

Blackening: Doubting Thomas

Frank Kermode, 5 January 2006

The story of Doubting Thomas, examined at length in this learned and fascinating book, has its origin in a brief passage near the end of St John’s Gospel. After the crucifixion, when the disciples were assembled behind locked doors ‘for fear of the Jews’, Jesus appeared among them and displayed the wounds in his hands and side. He also granted them the power to remit sins,...

Here she is: Zadie Smith

Frank Kermode, 6 October 2005

What makes this novel a bit unusual is that it is conceived as an act of homage to E.M. Forster, ‘to whom’, the author writes, ‘all my fiction is indebted, one way or the other’. The acknowledgment is obscure and ‘one way or the other’ could, but probably doesn’t, mean ‘both by attraction and repulsion’. To take as a model Howards End, a novel published in 1910, need not be a mere game or stunt, but it does tend to steal the limelight of critical attention.

A Hammer in His Hands: Lowell’s Letters

Frank Kermode, 22 September 2005

Writing letters was not the work Robert Lowell thought himself born to do, but what with one thing and another – good friends, a lively mind, deep troubles – he wrote a great many of them, demonstrating at considerable length ‘the excitement of his intelligence and the liveliness of his prose’. These are the words of Saskia Hamilton, the poet who has undertaken the...

John Carey, former Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford, an authority on Milton and Donne and Dickens and others, the very model of a Merton Professor, has also been, for decades, the chief reviewer of the Sunday Times, a BBC sage, a sought-after chairman of panels, a man well known for his strong opinions on all matters to do with literature and the other arts. These opinions he...

“Empson himself was a pugnacious believer in the relevance of biography to the study of literature. As Haffenden remarks, he always sought to ‘situate the work in the context of the life’, and the lives of artists had a special importance because of their status as outsiders, challengers of convention – condemned, in so far as they were doing the work they were born for, to some measure of social isolation. As he wrote in one of what seems to be a remarkably large body of surviving letters, many of them of great biographical interest, ‘it is a very good thing for a poet . . . to be saying something which is considered very shocking at the time.’ Such a poet, he believed, would be doing his ethical and political duty: ‘To become morally independent of one’s formative society . . . is the grandest theme of all literature, because it is the only means of moral progress, the establishment of some higher ethical concept.’ Consciousness of his honourable calling may induce the poet to present himself as at once dignified and eccentric – epithets which catch some aspects of Empson as a social presence.”

Outrageous Game: Ishiguro’s Nightmares

Frank Kermode, 21 April 2005

All of Kazuo Ishiguro’s six novels are first-person narratives. For the most part the voices of these narrators are quiet, civilised, rather formal. This is so whether the speaker is the obsessive butler of the most famous of the books, The Remains of the Day (1989); or one of the somewhat demented heroes of The Unconsoled (1995) or When We Were Orphans (2000); or the Japanese, guilty...

A Very Smart Bedint: Harold Nicolson

Frank Kermode, 17 March 2005

Like everybody else, I had read a lot about Harold Nicolson and his amazing marriage, but paid little attention to him as the author of many books, including a biography of his father, Lord Carnock, a bestselling life of King George V, a life of Mrs Charles Lindbergh’s father, some novels and some historical studies. Of these works I had read only one, the pseudo-autobiographical Some...

“Many would agree with the general proposition that the best Shakespeare movies are not in English but in Japanese or Russian, the reason being that these works are treatments of the stories of Macbeth or Lear: the stories behind or inferred from the plays, rather than the plays themselves, so there is no direct debt to the English texts. Shakespeare of course depended on language to do the work of exposition, characterisation and scene setting. He could not offer a plywood Rialto or stage the starlit night at Belmondo, or do close-ups of Jeremy Irons’s love-battered face; or show Antonio arriving in his gondola, Shylock dining wretchedly with Bassanio, or Jessica sitting excitedly in the women’s section of the synagogue. Moments inaccessible to language have to be left out: the film makers put them in because for them pictures do the work of language, which is an intruder in film, attacked by the camera when it threatens to settle in.”

Shakespeare scholarship in the mid 19th century, one gathers, was not only very competitive but also morally dangerous. It could threaten the virtue, even on occasion the sanity, of its practitioners, a diverse group united only by their lust for Shakespeareana and their unflaggingly competitive spirit. Enthusiastic, self-taught amateurs, they developed professional skills at a time when...

Here, in six hundred double-column pages, we have what the editor describes as ‘the most comprehensive collection of contemporary reviews of T.S. Eliot’s work as it appeared’. There are other such collections, but this one will be enough for most people. The editor is American, and she is contributing to a series which gives the same treatment to Emerson, Edith Wharton,...

Retripotent: B. S. Johnson

Frank Kermode, 5 August 2004

“Christie is a clerk in a Hammersmith cake factory. Having mastered double-entry bookkeeping, Christie applies the principle – ‘every Debit must have its Credit’ – to his own dealings with the world. Whenever he suffers an injustice he credits his side of the ledger appropriately. Beginning with trifles, he progresses to larger evils. ‘Socialism not given a chance’ is balanced by £311,398. He ends by murdering 20,000-odd Londoners by poisoning their water supply. The number is selected because it is, roughly, the number of words in the novel. The Offence for which this slaughter provided Recompense was committed by Them.”

Modern biographers aspire to tell all, and psychoanalysts writing the lives of psychoanalysts should be better at this than most. But there are those who may doubt the propriety of their revelations and investigations. Even when the subject is a fairly ordinary mortal they feel that he or she has a right to some posthumous privacy; and the psychoanalytical profession would presumably claim to...

The Sacred Cause of Idiom: Lady Gregory

Frank Kermode, 22 January 2004

The possession and use of a toothbrush was a mark of the difference between us and them, gentry and peasant, or so Lady Gregory suggested when she made the remark – jocular, perhaps, and not the sort of sally she would have chosen to be remembered by. Colm Tóibín makes more than one allusion to it in this essay, gently hinting that his sympathies are with the toothbrushless,...

Hard Labour: Marvell beneath the Notes

Frank Kermode, 23 October 2003

The task of keeping us interested in the canonical poets seems now to have fallen mainly to the Longman Annotated English Poets series. But who are we? Every time another volume is added somebody has to decide who we are, how many we are, and how much annotation and prefatory material we’ll want in addition to a reliable text. Given that nobody really knows the market for the canonical...

Closets of Knowledge: Privacy

Frank Kermode, 19 June 2003

Among other books by the author of this study is one called Boredom, hailed by the paradoxophile Adam Phillips as ‘spry’, a description that would just about serve for the style of Privacy, which, though redolent of the privacies of the seminar, is public in the sense that it is reasonably free of jargon and won’t mind much if non-professors choose to read it.

Before she...

Reticulation: Wordsworth at Sea

Frank Kermode, 6 February 2003

There has of late been a vogue for what is sometimes called ‘micro-history’: the historian chooses some anecdote, some occurrence remote from the mainstream of historical writing, and from it deduces an entire culture, the conflicts or negotiations of power within a whole historical community. Alethea Hayter deals with a single event, focusing on a particular moment in history,...

Snarling: Angry Young Men

Frank Kermode, 28 November 2002

Humphrey Carpenter is a practised biographer; he can do groups as well as single persons, but he admits that this group set him a new problem, which was that he remained throughout unsure whether it really existed. The Movement (a rather localised, mostly Oxford affair) and the Angry Young Men (more London, more of the theatre) were certainly the inventions of journalists, but they took on a...

To Kill All Day: Amis’s Terrible News

Frank Kermode, 17 October 2002

This book is primarily the product of some fiercely hard reading, a reaction to the shock of finding something out from books. It has some directly autobiographical elements – a letter to the author’s father, reminiscences of a dead sister, chats with Christopher Hitchens, tales of Oxford and the old New Statesman office, and so on. But fierce reading is what this book is about,...

Lager and Pernod: Alan Warner

Frank Kermode, 22 August 2002

Reviewers rarely feel it prudent to begin by confessing bafflement, but the admission may sometimes be unavoidable. This is my sentiment as I contemplate the four novels of Alan Warner. He has been highly praised (‘dazzling’, ‘classic’, ‘significant’, ‘vastly gifted’, ‘a genius’, ‘one of the most influential literary...

Pillors of Fier: Anthony Burgess

Frank Kermode, 11 July 2002

Arguing – redundantly? disingenuously? – that ‘every Shakespeare-lover’ has the right ‘to paint his own portrait of the man’, Anthony Burgess published his version in 1970. Though ‘eschewing invention’, he confessed to an element of ‘conjecture’, adding that the reader should spot his venial departures from fact and excuse them as...

This book is a sequence or collection of poems and other things concerning events in Europe in the period between the Treaty of Versailles and, broadly speaking, the Battle of Britain. Some of the events and personalities, like the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno, are considerately annotated, but others, some of them much more obscure than these, are not. Consequently the reader’s...

In the Spirit of Mayhew: Rohinton Mistry

Frank Kermode, 25 April 2002

The Indian novel in English goes back a long way, at least to R.K. Narayan, who flourished from the Thirties to the Eighties of the last century. The achievements of Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy and others now at work suggest that it still flourishes despite the opposition view that modern Indians should not write in English. India has a great many languages and English can be thought of as...

Zounds: Blasphemy

Frank Kermode, 14 January 2002

Blasphemy is still a crime in English law, though I imagine few now think it should be. A quarter-century has passed since anybody was charged with it, but another determined zealot like Mary Whitehouse might still manage a prosecution. The law holds that Christianity, in effect the Church of England with its secular Head, is the only religion that can be blasphemed, and one still hears...

Point of View: Atonement by Ian McEwan

Frank Kermode, 4 October 2001

Minor resemblances between this novel by Ian McEwan and Henry James’s What Maisie Knew have already been noticed and are of some interest. James left a quite full record of the development of his story, which described modern divorce and adultery from the point of view of a young girl. It had its roots in Solomon’s offer to satisfy rival maternal claimants by cutting the disputed...

What Naipaul knows: V.S. Naipaul

Frank Kermode, 6 September 2001

Willie Chandran, full name Willie Somerset Chandran, is the son of a somewhat eccentric minor official in an Indian state. The novelist, conscientiously researching his final masterpiece, The Razor’s Edge, had visited the maharajah and taken notice of Willie’s father, who happened to be doing penance and, on the model of Gandhi, observing a vow of silence in the temple courtyard....

Meaningless Legs: John Gielgud

Frank Kermode, 21 June 2001

These biographies of John Gielgud by Jonathan Croall and Sheridan Morley are quite hard to tell apart. They are of much the same size, bear handsome pictures of the actor in old age on the front of their dust-jackets, and are, inevitably, affectionate and indulgent towards their subject. As Dirk Bogarde remarked when Croall consulted him about the work in hand, ‘everybody adored him, so...

The main title of this collection may at first seem wantonly non-descriptive, but it turns out to be exact. The first thing to see to if you want to write well is to avoid doing bad writing, used thinking. The more positive requirements can be left till later, if only a little later. Clichés are infallible symptoms of used thinking. Martin Amis has always wanted to be a good writer and...

The Small Noise Upstairs: Don DeLillo

Frank Kermode, 8 March 2001

The publishers describe this book as ‘lean’, which may be taken to refer to its style, though it also serves as a euphemism for ‘very short, especially considering the price’. Its immediate predecessor was Underworld, about seven times as long (or as fat). That book, as nearly everybody must know, begins with a chapter about a famous baseball game and a boy who...

These lectures were delivered at the New School for Social Research in Greenwich Village during the academic session 1946-47. Arthur Kirsch has pieced them together from the records of four people who attended them. To have one’s lectures put together from students’ notes years after they were given is a rare mark of distinction; offhand I can only think of Saussure and...

Playing the Seraphine: Penelope Fitzgerald

Frank Kermode, 25 January 2001

This is a collection of eight stories, the oldest first published in 1975, the most recent in 1999; so they punctuate the entire, brief career of a writer who never yielded to the temptation to go on until there seemed to be nothing more to say. Her novels are exactly long enough. They accommodate her unique ability to imagine and record all the necessary authenticating detail of her settings:...

At Tate Britain: William Blake

Frank Kermode, 14 December 2000

A great many people seemed willing to incur the expense, and the discomfort of prolonged queueing, to see the big Blake exhibition at the Tate.* Some, no doubt, were expert even in the most rebarbative of the Prophetic Books. Others perhaps only remembered some poems and some stimulating aphorisms glorifying Desire (‘the whole creation will appear infinite and holy … This will...

Motoring: James Lees-Milne

Frank Kermode, 30 November 2000

Of the seven volumes of diaries published over the years by James Lees-Milne two have now been reissued as rather grand paperbacks, along with an eighth, a final hardback selection made by Michael Bloch. They all have titles like Ancestral Voices, Caves of Ice, Through Wood and Dale, Midway on the Waves and Prophesying Peace, and it will not escape the notice of the literate public that they...

No Tricks: Raymond Carver

Frank Kermode, 19 October 2000

Raymond Carver was much taken with the idea that every writer creates a distinctive world: ‘Every great or even very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications … It is his world and no other.’ The idea is hardly original but one sees why he liked it. Carver’s world is something like a room in which the television is always on, unless you...

Empson has been dead these 16 years, and although his voice was often recorded it now seems difficult to describe it. John Haffenden says he had one voice for poetry and another for prose. Empson himself thought ‘the reader should throw himself into the verse, and not do it with “reserved” English good taste.’ The best idea was to ham it ‘like a provincial Shakespeare a hundred years ago’. According to Naomi Lewis this resulted in his ‘presenting his love poems in the sardonic tones of a 17th-century New England elder directing the trial of a witch’. Haffenden describes Empson’s as ‘a patrician voice, with a slightly sardonic timbre’, which seems a fair description of his everyday tones, and so is G.S. Fraser’s – ‘an odd, sad, snarly voice’. Of his poetry reading John Wain said he rendered some passages ‘like a Neapolitan stevedore, laryngitically croaking others’. In private sitting-rooms he used a quieter tone, ‘though the curious angularity of rhythm’, which some like and some do not, was still present.’‘

This National Gallery exhibition has a catalogue of extraordinary splendour and is accompanied by four programmes on BBC2’s new Art Zone slot. In the Gallery itself there are further aids to understanding in the form of a film show, CD-Roms and audiotapes. A BBC book accompanies the series, and Neil MacGregor, the indefatigable director of the Gallery, not only does the TV presentations but is making a hectic lecture tour (Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff, Belfast: admission free). We are talking about as professionally orchestrated an art offensive as we are ever likely to see.

Funny Water: Raban at Sea

Frank Kermode, 20 January 2000

Jonathan Raban is afraid of the sea, saying it is not his element, which is probably why he spends so much time on it. He does not claim to be a world-class sailor, though he is obviously a competent one. One good reason for sailing is that, being a writer, he likes to write about having sailed. Sailing is guaranteed to provide alarms and achievements for his pen to celebrate.

Writing about Shakespeare

Frank Kermode, 9 December 1999

Fifty-odd years ago I was asked to review a book about Shakespeare by an aged professor who claimed that a career spent largely in teaching Shakespeare gave him a right to have his final say on the subject. This notion I thought grossly self-indulgent There seemed to be little reason to believe that at his age he could suddenly have found anything interesting to say. And there surely were enough books on Shakespeare already, many of them dull, many of them silly, without the addition of another of which the primary motive was vanity and an understandable fear of oblivion. My editor, detecting a breach of decorum, declined to publish my review. I thought this deference cowardly; I have now changed my opinion. I did so when I caught myself thinking that I had some vaguely apprehended right or duty to produce a book about Shakespeare, and needed to persuade myself that this was not a delusion.

William Sherlock’s Practical Discourse concerning Death, published in 1689 and known familiarly as Sherlock on Death, was a bestseller in its day and long after. Dr Johnson commended Sherlock’s style as ‘very elegant’. There was a long tradition of ‘how to’ books about dying, and, as his fuller title suggests, Sherlock was offering a modern approach to the problem. I thought of Sherlock when reading this brief new book by Adam Phillips, which might well be entitled Phillips on Death, and could justly be described as very elegant.‘

Charging Downhill: Michael Holroyd

Frank Kermode, 28 October 1999

When he came to write his autobiography, the biographer Michael Holroyd decided to restrict himself to what he calls ‘a good walk-on part’, assigning the leading roles to his family. Avowedly happier with the lives of others than with his own, he remains as close as the circumstance permits to the condition of invisible watcher. Biography, he says, had formerly provided an ‘exit from myself’, and here he is, still, as far as is consistent with the product being autobiography, ‘stepping from my own life into other people’s where there seemed to be so much more going on’. Although he writes about his experiences at prep school, at Eton, as an articled clerk, a temporary officer and an aspiring writer, he does so almost apologetically, the lives of his relations having so much more going on in them.‘

Bonjour Sagesse: Claire Messud

Frank Kermode, 30 September 1999

Claire Messud’s first novel, When the World Was Steady, published five years ago, won praise from critics who know what they’re talking about – for example, Penelope Fitzgerald, writing in the LRB. It was a book that showed an easy technical control, an ability to do the things novelists have to do, and in so young a writer these skills were reasonably thought to presage later and more ambitious performances. She seemed to know how all manner of people talked, whether in dull offices and suburban religious groups or in far more exotic settings. Rich racketeers and the petty crooks attending them, people eagerly taking dreary jobs (‘35-hour week at £4.83 an hour’), gay clergymen, they all sounded right. The story of two middle-aged sisters, one staying at home with a formidable mother, the other long since emigrated to Australia but now divorced and wandering about Bali, created all sorts of opportunities.’‘

A.J. Ayer, says Ben Rogers, had a ‘pampered upbringing, even by Edwardian standards’. He suffered much at prep school, then went to Eton, where he suffered less and got over it. The next move, to Christ Church, was painless. Oxford gave him Gilbert Ryle as his tutor and appointed him to a lectureship before he graduated.‘

Diary: being a critic

Frank Kermode, 27 May 1999

If you wanted to make your way as a literary journalist in the days of Addison you might have done well to begin by heading for Button’s coffeehouse in Russell Street where the great man held court, and be as submissively impressive as possible. Almost three hundred years later, though sadly not for very long, you could make your way to the Pillars of Hercules in Greek Street, where Ian Hamilton, editor of the New Review, was usually to be found. The suppliants, mostly young men not then long out of the universities, have very properly combined to congratulate the sage or gaffer on his 60th birthday. Some of them got their first chance in that pub. A few of the celebrants are, or have been, English dons – John Fuller, Simon Gray, Dan Jacobson; but even they arrived by what might be called the bohemian route.’

To develop a full-scale portrait of a character from hints, often terse and reticent, in the gospel narratives – using for the purpose your imagination and whatever help you can get elsewhere – is, it seems, an attractive idea. A couple of years ago, reviewing in these pages a book that gave Judas Iscariot the treatment (LRB, 2 January 1997), I tried to explain why I found the result unpersuasive. Now here’s a biography of Pontius Pilate, a long, sometimes lively and sometimes learned piece of work, that is equally unconvincing.

Overflow: John Updike

Frank Kermode, 21 January 1999

That John Updike has a Trollopian fidelity to his characters is evident from the four books of the Rabbit series; this new book is the third of a sequence about the New York Jewish novelist Henry Bech. As it carries him into his seventies it may be that this is the last of Bech, as Rabbit at Rest was presumably the last of Rabbit, but as long as the real author is alive, fertile and motile, one cannot be sure.

Paint Run Amuck: Jack Yeats

Frank Kermode, 12 November 1998

We attach the epithet ‘great’ rather loosely to artists, but there is probably some tacit agreement about which ones deserve it. It doesn’t seem wrong to call W.B. Yeats a great poet, and in certain contexts he may be called a great Irish poet, though most of the time it might seem odd to insist that Dante was a great Italian, or Shakespeare a great English, poet, partly because we vaguely think of them as transcending nationality. But Yeats was the necessary great poet of the national cultural renaissance that accompanied a struggle for political independence with which he was inevitably and willingly associated: he would have been a great Irish poet even if he had not become supra-national, more universal than that description suggests.‘

A. D. Nuttall is probably the most philosophically-minded of modern literary critics, and he has the additional merit of assuming that at some level philosophical (or theological) problems are of importance to everybody, an assumption that operates even when he is applying his mind, and his exceptional erudition, to such matters as the presence of Gnostic speculation in Marlowe, Milton and Blake. The justification for this belief is that almost everybody, often at an early age, has wondered how a God officially certified as good in all possible ways can co-exist with a creation that is manifestly not so.

First Pitch: Marianne Moore

Frank Kermode, 16 April 1998

We are told by the editors that some 30,000 letters of Marianne Moore survive, many of them extremely long, and that she sometimes wrote fifty letters a day. When she was young and not famous her family saved her letters; later on people kept some because she had become rather famous, and then a great many because she had become very famous. Correspondents, some as famous as she was, treasured every word she wrote them. There survive a hundred letters to Ezra Pound and another hundred to T.S. Eliot; five hundred to the historical novelist Bryher (Winifred Ellerman) and sixty to Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), who was Bryher’s lover. Elizabeth Bishop, a favourite in later years, received more than two hundred, over a period of almost forty years.

When Browning’s grammarian, grown old and bald and sick, was urged to get out of his cell and see a bit of life before he died, he replied that he still had work to do: ‘Grant I have mastered learning’s crabbed text,/Still there’s the comment.’ Anthony Grafton’s book is a commentary on the comment, some of it made, as Browning puts it, ‘shortly after the revival of learning in Europe’, though its scope is much wider than that.‘


Frank Kermode, 22 January 1998

This is the 22nd volume in the series Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture. All the contributors are American, as are the General Editor, Stephen Orgel, and three out of five members of the editorial board. Orgel, a respected authority on the Jacobean court masque, is also interested in such historical curiosities as Renaissance cross-dressing and the like. Among his colleagues on the board are Jonathan Goldberg, author, among other adventurous works, of Sodometrics: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities, Marjorie Garber, a celebrated, good-humoured and energetic advocate of bisexuality, and Jonathan Dollimore, an English critic who shares some of these interests. Volumes so far published in the series include Men in Women’s Clothing, Anxious Masculinity, Textual Intercourse and The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama. (‘Early Modern’ is often preferred to ‘Renaissance’, a term now condemned as ‘gendered’ and ‘élitist’.)’‘


Frank Kermode, 16 October 1997

According to its dust-jacket, Jack Maggs is ‘by the author of Oscar and Lucinda’. It is in some respects unlike that novel, being shorter, darker and less furiously though still adequately inventive. Its economy may shock some folk, for Peter Carey is known to be an exuberant novelist, copious, various and fantastic. It is possible to admire his books for their lack of respect for boundaries, for the qualities they share with the work of modern Latin American novelists. However, they are always Australian. Antipodean glossaries are sometimes needed. The Old World is usually present for purposes of unfavourable comparison, implied rather than stated. There is a detectable ground-bass in almost all these fictions: despite the privations, indignities and suffering imposed on it by its colonists, all the repression they continued to exert until quite recently, all that self-consciousness about being the refuge of ‘second-rate Europeans’, Australia can at last be interested primarily in its own othernesses, in what occurs in a culture that is as remote from the protocols of the mother country (not that the expression can now be used without irony) as its fauna are from those of Europe. It took time for Australians to insist in this way on difference rather than resemblance: a point gently made by Carey when speaking of an autobiographical Sydney writer who chose to dwell on her eight months in Paris and ignore her 28 years in Australia. ‘Typical,’ he remarks; ‘but we will not go into that now.’

For a Few Dollars More

Frank Kermode, 18 September 1997

‘I have no life except in poetry,’ runs an aphorism of Wallace Stevens; but in another he says ‘Money is a kind of poetry,’ so the fact that he spent his working life as vice-president of a large insurance company did not invalidate the claim. It is plausible enough that money, with all its promises of pleasure, the anxieties it brings by being elsewhere when needed, the care one is expected to take to prevent it from disappearing unexpectedly, and, I suppose, the delight to be had in simply making it, has a certain relationship with poetry. And in so far as it is believed, whether sensibly or not, that money is somehow real and credit merely imaginary, we, who largely live on credit (mortgages, credit cards etc), could claim with Wallace Stevens that our whole life, whether we are reading or writing poetry or applying for life insurance, is an affair of the imagination. As a certain Richard Price explained in 1778, paper money must be thought of as the sign of a sign. If coin signified real value, paper, ‘owing its currency to opinion’, had ‘only a local and imaginary value’. We have no choice but to re-imagine it daily.


Frank Kermode, 5 June 1997

This ought to be a good novel, for it is by a good writer and deals intelligently with a bit of British history that continues to interest us. And it certainly gives pleasure; so it seems a shade ungrateful to be asking what’s wrong with it. Is this all? Is this the best a lively imagination can make of the plight of the virtuous spy, whether wild or sober, dedicated or not, Blunt or Burgess?

Under the Loincloth

Frank Kermode, 3 April 1997

In 1983 the magazine October devoted an entire issue to a remarkable study of genital display in some – indeed in a great many – Renaissance depictions of Christ. Publication in book form followed, and among the reviewers there were some who were embarrassed or shocked and some who were sceptical. The author, Leo Steinberg, kept watch on them and has now greatly expanded his original report. He is agreeably discursive and writes informatively and exuberantly about all manner of marginal topics, but his revision has two main purposes: to multiply the visual evidence – seeking ‘the cumulative impact of number’ – and to rebut his critics. It seems to him that English reviewers in particular were inclined to be contemptuous or dismissive, so some venerable commentators – the late Lawrence Gowing, Michael Levey, Richard Wollheim, Marina Warner and, singled out for a special treatment, Charles Hope – are, in this new edition, keenly reprehended.’

What he did

Frank Kermode, 20 March 1997

F.S.L. Lyons, who first undertook this large-scale biography of Yeats, died in 1983, and after some vicissitudes the task devolved on Roy Foster, the professor of Irish history at Oxford. He has had access to Lyons’s notes and transcripts, invaluable to a successor confronted, as he says, with ‘a vast and unfamiliar subject’. Vast it remains, but the unfamiliarity has clearly evaporated. Foster insists that his business is history, not literary criticism: Yeats, he remarks, was a poet, but he was ‘both serially and simultaneously, a playwright, journalist, occultist, apprentice politician, revolutionary, stage-manager, diner-out, dedicated friend, confidant and lover of some of the most interesting people of his day’. He therefore offers not a study of the poetry from a biographical angle but a chronological account of the life during which the poetry was written: the packed and laborious life of an extraordinary man, a genius, if the word is still allowed to mean anything; a great though sometimes rather absurd figure whose career is inextricably involved in the history of his country (and with much else) from the 1880s to the 1930s. ‘Most biographical studies of WBY are principally about what he wrote; this one is principally about what he did.’’

Grandiose Moments

Frank Kermode, 6 February 1997

Ford Madox Ford, an appealingly talented and gossipy subject, has naturally attracted biographers. In 1971 Arthur Mizener’s The Saddest Story seemed adequately exhaustive, but now Max Saunders comes along with two vast volumes, even more thorough and more than doubling the page count. Alan Judd, faithful to Ford’s own lack of respect for academic pieties, brought out his footnoteless but still valuable life of Ford in 1990. Saunders, like Mizener, is an academic and has hundreds of scrupulous notes. Mizener had the advantage of being able to consult many surviving friends of Ford, including Allen Tate, Herbert Read, Jean Rhys and Rebecca West. He also had access to the papers of Ford’s mistress Violet Hunt and the Ford collections in various American libraries, notably those of Cornell and Princeton. Judd and Saunders were denied by death of useful contemporary testimony, except for that of Janice Biala, Ford’s widow, to whom all three biographers are properly grateful. With her consent they all had access to the archives, and the later writers also acknowledge their debts to Mizener, despite some sharp disagreements in interpretation.

My Man

Frank Kermode, 2 January 1997

William Klassen, research professor at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, is a New Testament scholar with a theory about Judas Iscariot. He would be the last to say he is first in the field with a theory about Judas, but he can plausibly claim to be unique in having appeared before classes and congregations dressed as he supposes Judas to have been at the moment of the Crucifixion, and keen to defend his actions against what he knew would be the enraged accusations of his auditors. For he does not believe that Judas was a bad man or a traitor. In his book he describes at length his ‘quest for the historical Judas’, believing that the Christian tradition has misrepresented and maligned the man (the more readily since his name connotes Jewishness) and should admit guilt for having done so.

A Turn of Events

Frank Kermode, 14 November 1996

Despite her obvious liking for complicated plots, Muriel Spark usually seems happiest when writing very short novels (which, it is true, often have complicated plots). Among her earlier novels it is The Public Image that Reality and Dreams most resembles, though they are separated by 28 years, and there are differences of tone. Once more she looks into, or down on, the movie business. In the older book the principal figure is an actress, without talent but with eyes that photograph so well that she bcome an international star. There is a good deal of bad behaviour, treachery and bad faith; everybody is, by the standards insinuated, inauthentic, and thus the movie scene on the via Veneto, with its adulteries, genuine or faked for publicity purposes, is silently contrasted with the other Rome which, in principle at any rate, has infallible access to truth.

The cars of the elect will be driverless

Frank Kermode, 31 October 1996

Towards the end of this rather bewildering book Harold Bloom explains that he doesn’t really expect the year 2000 to be catastrophic; we shall experience neither ‘rupture nor rapture’. The only danger he can see is that some people, maddened by the deferral of the end-time on which they had counted (or, in Bloomspeak, disappointed in their ‘expectation of release from the burdens of a society that is weary with its sense of belatedness, or “aftering” ’) might cut up rough when the year passes without apocalyptic incident. We know from previous studies of such sects that such an outcome is unlikely. Members of the sect either rework their calculations or just slip away. But the sceptical view – that the end always misses the appointment – is the one one would expect the learned Bloom to hold. He knows very well the long tradition of disappointed apocalypse, and he is aware that 2000 AD or CE is a date with no more intrinsic significance than any other.’

England’s Troubles

Frank Kermode, 17 October 1996

The author, now about forty, has long since shown how easy he finds it to be a success in the world. As magazine editor, television producer, businessman, he has made money without great effort. He is acquainted with grief in the predictable varieties that hardly anybody escapes, but he has also experienced a serious depression which almost drove him to suicide. Soon after he got over that his mother killed herself. He got over that. Now he is happily married and has written this unusual book.

Not His Type

Frank Kermode, 5 September 1996

In a preliminary chapter called ‘Curriculum Vitae’ David Sylvester explains that he became interested in art when, at 17, he was fascinated by a black and white reproduction of a Matisse. He at once began to paint in oils, but soon discovered that he lacked talent and began to write about art instead, devoting himself thenceforth to the black and white of the page. A left-wing journal here called the Tribute accepted an article he wrote about a London exhibition. Now 18, he was launched on a career for which he was but insecurely qualified. It was wartime, and he had seen very few foreign pictures; the National Gallery exposed only one Old Master a month. But, then as now, he was almost as interested in artists as he was in art, and met many examples of the species in Soho clubs. Being at home with painters and intellectuals considerably his seniors seems to have come naturally to him, and soon we find him in Paris on familiar terms with Michel and Louise Leiris, Jacques Lacan, Sylvia Bataille, André Masson and Alberto Giacometti, the last of whom was to be enduringly important to his career.

Marshy Margins

Frank Kermode, 1 August 1996

Literary criticism seems to be putting on weight in its old age – Margaret Anne Doody’s book is well over three hundred thousand words and loaded with learning, which may appal the fainthearted, but they should take into account that throughout its length it is written with verve and wit, and is by any standard an extraordinary and idiosyncratic achievement. The closest comparison available is with Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, which caused such a stir almost forty years ago. Doody acknowledges a certain affinity with that formidable work, while insisting, quite rightly, that she is trying to do something different: for one thing, it is always relevant that she is a woman, laying down a different law from Frye’s or any man’s, and combatively aware of masculine (and also British-imperialist) presumptions that can now be contested even though they retain a vestige of their classic authority.’

Floating Hair v. Blue Pencil

Frank Kermode, 6 June 1996

The time is almost past when writers copiously provided the curious, concerned as much with process as with product, with drafts showing corrections by one or more hands and interestingly rejected alternative readings. Poems are still drafted, of course, and corrections are made, but they won’t show up in computer files, where all traces of a poem’s trajectory from conception to birth can be, and usually are, erased. Research into the ways in which authors revise their work, or allow others to do so, will usually have to be content with material written during the epochs of pen and typewriter. All is not quite lost, for there will remain variations in different printed texts, early versions in periodicals; but there will be less to work on, and this book is evidence that we’ll be a little the poorer for it.


Frank Kermode, 4 April 1996

This enormous book covers the first 49 years of Bertrand Russell’s life, from his own birth in 1872 to the birth of his first son in 1921. It is not clear how many volumes are still to come; this one gives little more than half the life, and there are crowded years ahead, though it is possible they may be less interesting. Ray Monk’s much-admired biography of Wittgenstein made one feel, for a while at any rate, that the subject’s weird ascetic life and his philosophy, which he himself felt sure no one would understand, could be represented as an intelligible whole. Now he turns to Russell, another baffling philosopher, but one who enjoyed or endured a far longer, more varied and more public life, and documented it with almost incomparable abundance. The archive at McMaster University contains about sixty thousand letters, a high proportion of which must be love letters; and among Russell’s seventy books and two thousand articles (the bibliography of Kenneth Blackwell and Harry Ruja lists over three thousand items) many are autobiographical in character.


Frank Kermode, 21 March 1996

It seems safe to infer from his now majestically large oeuvre that John Updike’s ultimate ambition is to get the whole of America, its geography as well as its history, the fluctuations of its spiritual as well as of its material well-being, into his books. The contribution of the four Rabbit volumes to the realisation of this plan (one volume per decade since 1960) is easily recognised, but many other novels, though less clearly devoted to the annotation of historical change, have a similar purpose. Here is another double-length historical novel, profusely recording the vicissitudes of four 20th-century generations. Its familiar abundance, its detailed accounts of past places, customs and technologies, as well as of individuals and their interrelations, familial and sexual, are as usual impressive (a comparison with Arnold Bennett comes, uninvited, to mind, only to be dismissed unexamined, as almost certain to be deceptive). But here there seem to be occasional lapses, moments even of bathos, so that neither in conception nor in execution can this book match the last of the Rabbits (1990) or the exhilarating assurance of Roger’s Version, four years earlier. Yet it can still astonish, though less by its boldness than by its almost infallible competence.

Improving the Plays

Frank Kermode, 7 March 1996

John Jones, sometime Professor of Poetry at Oxford, has written a number of good, idiosyncratic books on topics as diverse as Greek tragedy and Wordsworth, together with an excellent novel. The Same God, published in 1972 and apparently without a successor. He has now produced a good, idiosyncratic book on Shakespeare. In the nature of the project he can’t avoid technical questions, and readers new to the complex problems of Shakespearean texts may find some parts hard going, but Jones avoids all temptation to be impressively professional and bejargoned; and his book is indeed so courteously written, so curiously intimate in manner and so engagingly clear and resourceful in argument, that anybody with a genuine interest in Shakespeare, and particularly in Hamlet, King Lear and Othello, should read it for pleasure and then reread it to pick quarrels about details.

The Spree

Frank Kermode, 22 February 1996

Ann Douglas’s The Feminisation of American Culture, first published in 1977, now appears in Britain at the same moment as its long-delayed successor, Terrible Honesty. Looking back at the earlier book, Douglas remarks that her ‘excavation and re-evaluation of American feminine 19th-century literature’ has been continued by many other historians, mostly women, who have rebelled against what she calls, in tones more civil than those of some of her successors, a literary canon consisting ‘of almost exclusively male-authored, conspicuously shaped and achieved works’. She herself merely wants to give to other books (not necessarily all by women) the same measure of attention accorded to those more celebrated achievements. In her new book she claims to have taken another emancipatory step, for she will henceforth consider examples of ‘mass’ as well as of ‘élite’ art, thus admitting into the discussion many more writers and performers, male and female, black and white.

A Likely Story

Frank Kermode, 25 January 1996

Faced with such books as these it is hard not to regret the passing of an age when it seemed easy to write about painting and painters. The grapes of Zeuxis, as Pliny admiringly observed, were so real that birds came and pecked at them. Vasari, a painter himself, believed that in his day art had rediscovered those lost antique skills, built on them, and was now close to perfection. To make representations look deceptively real, and to remain untroubled by considerations of what ‘real’ could possibly mean, was the aim of the artist, and the function of the critic was simply to admire the technical accomplishments that made the illusion credible.

My Mad Captains

Frank Kermode, 14 December 1995

We did our fighting for freedom by proxy. Bad news drifted in, terrible things happened to other people. One of our sailors lost his wife and four children in a bombing raid on Hull. For a reason I forget, or perhaps for no good reason, all compassionate leave from Iceland had been stopped, but I thought that in the circumstances I should try to get the rule bent for this man. When I told him I’d see if I could work this, he replied: ‘Why bother? They were the only reason I had for going home.’

My Mad Captains

Frank Kermode, 30 November 1995

Up in Sunderland I reflected that Sierra got rid of its captains at a pretty impressive rate. I speculated about the fate of the next one and the possible forms of his mania. Would he be insensitive enough to last longer than his predecessors?


Frank Kermode, 2 November 1995

One of Roy Fuller’s ‘Quatrains of an Elderly Man’ is called ‘Poetry and Whist’:

Dark Fates

Frank Kermode, 5 October 1995

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower is a historical novel based on the life of the poet, aphorist, novelist, Friedrich von Hardenberg, a Saxon nobleman who wrote under the name of Novalis and lived from 1772 to 1801. He figures largely in all accounts of the German literature of the time, and Georg Lukács is not much more extravagant than other critics in calling him the only Romantic poet. He spoke of the need to romanticise the world by the action of intellect and imagination; in this novel he parodies his teacher Fichte, crying: ‘Have you thought the washbasket? Now then, gentlemen, let your thought be on that that thought the washbasket!’ He also dwelt on self-annihilation, and in his last years made a cult of death.

Even paranoids have enemies

Frank Kermode, 24 August 1995

‘We were – and we knew we were – Cambridge – the essential Cambridge in spite of Cambridge.’ So F.R. Leavis in an exultant moment; and this biography for the most part concentrates on the local conflicts and gestures of defiance the remark implies. To a biographer who was also a pupil of Leavis, this limitation will have seemed natural, inevitable. Yet in fact Leavis’s influence extended far beyond Cambridge, and even beyond the schools in which his loyal followers taught English and from which, if they could, they sent their pupils to Downing College for more advanced indoctrination by the master or his acolytes. As a provincial student in the late Thirties I was scolded for impudently and prematurely imitating his voice, mimicking those apparently incontrovertible judgments, trying to master what is here called ‘the wry jeer’.’

The Guilt Laureate

Frank Kermode, 6 July 1995

A publisher’s note explains that when William Golding died he had written two drafts of this novel, and was about to begin a third. The signs are that this might have been longer than the second, but not substantially different. Some necessary editing has been done, on the basis of notes made by Golding in his journal, and there is a page of typescript missing in the middle of the book. It sounds as if the novel is in a form less close to the final than, say, Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, but still close enough for readers to feel confident that they have before them what they need to make a reasonable guess at what Golding was up to; for they will assume that he was, as usual, up to something.


Frank Kermode, 8 June 1995

At a party given forty-odd years ago by the suddenly-famous Angus Wilson, Dwight Macdonald ‘introduced himself, American-style, to Rose Macaulay, describing himself as an editor of the Partisan Review and founder of his own journal Politics: she stared at him and said, “Have you come all the way across the room to tell me that? How kind.” ’ ‘American-style’ may be a hint that in the writer’s opinion Macdonald deserved this put-down, for being an Anglophile American if for nothing else. I find it hard to believe she really takes this view, but whether she does or not, the remark she reports might still provoke an English snigger: any suggestion that it was an exhibition of shockingly bad manners would be met with surprise or more probably contempt. Its interest in the present context is that it is the sort of thing somebody might say in an Angus Wilson story, but it is also the sort of thing that he himself would in principle have deplored.


Frank Kermode, 11 May 1995

Like most biographies nowadays, David Nokes’s John Gay is very long, but unlike some of the others it is not much longer than it needed to be. Gay devoted so much of his attention to people grander than himself that his life story can’t be told without allusion to those of more complicated and ambitious figures like Pope, Swift and Addison. They in turn were involved in all manner of ways with even mightier men, especially politicians – for example, Oxford and Bolingbroke on one side and the powerful, unscrupulous Walpole on the other. And then there were the great lords and ladies who took or pretended to take an interest in writers and writing. So even the relatively peripheral movements of a self-consciously minor figure like Gay require for their useful exposition a lot of information about his betters.’

Strange, Sublime, Uncanny, Anxious

Frank Kermode, 22 December 1994

As one thinks of Harold Bloom, Auden’s description of Wyndham Lewis as a lonely old volcano comes to mind. Though not, like Lewis, ‘of the Right’, or indeed claiming any political alignment, Bloom erupts with comparable regularity and force. He prefers to be a one-man cultural opposition, waving only the banner of aesthetics; he says there are no Bloomians, but everybody knows him and all wonder, usually with exasperated affection, what he will do next. He is exceptionally and systematically well read, and exceptionally keen to promulgate his readings and his systems. Although, like Lewis, he loves to insult his opponents, he does so with amenity and apparent immunity. He has, in a quietly joyous fashion, the chutzpah to put his stamp on the whole of literature from Genesis to Ashbery, rivalling the scope of hero-critics like Saintsbury or Curtius or Auerbach though more giddily adventurous than they were. A few years ago he was maintaining that the parts of the Old Testament attributed to J, the Yahwist (that is, the author who refers to God as Yahveh), were written by a woman at the decadent court of Rehoboam. It seems a reviewer, entering into the spirit of this amusing but baseless conjecture, suggested that we might as well identify the author as Bathsheba, famous first as a bather, later as the mother of Solomon, and finally as J, mistress of the sublime and the uncanny as well as of King David. In this new book Bloom cheerfully accepts the reviewer’s proposal. That the author of what eventually became the Torah should have been the relict of the unlucky Uriah, and not an Israelite, but a Hittite, was plainly irresistible. Henceforth, he says, he will refer to J as Bathsheba. But I notice that he does not include Bathsheba’s name in the long list of canonical works in his appendix, nor among his authors in the index. Bloom is very serious but can also be a bit of a tease.

Made in Heaven

Frank Kermode, 10 November 1994

Looking down rather reprovingly from the shelf opposite are the three large volumes of Edward Nehls’s Composite Biography, a version or two of Harry T. Moore’s frequently revised biography, the first and so far the only volume of the three-tier Cambridge biography, and the ample lifework of Emile Delavenay. There are more beside them, and more to come: Rosie Jackson says there are ten in progress. Apart from the full-life biographies there are books covering short periods of Lawrence’s life: his wartime adventures and agonies, his years in Italy, in Australia, in New Mexico and Mexico, and so on. There are also numerous memoirs by people such as Jessie Chambers, Helen Corke, Catherine Carswell, Dorothy Brett, Mabel Dodge, a pair of gay Danes, and of course Frieda Lawrence, who knew the novelist at various times in various parts of the world. (There are naturally books also about Frieda, including this new one by Rosie Jackson, and about the von Richthofen family.) To back all this up we now have the seven lavishly annotated volumes of the Cambridge edition of the Letters, and a dozen or so lavishly annotated editions of the Works. I do not speak of more workaday stuff, all the books which have, possibly in the course of saying something else, to say something about Lawrence’s extraordinary life. Now they must all move over to allow another full-scale life, and an impassioned essay on Frieda, to be squeezed in.

My Mad Captains

Frank Kermode, 20 October 1994

I could give you the names of three captains now ’oo ought to be in an asylum, but you don’t find me interferin’ with the mentally afflicted till they begin to lay about than with rammers and winch-handles.

Yoked together

Frank Kermode, 22 September 1994

‘There is hardly a stanza in the long poem which is not vivid, hardly one which is not more or less odd, and the reader feels … as if he had been riding on the rims over an endless timber bridge.’ As I read Craig Raine’s new poem (a novel, an epic, a film, says the ebullient blurb) something stirred in the depths of memory, and I found myself thinking of Theophila, a very long poem published by Edward Benlowes in 1652. Theophila is written in three-line stanzas, a pentameter, a tetrameter and an alexandrine, all on a single rhyme. The judgment on Theophila quoted above comes from The Oxford History of English Literature, which rightly regards Benlowes as representing the giddy limit in 17th-century attempts to write ‘heroic’ poetry in the high metaphysical manner. And this must surely seem an unpromising way to tackle extended argument or narrative. Benlowes was a devotee of the far-fetched conceit, in the by now degenerate tradition of Donne, perhaps with some input from the smoother baroque concettismo of Marino and his followers. (On the evidence of some of his delightful earlier poems I had privately awarded Craig Raine an honorary position in the company of the marinisti.) Marino produced narrative in this style, but in more fluent stanzas, and without proceeding to the metaphorical extremes of the English. Though often eloquent, Benlowes is neither fluent nor moderate, and clearly it formed no part of his plan to make it easy for his readers to know exactly what he was on about.…


Frank Kermode, 21 July 1994

Sylvia Townsend Warner died in 1978, aged 84. Her first novel, Lolly Willowes, appeared in 1926, and none of her later works quite matched its success. In her later years she was probably better known to most people as a name that appeared under rather than above story after story in the New Yorker; that journal published about fifty over a period of some forty years. She was a copious, elegant and witty writer, and since she produced these stories rather easily, she came to think of the New Yorker, for a long time an indispensable financial support, as a generous old admirer whom she could please fairly easily when she needed to.

With the Aid of a Lorgnette

Frank Kermode, 28 April 1994

Alain Corbin is a prolific new-style French historian, and these books are notable contributions to an interesting genre he describes as ‘the history of sensibilities’. The Foul and the Fragrant created something of a stir some years ago when the translation appeared in hardback, partly, I suppose, because no respected historian had ever before written so much, and so explicitly, about shit, which, as more sanitised historians had omitted to specify, occupied in former times the worry-space now claimed by nuclear waste. And by reason of its natural properties it had much greater power to compel contemporary attention.

This Charming Man

Frank Kermode, 24 February 1994

It sometimes happens that an exceptionally talented person dies rather young, leaving behind him friends, still in their prime, who happen to be good writers – witness the post-humous celebrations of Shelley and D.H. Lawrence. Mark Boxer was famous at Cambridge; he was even famous for the manner of his leaving it; and then, without serious intermission, he became and remained famous in London. And so, throughout his life, he was unwittingly acquiring eulogists.


Frank Kermode, 27 January 1994

Eliot’s Clark Lectures ‘On the Metaphysical Poetry of the 17th Century with Special Reference to Donne, Crashaw and Cowley’ were commissioned in 1925 and delivered at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1926. Since then they have been famous for not being available. Eliot intended to make them into a book called The School of Donne, which would be far longer, partly because – on the face of it unexpectedly, given his title – he wanted to write a lot more about Dante. On Dante, as he remarked in a preface, the whole of his argument depended. But this book was itself to be merely part of a larger project, a trilogy of which the other volumes would deal with the Elizabethan drama (on which he had already written a good deal) and the Sons of Ben. The whole would be known as The Disintegration of the Intellect, a title suggesting an almost Spenglerian ambition, and a scope beyond the usual range of literary criticism as he himself claimed to understand it.’

Dangerous Faults

Frank Kermode, 4 November 1993

This is Tim Parks’s sixth novel. He has also done some serious translation – Moravia, Calvino, Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony – and written a lively book about his life in Italy. And now, by way of explaining the highly technical lexicon of Shear, he tells us in an Author’s Note that he did ‘years of work for the Italian quarrying industry’: consequently ‘a huge burden of geological/mechanical vocabulary … was bound to shape the terrain of some novel or other.’ This is, quite properly, not an apology; he has won the right to shape his own terrains. As he is still (at a guess) under forty he can’t be said to have lost much time in doing so. He has won several prizes and on his jackets great names affirm that he is not only prolific but very good indeed.’…

Big Fish

Frank Kermode, 9 September 1993

The portrait of Lord Goodman on the jacket of his memoirs is from a photograph; the one on David Selbourne’s book is from a portrait by Lucian Freud. In the first he looks severe but quizzical, a kind man but not a man to be put upon; in the second he looks quite desperately sad, as if he had done much to little or no avail, and might well have been put upon quite heavily. Neither quite matches the public image: the ebullient achiever, the man whom everybody in London, from prime ministers, important artists and rich businessmen, down to more ordinarily harassed mortals, regarded as the only present help in time of trouble.

Cold Feet

Frank Kermode, 22 July 1993

William Empson maintained that there was a right and a wrong moment to bring theory into the business of intelligent reading, and that the professionals chose the wrong one, but he could not do without theory altogether. His book The Structure of Complex Words (1951) contains quite a lot of it; so it is not surprising that a generation of literary theorists, having sensibly decided not to remain totally out of touch with the best critic of his time, has decided to appropriate Complex Words, a work hitherto much less influential than the very early (and prodigious) Seven Types of Ambiguity. Christopher Norris comes right out and calls Complex Words ‘a work of deconstruction’. His collection is meant to demonstrate that Empson can be accommodated in modern theory. It can now be shown that he was in many ways anticipating the interests and procedures of a newer criticism, though Norris in his Preface cautiously denies any intention to annex Empson’s criticism to any one prevailing trend: ‘it is a hopeful sign,’ he remarks, ‘that “theory” is coming of age when it manages to find room for a strong but problematical figure like Empson, a critic whose thinking goes so markedly against some of its basic precepts and principles.’

Another Mother

Frank Kermode, 13 May 1993

This biographer’s devotion to her subject is demonstrated by her indefatigable archival labours and her willingness to traverse the world in order to visit places of Forsterian interest, as well as by her enthusiastic endorsements of his greatness; and it seems fair to mention these admirable qualities before beginning what must. I’m afraid, be largely a catalogue of complaints.


Frank Kermode, 11 February 1993

Faithful readers of this journal will remember Terence Hawkes’s article ‘Bardbiz’, if only because it provoked, between March 1990 and September 1991, one of the most protracted scuffles in the history of correspondence columns. ‘Bardbiz’ is unrepentantly reprinted in this new book, omitting the subsequent complaints and endorsements but courteously listing their authors.


Frank Kermode, 22 October 1992

Anti-semitism is so disgusting a disease that timid laypersons might prefer to leave its pathology to the experts, but it is pandemic and they cannot wash their hands of it. Sander Gilman’s book concerns the curious manner in which sufferers from anti-semitism explain away their condition by describing Jewishness as the disease. This is done so literally that the Jewish body (predominantly the male, because of circumcision) has, by a pseudo-scientific pathology, been characterised as diseased, quite literally from top to toe. Jews are therefore ‘different’; and from their difference, and of course they are in some obvious respects different, arise, to the astonishment of the right-thinking layperson, pogrom and Shoah.


Frank Kermode, 8 October 1992

‘Oh! Its only a novel … only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.’ A hundred years elapsed before Lawrence spoke of novels with equal warmth or extravagance – the one bright book of life, etc – and an hour or two browsing in John Sutherland’s Victorian Fiction will be enough to persuade most readers that not many novelists of that century wrote the bright book of life, or quite came up to the standard set, unless Jane Austen is way over the top, by Fanny Burney. It is generally assumed that these lofty claims have little relation to run-of-the-mill fictions of the kind that Booker judges have lately been ploughing through.’

Apocalyptic Opacity

Frank Kermode, 24 September 1992

The title sounds apocalyptic, but all it means on the face of it is that this novel is set in New Zealand now. Doubtless it could be interpreted as having other implications, and there is some reason to believe the author would encourage his readers to discover or invent them.

A Dingy Start to the Day

Frank Kermode, 10 September 1992

The collocation of these books suggests a moral: it is easier to write well about living authors if they annoy you than if you worship the very paper they write on. Rob Nixon is censorious and lively; Dale Salwak is reverent and laboured. His is the second book in recent memory expressly to demand recognition for Kingsley Amis as a moralist; the other, John McDermott’s, is actually called Kingsley Amis: An English Moralist. McDermott says ‘moralist’ clearly and right away, whereas Salwak’s subtitle sounds like one of Amis’s phonetic reports on the way a drunken man might have struggled to get the word out. However, both insist on Amis’s serious ethical concerns.

Avoiding Colin

Frank Kermode, 6 August 1992

Once there were popular books with titles like Straight and Crooked Thinking, books in which professional philosophers, avoiding arcane speculation, tried to make the rest of us more sensible by sharing with us their philosophical wisdom. Nowadays such books seem to be less common, and in any case some quite important philosophers, doubting the claims of philosophy to have special wisdom qualifications, would think it presumptuous to write them. Colin McGinn does concede that specialist skills in philosophy don’t in themselves constitute a licence to preach or judge (‘morality isn’t the kind of thing in which you can have a special expertise’), but he seems confident all the same that a professional habit of straight thinking will enable him to advise lay folk whose moral thinking might be crooked, or, as he would prefer to say, stupid.

Asyah and Saif

Frank Kermode, 25 June 1992

This remarkable novel labours under what some might think serious disadvantages. First of all, at around four hundred thousand words it could be thought on the long side for a book principally concerned with the life of a PhD candidate from childhood to the age of thirty. This judgment could be disputed on the ground of generic precedent, the Bildungs-roman habitually tending to length: but in these days blockbuster sizes tend to be associated either with the 19th century or with airport bookstalls, always excepting an occasional highbrow freak. However, respice finem; a fair reader will withhold condemnation on that score.

Making a start

Frank Kermode, 11 June 1992

A.D Nuttall is among the most erudite Contemporary academic literary critics, at ease with the Classics, much given to philosophy. He is also disconcertingly bold and curious, and his latest book, like some of its predecessors, is as odd as it is learned. It begins, but by no means ends, with a minute enquiry into the expression in medias res. Horace observed that Homer, instead of starting his poem about the Trojan War from the beginning – ab ovo, Leda’s egg from which was hatched Helen of Troy – chose to rush his listeners ‘into the midst of things’, with a quarrel that occurred when the war had been going on for years.’


Frank Kermode, 14 May 1992

Yeats avowed it more often and more impressively, but he was not alone in his belief that Maud Gonne’s beauty was of ‘a kind not natural in an age like this’. Shaw called her ‘outrageously beautiful’ and W.T. Stead, who could no more than Yeats isolate his admiration for her looks from an appraisal of her politics, described her as ‘one of the most beautiful women in the world’, going on to point out that ‘she is for the Irish Republic and total separation, peacefully if possible, but if necessary by the sword, that of France and Russia not excepted.’

Part and Pasture

Frank Kermode, 5 December 1991

Henry Reed was a sad man but a funny man, and his poems are funny or sad – often, as in the celebrated ‘Lessons of the War’, both at once. I first met him in 1965, in the office of Robert Heilman, then the benevolent but firm head of the English Department at the University of Washington in Seattle. Calling to present my credentials, I walked into a row; Heilman benevolently firm, Reed furious, licensed to be furious. He was in Seattle as a replacement for Theodore Roethke, the regular poet in residence, who had suddenly died. Whether Roethke had contributed to the routine work of the department I don’t know, but if he hadn’t Heilman did not regard his immunity as a precedent and was requiring Reed to give some lectures on the Brontës. Reed argued that he had been hired exclusively as a poet and declined to speak of these tiresome women. I came in when he was telling Heilman this, and also scolding him for referring to the novelists by the fancy name their father had affected in order to suggest a connection with Lord Nelson. ‘How can you ask me to lecture on the O’Pruntys?’ he shouted. But he did as he was asked. He and Heilman were, or became, great friends.’

Theory and Truth

Frank Kermode, 21 November 1991

The autumn catalogues of some very enterprising publishers announce as many books as usual under the rubric Literary Criticism, or possibly more, but few have titles of a sort that, even ten years ago, would have been found there, and virtually none that would have much interest for the non-academic public that once read old-style literary criticism. This development is welcomed in some academic quarters as a triumph of technology, but it appears that certain persons of importance are beginning to wonder whether the hightech, jargoned, reader-alienating image of the modern product may not have some disadvantages. Of course it can be argued that there can be no going back, the old criticism having been declared intellectually deluded, dishonest and collusive with political authoritarianism. ‘With the advent of Post-Structuralism and the “death of literature”,’ says one current blurb, ‘the opposition between high and popular culture became untenable, transforming the field of enquiry from literary into cultural studies’ – incidentally, a fair sample of newera, defiantly messy prose. For, as everybody likes to say, there has been a Kuhnian paradigm-shift, and to be installed on the far side of it is to feel comfortable with the idea that it is no longer necessary to think about literature at all. Among the ancient assumptions now discounted is the notion that one piece of writing might somehow be better than another: and if you believe that, you lack much inducement to write decently, whatever that might mean, yourself.’

Off the edge

Frank Kermode, 7 November 1991

The Wellek Library Lectures at the University of California, Irvine, are meant to be about Critical Theory, and up to now they have, for good or ill, been faithful (in their fashion) to that intention: but it was an enlivening idea to ask Edward Said to talk about music as well, or instead. Said is a good enough pianist to understand what the professionals are up to. He knows a great deal more about music than most amateurs, and argues persuasively that it should not be left entirely to the rigorous mercies of the musicologists. The result is this very interesting, excited, crammed little book, in which admirable and questionable propositions jostle one another so bewilderingly that it isn’t always easy to know exactly where one is, or what might come next, rather as in a late Beethoven quartet.


Frank Kermode, 24 October 1991

There is already a lot of biographical writing about Orwell, including the memoir of Richard Rees and The Unknown Orwell by William Abrahams and Peter Stansky (lamed by the late Soni Orwell’s refusal of permission to quote), and, more recently, the expansive Life by Bernard Crick, at first authorised by the widow to emphasise her rejection of Stansky and Abrahams, and later de-authorised by her to indicate disapproval of Crick, who, much to her annoyance, had lawyers good enough to ensure that he was able to publish it anyway, quotations and all.

Molly’s Methuselah

Frank Kermode, 26 September 1991

At the beginning of Mr Holroyd’s third volume Shaw, now 62, is expressing strong views, sensible but not attended to, on the conduct of the nation’s affairs in a difficult postwar period. He began this long last lap of life by campaigning for Ramsay MacDonald, and the other anti-Coalition candidates, in Lloyd George’s opportunistic general election of December 1918. He opposed the blockade of Germany, the demand for reparations and the hanging of the Kaiser. Most of the candidates he favoured, including MacDonald, failed to get elected, but he went on, undismayed, to write a combative pamphlet on the Peace Conference, calling the Treaty of Versailles ‘perhaps the greatest disaster of the war’. There was now nothing to be done in foreign affairs, he said, but to ‘face the question of the next war pending the consolidation of the League of Nations’.

In reverse

Frank Kermode, 12 September 1991

A story can be told in almost any order except backwards. Gérard Genette’s impressive catalogue of ‘anachronies’, of all the ways you can destabilise or re-order narrative chronology, does not provide for the complete reversal of narrative flow.

Britten when young

Frank Kermode, 29 August 1991

We may nowadays he chary about using the word ‘genius’, but we still have a good idea what is meant by it. For example, there are great numbers of very gifted musicians who are admired but not called geniuses. But there are others manifestly prodigious, performing, often at extraordinarily early ages, a variety of feats so complex that the musical layman could hardly imagine, even with the most desperate labour, accomplishing any one of them, while even musicians are astonished: and we then reach for the good, handy, vague Enlightenment word and call them geniuses. The list includes Mozart and Mendelssohn; and, despite all the limiting judgments, it includes Benjamin Britten.

Elizabeth’s Chamber

Frank Kermode, 9 May 1991

De Quincey, who declared in his Suspiria that remembered dreams were ‘dark reflections from eternities below all life’, would not have been surprised that modern critical analysts try to discover master patterns, configurations of images or narrative elements, underlying all his writing, asking of what eternities below these compulsive patterns are the reflection. It would have seemed plausible that there should be connections, posthumously revealed, between his private fantasies and his public performances. For, as Bonamy Dobrée remarked with old-fashioned simplicity, he was good at understanding ‘how one thing has a bearing on another’. No doubt even the Prolegomena to all Future Systems of Political Economy, had he got round to writing it, would have unwittingly offered later analysts evidence of his covert, irresistible concerns.

Georgie came, Harry went

Frank Kermode, 25 April 1991

Seven journal-notebooks from Virginia Woolf’s early years, six in the Berg Collection of New York Public Library and one in the British Library, are here reprinted without omissions. The editor has done his job with almost extravagant care, providing quantities of information it is just conceivable somebody might want most of. His attention to detail is exemplified by the way in which, as he transcribes, he puts in a lot of sic’s, some after apparently innocent words like ‘omelette’; more puzzlingly, he awards one to ‘Bosphorus’, himself spelling it ‘Bosporus’, though when the versatile Miss Stephen spells it that way a few pages on, she gets another sic. And with so many of them flying about one can’t help noticing places where they are needed but are absent. Mr Leaska has written a long, informative and devout introduction, filling in much necessary biographical detail – if much really is still necessary – and drawing attention to any hint or prefiguration, in the work of the apprentice, of greater things, and more agonising events, to come. Here and there he seems to overdo it, suggesting, for instance, that from entries in which the youthful diarist confesses to feeling cross (‘To bed very furious and tantrumical,’ ‘I was extremely gruff & unpleasant’) we may conjecture that it is her illness that is causing the page ‘to crackle with rage and frustration’. People who write about Virginia Woolf appear to be especially prone to sentimental over-interpretation of this kind, and one suspects that their heroine would have loathed them for it.’

Vérités Bergères

Frank Kermode, 7 March 1991

This is the third volume of John Berger’s trilogy, ‘Into their Labours’ (‘Others have laboured and ye are entered into their labours,’ John 4.38). The enterprise has occupied him at intervals for 17 years, so it is not surprising that the result is a work of considerable density. But it has a simple enough theme, suggested by its title and developed at some length in a ‘Historical Afterward’ to the first volume, Pig Earth (1979). This essay seeks to ‘make the relation between particular and universal’ more explicit than it can be in a story which is not just a simple parable. It gives a plain account of an argument that is bound to be obscured, or merely implied, when transformed by a narrative that has many other things to do besides preaching, and might be impaired by too manifest a political message.

Is writing bad for you?

Frank Kermode, 21 February 1991

Writer’s block must be thought of as a disease even more specific to a particular occupation than housemaid’s knee or weaver’s bottom. You can have those without being a housemaid or a weaver, but you can’t have writer’s block without being a writer, and a real writer, meaning one who is known at some stage to have written something of substance. (Perhaps ‘author’s block’ would be more accurate.) It would be absurd to diagnose the condition in a person who lacked any aspiration to write, or in one who might have written had it occurred to him or her to try, or even in those, a large company perhaps, who might have done it but were denied the chance, the mute inglorious Miltons. And that raises a historical question about women such as Virginia Woolf’s imaginary Judith Shakespeare, which Zachary Leader, determined to leave no aspect of the topic unexamined, tries to answer in his final pages.

After the Woolwich

Frank Kermode, 7 February 1991

Seven years ago Roy Fuller published the third volume of his memoirs, which covered his life up to the end of the war. Reviewing it in this journal, I lamented his decision to stop there and called for a continuation, ‘all about the Woolwich, the Arts Council, the BBC and Oxford, with incidental observations on the conduct of the young, the remembered follies of youth, the tiresome defects of old age, and so forth’. Mr Fuller, apparently deaf to this plea, merely gestured finality by publishing the three books in a single volume. However, he has relented, and this new book attends to all the requirements listed above.

Young Marvin

Frank Kermode, 24 January 1991

The author of A Tenured Professor is not only a famous tenured professor of economics but, unlike many of the breed, an elegantly witty writer. From time to time he demonstrates his versatility by turning out a novel. This one is, in part anyway, an unimpassioned satire on the recently fashionable school of economic thought that deals in Rational Expectations.

Hail to the Chief

Frank Kermode, 10 January 1991

As befits an undisputed chef d’école, Stephen Greenblatt includes in this latest collection an account of his own ‘intellectual trajectory’, which features a decisive revulsion from his teachers at Yale, a submission to ‘the intellectual power and moral authority’ of Raymond Williams at Cambridge, and the almost inadvertent invention of the New Historicism, the école in question.

Our Fault

Frank Kermode, 11 October 1990

The title of this large, attractive book needs explanation. It isn’t to be understood as a claim to deal with the times of all of us who are now alive. First, there is a chronological limitation. ‘Our Age’ is used in a sense defined thus by Maurice Bowra: ‘anyone who came of age and went to the university in the thirty years between 1919, the end of the Great War, and 1949 – or, say, 1951’, by which date all who had served in the war had returned to the university. So constituent members of Our Age need to be over sixty and could be over ninety. Secondly, there is an obvious social or educational restriction, since a very large number of people who would qualify by reason of age fail to get in because they never went to a university. Moreover it is distinctly preferable to have been at Oxbridge, and to have made a mark there, so the number of the eligible is really quite small.’

Saving the Streams of Story

Frank Kermode, 27 September 1990

No doubt it would be possible to apply to this exercise in magic irrealism the terminology of V. Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, by way of demonstrating that Salman Rushdie’s story has a perfectly normal structure. Temporal-Spatial Determination (‘There was once, in the kingdom of Alifbay, a sad city …’); Composition of the Family (Haroun, the Future Hero, his father Rashid, a professional storyteller, etc); Interdictions (Rashid loses his talent, Haroun cannot concentrate longer than 11 minutes); Helpers or Donors (a friendly hoopoe, a magic drink, a cartridge, concealed under Haroun’s tongue, which will emit blinding light at the moment of dark crisis); an Opponent or Villain with magic powers; an Arrival at an Appointed Place; an Imprisoned Princess; the Completion of the Task. Haroun, in short, is a folk tale, and indeed this is perfectly evident without the support of Propp’s insights. Of course, Rushdie’s story has more to do with the Arabian Nights type than with the Slavic. And as it incorporates English fantasy and humour, and could hardly have been as it is without an infusion of Alice, it can be seen as illustrating just such a glowing confusion of narrative traditions, of the diversities and affinities of stories, as it is itself about.

Dangerous Liaisons

Frank Kermode, 28 June 1990

Violet Hunt

Modern Masters

Frank Kermode, 24 May 1990

The qualities these Australian writers have in common, apart from their nationality, are exotic industry, autobiographical fluency and, to adapt what somebody once said about Ford Madox Ford, a desire to write well so strong that it shows.

Gloom without Doom

Frank Kermode, 19 April 1990

Leonard Woolf’s earlier years coincided with the last great age of letter-writing. Moreover his friends were people who had what may now seem an unusually pressing need to keep in touch with one another, even when not very far apart, and this need was well served by the Post Office, which, before 1914, gave London eight deliveries of mail each day. Woolf himself had a long spell as a colonial administrator in Ceylon, and finding there very little society he was willing to describe as congenial, he sought consolation by correspondence with his Cambridge friends, especially Lytton Strachey. Later on, he wrote a multitude of letters as editor, publisher and politician. So it is not remarkable that in the course of his life he wrote thousands of them. We still do that, even nowadays, in an age of reduced epistolary incentives, but fewer thousands and more trivial letters. What makes him different is that he wrote so many of substance and on such a variety of occasions and topics. And the interest of their contents, as well as the palpable authority of the writer, and the fact that most of the addressees were letter-keepers, ensured that many thousands were preserved.

Who can blame him?

Frank Kermode, 5 April 1990

‘Something is happening to the way we think,’ said Clifford Geertz in 1980, and Stanley Fish is right to add that Geertz was partly responsible for the shift. But Fish, in a bold essay on rhetoric included in the Lentricchia-McLaughlin volume, qualifies Geertz’s remark: ‘something,’ he adds, ‘is always happening to the way we think.’ For he doesn’t quite agree with people who claim to have overthrown ‘the rival epistemology’, wiped out ‘foundationalism’, disposed once and for all of ‘essentialist’ thinking. Deploying new rhetorical, deconstructive and semiological tools, they believe they have taken apart all the assumptions by which we – imagining ourselves to be independent individuals in a world we knew roughly how to know – imagined we could deal justly or sensibly with the problems of literature, society and our own lives. They say we must now learn to think about these matters in entirely new ways.’

That was another planet

Frank Kermode, 8 February 1990

Seventeen years have passed since the publication of Pynchon’s immense Gravity’s Rainbow, during which time exegesis has continued more or less unabated. It is accompanied by tireless speculation as to what the author could be up to next, where he was, indeed who he was. Compared with Pynchon J.D. Salinger is a publicity-hunter. One daring scholarly conjecture, that these authors are one and the same person, is a paranoid fantasy that might well have been induced by prolonged exposure to Pynchon’s oeuvre.

Between centuries

Frank Kermode, 11 January 1990

To live in the Nineties is to have first-hand experience of l’entre-siècle, a useful word I picked up from Kenneth Silver. Expect to see signs of what Henri Focillon in his book on the year 1000 identified as ‘centurial mysticism’, an affliction even more likely to be endemic when the century that is ending is also ending a millennium. These chronological divisions are meaningless in themselves, but, as Focillon argued, we tend to project onto them aspirations and anxieties which have quite other sources. Conscious of personal and social decadence, hopeful of renovation, people transfer their mood to the decade, the illusory dead weight of an old century behind them, and before them the perhaps equally illusory promises of a new one. In the arts these ages of transition tend to breed avant-gardes to whom contempt for the past is a necessary condition of radical innovation, an old calendar thrown out as the new one is hung up. Yet when we look back at such movements, themselves now parts of the past they mistrusted, we see them differently: harbingers of the new, no doubt, but mired still in the tradition they thought to displace.

Talk about doing

Frank Kermode, 26 October 1989

Anyone presuming to review works of modern literary theory must expect to be depressed by an encounter with large quantities of deformed prose. The great ones began it, and aspiring theorists usually carry their heads grotesquely to one side in emulation of these models. What begins as servile mimicry soon becomes a pathological condition. It is a relief that two of the present five books may be pronounced orthopaedically sound.


Frank Kermode, 12 October 1989

Having followed Shaw on a largely unsuccessful pursuit of love in Volume I, Mr Holroyd in his second instalment sets him off on what turns out to be an equally frustrated pursuit of power. It may seem curious that we are being asked to regard a man of such dazzling achievement as repeatedly failing in his aims, and at this stage we can only speculate about what he will be pursuing and not catching up with in Volume III. However that may be, Mr Holroyd regards the quest for power as his subject’s principal activity and ‘growing obsession’ during what might be thought, and is so named by the blurb, his prime, from 1898 to 1918 – that is, from his early forties to his early sixties.’

Talking about Shakespeare

Frank Kermode, 28 September 1989

Barbara Everett’s book consists of her four Northcliffe Lectures, given at University College London in 1988, on Hamlet and the other ‘major’ tragedies, together with a number of shorter pieces on Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Twelfth Night, and quite a lot more about Hamlet. This account may make the book sound scrappy, but it holds together. Its chief hero Hamlet keeps returning to the scene like a reassuring leitmotif, and there are other compensating virtues. Ms Everett is, as always, discursive, and as always ready to take any promising detour – a habit which, though occasionally exasperating, reinforces one’s sense of her independence and her confidence. We are told that the whole business of criticism, not excluding Shakespearian criticism, has been changed utterly in the last few years, but you would never guess it from Everett’s writing, which is distinctive without excessive straining for novelty: this presumably goes to show that it is more interesting to do criticism than to argue about what criticism ought to do, and to what. She will worry away at a word – for example, ‘success’ in Macbeth – with as much determination as a deconstructor in search of an aporia, but she is always trying for solutions, however complex, rather than merely detecting problems, and although success, in the old sense of what’s going to come next, is frequently in doubt, there is no doubt that this is, in a more modern sense, a highly successful performance.’


Frank Kermode, 27 July 1989

‘The immediate past can frequently seem very distant and very alien; that strangeness can only be perceived through the medium of the present.’ Thus Bryan Appleyard, conscious of the difficulty of his project, which is to sketch the history of British art in the post-war years.

Stowaway Woodworm

Frank Kermode, 22 June 1989

About a century ago Henry James remarked sadly that, unlike the French, the English novel was not discutable. It had no theory behind it. Its practitioners were largely unaware that ‘there is no limit’ to what the novelist ‘may attempt as an executant – no limit to his possible experiments, efforts, discoveries, successes’. A new novel by Julian Barnes is a reminder that – up to a point, anyway – the situation has changed. Without being defiantly weird or consciously trying to alter the future, Barnes is clearly no slave to limit; he does something different every time, and if he were French and not just Francophile, his textes, as they say, might be called recherches. On the other hand, he has an English modesty about Theory, and though he does here and there drop a demure hint that matters of that sort are not absent from his mind, he leaves his readers to work them out as they choose.’

Southern Virtues

Frank Kermode, 4 May 1989

Naipaul’s epigraph – ‘There is a history in all men’s lives/Figuring the natures of the times deceased’ – warns us that on these journeys through the South of the United States he will always carry with him his own origins in Trinidad; properly studied, those beginnings, as Shakespeare suggests in the following lines, may foretell the hatch and brood of time. The book is dedicated to the memory of his father.’

Diary: Everybody loves the OED

Frank Kermode, 20 April 1989

On 29 March a large number of lexicographers and other drudges met at Claridge’s to celebrate the publication of the second edition of what was once the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles. The occasion was properly festive, indeed a super-bash for the super-book. Before lunch the men who put it together in only five years told us how they did it. A wizard from IBM said how thrilled they were to have made the whole thing possible by supplying the computer, the computer know-how-and a lot of computer-generated money. Representing the constituency of the users, Malcolm Bradbury, gracefully grateful on behalf of the writing profession for so writer-friendly a dictionary, offered some innocent jests about bazooms – the last word actually defined in Volume One (A-Bazouki), though, as various persons complained from the floor, lacking any quotation from the Sun. (We were, however, assured by the editors that this paper does get into the great work under page-three girl.) Along the way Bradbury, though seeming very relaxed, dropped a reference to a work of his own, and also a parapraxis (‘my own mother, Rates of Exchange’) which Christopher Ricks, come all the way from Boston to perform an unjetlagged, nay virtuoso lexical dance before the ark, dexterously picked up and developed in a perfectly smooth improvisation.’

Paul de Man’s Abyss

Frank Kermode, 16 March 1989

Paul de Man was born in 1919 to a high-bourgeois Antwerp family, Flemish but sympathetic to French language and culture. He studied at the Free University of Brussels, where he wrote some pieces for student magazines. When the Germans occupied Belgium in 1940 he and his wife fled, but were turned back at the Spanish frontier and resumed life in Brussels. The Germans closed the Free University in 1941, so frustrating one possible career; but de Man’s uncle, the socialist politician Hendrik de Man, helped him to a job on Le Soir, the biggest newspaper in Belgium, which was then under German control. Hendrik de Man had supported the King’s decision to surrender, and for a time persuaded himself that the German takeover, though not quite the revolution he had looked forward to, was a revolution none the less, and might bring about what men of good will had wanted so desperately in the pre-war years – an end to decadent pseudo-democratic capitalism and a new era of socialism, even if it had to be national socialism.’

Third World

Frank Kermode, 2 March 1989

In 1989 it would occur to nobody to invent the Third Programme. It probably couldn’t have happened at any time except when it did. The war seemed to have shown that the public for music and books and culture generally had been thrillingly enlarged. The Forces had developed a keen appetite for education, cultural and civic, some of it pretty subversive, for the service vote is known to have had a lot to do with the election of the Labour Government of 1945. Among my few wholly happy memories of the war years are the stricken faces of fellow officers when they heard the news: only the evil of Education, they felt, could explain it.

Feast of St Thomas

Frank Kermode, 29 September 1988

‘The idea that Eliot’s poetry was rooted in private aspects of his life has now been accepted,’ says Lyndall Gordon in the Foreword to her second volume of biographical rooting among these aspects. This acceptance, which she evidently approves, has undoubtedly occurred, as a root through the enormous heap of books about the poet, now augmented by the centenary of his birth, will quickly demonstrate.

Georgian eyes are smiling

Frank Kermode, 15 September 1988

There were already good biographies of Shaw, notably those of Frank Harris and Hesketh Pearson, both of whom knew Shaw and had the benefit of his energetic interventions. Pearson in particular will not be easily supplanted. Nevertheless the archives of the world are full of Shaviana inaccessible before his death, and because there had not been a serious attempt since 1956 – the centenary year – the Shaw Estate sensibly decided that the time had come for a new biography, and invited Mr Holroyd to write it. It is not surprising that the work has preoccupied him for a great many years, nor that it will consist of three large volumes. This one takes Shaw from his birth in 1856 to his marriage in 1898, by which time he was already celebrated or notorious, but still near the beginning of his success as a playwright.

Half-Way up the Hill

Frank Kermode, 7 July 1988

John Betjeman was nicely eccentric, and droll in a way mysteriously suited to English taste. His being so droll allowed him to display an out-of-the-way learning that might otherwise have seemed remote and ineffectual, but on which it was his gift to confer a certain centrality. He liked to seem lazy, which is why, having repeatedly failed the easy examination in Divinity then compulsory at Oxford, he went down without a degree. He enjoyed best, and studied energetically, what others neglected to know – not only forgotten Victorian architecture, but the verse of Philip Bourke Marston or that of Ebepezer Jones (whom Mr Hillier, by an un-Betjemanian slip, confounds with Ebenezer Elliott, the Corn Law Rhymer).

Strait is the gate

Frank Kermode, 2 June 1988

It is said that one can’t hope to tell the truth in an autobiography, that the very desire to write one may be proof of an incapacity to do so veraciously. In any case there is likely to be a conflict between the writer’s wish to make sense of his or her life, and the need to cut, however modestly, a figure of interest to readers. Only people stupid and dishonourable in the way very bad writers are stupid and dishonourable would suppose that they could make sense of their lives by dispensing with the truth, but much better writers still need to practise certain economics; some extenuations or embellishments must be permitted, not necessarily as concessions to shame or vanity, but because any narrative requires them. The difference is not one of ordinary morality, but of the morality of fiction.

Return to the Totem

Frank Kermode, 21 April 1988

This Textual Companion is described by the publisher as ‘an indispensable companion to The Complete Oxford Shakespeare’, which indeed it is, and it was reasonable to complain, when The Complete Works and The Complete Works: Original Spelling Edition appeared in 1986 and 1987, that they were badly in need of this third to walk beside them. The Companion is a very fine thing, and the publisher is again within his rights to call it ‘probably the most comprehensive reference work on Shakespearian textual problems ever assembled in a single volume’.

Sic transit Marshall McLuhan

Frank Kermode, 17 March 1988

The fame of Marshall McLuhan in the late Sixties, a period more favourable to guruism than the present, was beyond the dreams of even the most ambitious don. His slogans were quoted everywhere, he travelled the world – now, on his view, electronically reduced to a global village – addressing his fans, advising admen, businessmen, politicians and theologians, telling us all what reality would look like if we broke our habit of contemplating it only through the rear-view mirror, firing off his ‘probes’, his heavy puns and his strangely old-fashioned jokes. (He was very keen on these jokes, and freely offered them to anybody who might need them for after-dinner speeches – Prime Minister Trudeau, for instance.) He was a pioneer in the movement, now seemingly irresistible, which has carried English literature professors out of literature into larger and, one must suppose, more exciting studies – philosophy, law, psychoanalysis, history, ‘culture’, ‘theory’ and prophecy.’

Out of the jiffybag

Frank Kermode, 12 November 1987

Here begins a review of two books which are largely collections of reviews, and some readers, reviewing it, are sure to ask whether this flea-on-flea process is desirable or even tolerable. My feeling is that such criticism is prejudiced. That which appears in the ephemerae isn’t necessarily ephemeral. Not all reviews are written lefthandedly by authors who save their best efforts for quite different sorts of writing. They may, as Jonathan Raban’s title suggests, be working for love as well as money, and it is easy to understand their wish to give their best work in this kind a more permanent form.

A Little of this Honey

Frank Kermode, 29 October 1987

Richard Ellmann’s Life of Joyce, generally regarded as the best literary biography of our time, was the work of his middle years. The last third of his own life was largely given to this biography of Wilde, which was in some ways a very different sort of undertaking. There were surviving acquaintances of Joyce, but nobody who knew Wilde is available for questioning; the material, though copious, must be sought in libraries. But Ellmann was an exceptionally gifted researcher, never bragging about his finds, just folding them quietly into his narrative, as he does in this book.

Taken aback

Frank Kermode, 25 June 1987

William Golding’s Rites of Passage, which appeared seven years ago, purported to be an account, by a young toff, good-natured but still wet behind the ears, of a voyage to Australia, around 1814, in a clapped-out English warship reduced to carrying emigrants. Keeping a journal for the amusement of his noble patron, he tells of a comical amorous adventure with an emigrant female, a patronising friendship with an ex-lower-deck first lieutenant (‘allow me to congratulate you on imitating to perfection the manners and speech of a somewhat higher station in life than you were born to’), and various puppyish acts of indiscipline and breaches of Naval etiquette which set him at odds with the captain. The ship is rotten and stinking, and it rolls and pitches abominably, but although they are all in the same boat the voyagers continue to observe the customs of their classes, the seamen forward, the middle-class emigrants amidships, the petty officers in their messes, the officers in their wardroom, and the captain on his quarterdeck. The professionals are desperate for action, partly as the quickest way to preferment; the bourgeoisie is not. The young gentleman is confusedly betwixt and between.

How do you spell Shakespeare?

Frank Kermode, 21 May 1987

When Oxford decided to do Shakespeare they clearly made up their minds that the scale of the operation must be very grand, and a team of scholars has been working hard for eight years to get it done quickly, done right, and done with the greatest possible display and novelty. One has to admire not only the industry of Professor Wells and his associates, but their flair for publicity, as evidenced by the enormous solemn fuss about the poem ‘Shall I die?’, now accorded an honoured place in their canon, and also by the proclaimed scope and originality of their enterprise, which, though not essentially different from other such enterprises, is different in many eye-catching ways, and must have set the Press some unique problems.

Big John

Frank Kermode, 19 March 1987

The subtitle claims that this is ‘the First Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess’, who is officially known as John Burgess Wilson; and the book appears on the author’s 70th birthday, as part of his preparation for the coming encounter with Big God. There is, however, to be a Second Part, provisionally entitled You’ve had your time; we are told it will probably be even longer than this one, which takes the younger Wilson from birth to a midlife illness, falsely diagnosed as fatal. This gave considerable impetus to Burgess’s subsequent career, as no doubt the sequel will demonstrate.


Frank Kermode, 5 February 1987

This ‘long lost novel’ isn’t a novel but a story of some two thousand five hundred words, here augmented by eight thousand from the pen of the translator, Dmitri Nabokov, and by blank pages. The existence of The Enchanter, also known as The Magician, was well attested, and its relation to Lolita was established by Nabokov himself. In his essay ‘On a book entitled Lolita’, first published in 1957, and thereafter appended to the novel, he referred to this opusculum of 1939 as the product of ‘the first little throb of Lolita’, and added that its ‘anonymous nymphet’ was ‘basically the same lass’ as Dolores Haze. At the time he supposed the story to have been lost, indeed claimed to have destroyed it: but a copy turned up soon afterwards, and in 1959 he wrote to the publisher Putnam suggesting publication, having reread the story ‘with considerably more pleasure than I experienced when recalling it as a dead scrap during my work on Lolita’. Excerpts from the essay and the letter are given here. Perhaps Nabokov didn’t press on with his plan to publish The Enchanter because he was so busy at the time; or perhaps he changed his mind. In 1967 Andrew Field in his book Nabokov: His Life and Art gave a brief but accurate account of the piece, translating two longish passages with similar accuracy, judging by the closeness of his version to Dmitri Nabokov’s. However, Mr Nabokov seems to have fallen out with Field, and says he has ‘a very sketchy idea at best’ of The Enchanter, having seen ‘only two pages of it’. This is possible, for Field says the second passage he translates would occur in print on the next-to-last page of the story, when it actually comes 14 pages before the end. Perhaps the Nabokovs showed him only samples. All the same Field gave one a reasonable notion of what the story was like.

Everett’s English Poets

Frank Kermode, 22 January 1987

Faced with the average book of modern literary criticism, the reviewer may wisely resolve to say nothing about the author’s skills as a writer of prose. If they ever existed, they would very likely have been dissembled, for many now believe that to write well is to act in bad faith, even to risk the charge of fascism. This belief may not at first glance seem compatible with the opinion that poetry and criticism are indistinguishable – both of them just writing; even less with the view that in our present situation literary criticism and theory are in fact the highest kind of poetry available.’

Diary: What Went On at the Arts Council

Frank Kermode, 4 December 1986

Roy Shaw will not have expected an easy passage as Secretary-General of the Arts Council, but the weather worsened steadily during his tenure, and the discomfort exceeded all rational apprehensions. His book explains why this was so. The directorate of the Council exists primarily to make judgments of value; it is required, having taken the best advice available, to decide which enterprises deserve public support, and to what extent. The directors must therefore be confident that they can tell the bad from the good and the good from the best; and their criteria, which they cannot be expected to scrutinise from day to day, are those of standardly-educated middle-class people with an interest in the arts. Shaw has no quarrel with them on this score, and spends quite a lot of time in this book defending establishment valuations. However, he also thinks that the best should be made available to sections of the population denied the education to enjoy it. His earlier career had been in adult education, and he brought to the Council a conviction that it had a duty to make its high-class products accessible to the lower classes. Nobody else wanted this: it wasn’t the job they’d signed on for, and in any case it was undesirable and perhaps impossible to bring off. So Shaw had to deal with a mutinous directorate as well as with a difficult chairman, Sir William Rees-Mogg, and a series of unsympathetic ministers. He has lost no time in his retirement in giving an account of what went on.

On a Chinese Mountain

Frank Kermode, 20 November 1986

The Royal Beasts contains works of Empson’s previously unpublished or published long ago and very obscurely. There is a short play, an unfinished novel, a ballet scenario and a batch of poems, all early. It is the third posthumous volume and much the most important, though a fourth – a collection of essays on 17th-century poetry and drama – is promised for 1987. Since it will presumably contain Empson’s essays on Donne, which have a peculiar centrality in his work, this final volume will be needed for any considered estimate of a writer much honoured by fellow critics (at any rate in England) even when they found him most exasperating. However, it will hardly match The Royal Beasts in interest.’


Frank Kermode, 24 July 1986

Martin Amis begins this collection of ‘left-handed’ (i.e. journalistic) pieces by deploying two standard topoi. The first is the modesty topos, duly described by Curtius, though under the tendentious title of ‘affected modesty’: ‘I am inadequate to the subject; I haven’t really done enough work, etc’ ‘Oh, no doubt I should have worked harder,’ writes Amis, ‘made the book more representative, more systematic, et cetera. It remains, however, a collection of peripatetic journalism.’ He goes on to say that it’s quite hard work xeroxing from bound volumes of periodicals, and that the actual writing of the pieces put him to some trouble. So much for modesty. The second topos, unnoticed by Curtius, might be named ‘accidental book-writing’. Somebody asks you to write a book about America, and, riffling through your clippings, you discover to your gratified surprise that you’ve already written it. Many of us have had this experience, peering hopefully at our disject reviews and essays, written in all probability when we should, in our own opinion, have been doing something more right-handed, more systematic, more serious. It’s like having a baby without knowing you’re pregnant: no nausea, no check-ups, just the bother of getting the layette together in a hurry. Alas, such pregnancies are usually of the phantom variety, and the product, like that of the usurer’s wife in the folktale, turns out to be nothing but a little moneybag. He who depends on the accidental book-writing topos had better use the modesty one as well.’


Frank Kermode, 5 June 1986

In the poem which provides John Wain with the title of this book Yeats is addressing the dead Gore-Booth sisters and telling them, quite tenderly at first, that now they’re dead they know it all –’


Frank Kermode, 22 May 1986

The advantages and disadvantages of modernity have long been canvassed, so that you could say the topic is ancient. Pancirolli wrote a very popular book on it in the 16th century, and it was often remarked by self-deprecating moderns that they were like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. The antiquity of this figure is the subject of a very learned and also very amusing book by Robert Merton; the received wisdom is that it goes at least as far back as the 12th century. So there is nothing very modern about worrying about what it means to be modern, and even if you think that being modern requires a total rejection of the past, like Tzara or Artaud, you become dependent on the past if only because you need to have it around to reject. As Paul de Man observed in his subtle essay ‘Literary History and Literary Modernity’, ‘the more radical the rejection of anything that came before, the greater the dependence on the past.’

Hemingway Hunt

Frank Kermode, 17 April 1986

A few months ago I went one Sunday evening to a Broadway theatre, not to see a play but to enjoy what was meant to be a thrilling contest between Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. The place was packed; except for those sponsored by some publisher, the audience had bought very expensive tickets, and they displayed a keenness more appropriate to a prizefight. Indeed a prizefight was what they expected, Mailer and Vidal having been rough with each other in the past. In the event nothing much happened – a few not very good jokes and a good view of two heavy gentlemen whose rough-housing days lie very properly in the past. Still, it was interesting to reflect that this large and fashionable crowd had turned out on a Sunday night to watch the two men doing something they would both have regarded as work of the left hand. Writers are supposed to do best the essentially private work of writing, and they would hardly wish to be exposed to public view when engaged in it, nor would anybody but a singular pervert want to watch. All they could do in the circumstances was to collaborate as fully as possible with their public images, which are in any case of much greater interest to most people than their books.

Spender’s Purges

Frank Kermode, 5 December 1985

An airline ticket clerk, examining the author’s credit card in Seattle, asked him if he was related to the poet Stephen Spender. Assured of his customer’s identity, the clerk expressed his pleasure: ‘Gee, a near-celebrity.’ No doubt the status of full celebrity was reserved for movie stars and ballplayers. At any rate there is little doubt that Spender is the most celebrated of living English writers, known pretty well all over the planet he has so assiduously traversed. His fame, moreover, is deep as well as wide, for he has been a celebrity for well over half a century, part of the history of every decade from the Thirties to the Eighties as well as one of its chroniclers.

Lawrence and Burgess

Frank Kermode, 19 September 1985

Most people would call Mr Burgess a prodigiously fluent writer, but he would demur, pointing out that a professional should be capable of a thousand words a day, which is 365,000 a year, or five moderate-sized books, with plenty of time left over to deal with the input of information required for at least some of the output. It’s obvious that his powers of assimilation are, by the standards of normal or normally lazy writers, exceptional. Nor does he squander the knowledge thus acquired: it goes into a TV series and a novel or a critical biography. One’s admiration for all this prudent industry may sometimes be tempered by a feeling that the product, efficient as it is, lacks aura, lacks the zest we associate with this writer in his more exuberant, less mechanical novels. His last novel-of-the-TV-series, The Kingdom of the Wicked, combines Acts and other early Christian evidence with a rehandling of the I, Claudius historical material into a large, well-conceived and doggedly executed novel, inventive but also well-researched, and authenticated by a scattering or smattering of Greek, Latin and Aramaic words from his polyglot store. For all its informative energy, the book somehow seems a bit dull.


Frank Kermode, 5 September 1985

So far as the evidence of five novels goes, Anita Brookner has one basic theme, which she varies with considerable and increasing technical resource. All five books are quite short, and all have some of the qualities of what James called the beautiful and blest nouvelle, since they are intensive in plot and on the whole refuse the temptation to broaden into novels. This limitation, if that is the right word, is not at all the consequence of any diffidence or lack of skill in the registration of milieu or of character: Brookner is good at both, so we had best say we are dealing with works that exist in a no man’s land between two genres. We should be glad of this, for we escape on one side the danger of an obsessed narrowness of treatment, and on the other some possibility of failure consequent on the too obvious stretching of the great central topic, which is, after all, the central topic of long romantic novels already in existence, and usually lacking the humour as well as the fineness of the pathetic moments in this writer.

Major and Minor

Frank Kermode, 6 June 1985

The Oxford Companion to – or Bumper Book of – English Literature was first published in 1932 and updated in three subsequent editions and many reprints. It has now been extensively re-edited by Margaret Drabble, aided by an impressive list of experts. The original editor, Sir Paul Harvey, explained that his intention was to be useful to ordinary everyday readers. He offered the dates and brief biographies of a large number of English authors, listed the more important works of fiction, with sketches of their plots, and made a point of including American books and writers as ‘an essential part of the literature of our language’. He also tried to elucidate recurrent allusions: for instance, to literary terms, wines, mythological figures, heroes, philosophers, musicians, actors, historical events and foreign authors of eminence. The result is necessarily a bit random. Harvey contains a lot of information one can feel little pain in lacking and little delight in possessing: for instance, the knowledge that Sir Archy MacSarcasm and Sir Pertinax MacSycophant come from a play by Charles Macklin, together with Sir Callagham O’Brallaghan. As it happens, this information is still to be found in the fifth edition, and I suppose it might be vital to somebody some day.’

Westward Ho

Frank Kermode, 7 February 1985

This, the third of seven volumes in the Cambridge collection, contains 942 letters written by Lawrence in something under five years. Harry T. Moore’s Collected Letters of 1962 did the whole job in less than twice as many pages, though it’s true he didn’t print quite everything; and many more letters have turned up over the last twenty years. They are still turning up: this volume contains letters, formerly unknown, to Robert Mountsier, who later became Lawrence’s agent in the US, and a batch to Douglas Goldring.

Victorian Vocations

Frank Kermode, 6 December 1984

Frederic Harrison once climbed Mont Blanc and found Leslie Stephen on the top. Not an improbable location for the encounter of two eminent Victorians: and they might equally have met in George Eliot’s drawing-room. Whereas Stephen was much the more distinguished mountaineer, Harrison probably knew George Eliot better: he helped her work out the legal plot of Felix Holt, a service for which she may have owed him more gratitude than we need to feel. Perhaps she was showing it when she warned Harrison against employing her cook’s daughter, a girl whose underwear she described as ‘arrogantly good’ and whose manners with men she thought ‘too refined’. Obviously unsuitable, and Harrison did not take her on, though in the way of eminent Victorians he had a lively conscience, and once, after dismissing a housemaid who knelt before him and wept, mused a while on the ‘arbitrary power’ wielded by persons in his position.

Old Testament Capers

Frank Kermode, 20 September 1984

Three years ago, in Loitering with Intent, Muriel Spark returned to the scene of her extraordinary first novel, The Comforters, published in 1957. In The Only Problem she is once again looking back: the new book has much to say about Job and comforters, a topic on which, it seems, Mrs Spark once planned a book. Hitherto nothing more had come of the project except an article called ‘The Mystery of Job’s Suffering’, which, as it happens, is quoted in The Only Problem: Job ‘not only argues the problem of suffering, he suffers the problem of argument.’ The central figure in the novel, a man called Harvey Gotham, is also working on a book about Job, and he finishes it, as, in a sense, Mrs Spark has finished hers, but thirty years on. ‘The only problem’ is what Harvey writes about, and it is simply the problem of suffering, though consideration of it entails many other questions, such as why God allows it; why he was so concerned to make Job admit what they both knew very well – namely, that he wasn’t around when God created the horse, leviathan and behemoth; and why, to win at least a respite, Job, who had done nothing wrong, had to declare himself vile, so winning his reward of thousands of sheep, camels and oxen, seven new sons and three new daughters, one of them named Keren-happuch, which Harvey likes to translate ‘Box of Eye-Paint’ but which is, I understand, more correctly rendered ‘Horn of Antimony’.–

Sunday Mornings

Frank Kermode, 19 July 1984

This is not, as the title might at first suggest, a critical biography, but a collection of miscellaneous essays by MacCarthy, all of which have been collected before, and a memoir by Lord David Cecil, of which a portion appeared as preface to an earlier selection.

Under threat

Frank Kermode, 21 June 1984

Sir Ernst Gombrich here collects various memorial lectures and memoirs of distinguished colleagues. He is a lecturer of high accomplishment – indeed I doubt if he has any serious rival in the shaping and illustration of an argument. Normally he uses not one but two magic lanterns. Some years ago he gave the Romanes Lecture and was denied the use of even one, but this did not deter him, for he simply used the interior of the Sheldonian as an image source, and voyaged on, with Karl Popper, as usual, his pole star, into very difficult waters: the relations of synchronic and diachronic in art history, the problems of canonicity and value.

Jogging in the woods at Bellagio

Frank Kermode, 19 April 1984

Small World is in the author’s words ‘a kind of sequel’ to Changing Places, published nine years ago. The place-changers, Zapp and Swallow, are again central characters; the dreadful Ringbaum, whose competitiveness enabled him to win a famous game of Humiliation, though at the cost of his job, now turns up again in even more bizarre predicaments, urging his wife to have sex under blankets in a jumbo jet so that he can apply for membership of ‘an exclusive fraternity of men who have achieved sexual congress while airborne’, and which he hopes will allow sexual congress with wives to count. There are also some plot reminders of the older book, but nothing essential. You might think Mr Lodge would have lost some of his high spirits over the years, and the novel which came between these two, the excellent How far can you go?, was sad as well as funny. But although the new book does give one an odd sense that the author who is so fertile in farce has a rather sombre double, a Catholic moralist who is patient rather than amused, it can confidently be said that Small World is the most brilliant and also the funniest he has written.

The Purser’s Tale

Frank Kermode, 5 April 1984

This is the third and last volume of Roy Fuller’s memoirs, and it takes him up to the end of the war. It may sound ungracious, but I can’t help wondering why I find all three books so appealing that the strong implication of finality seems quite unacceptable. Though literate and pleasantly, even amusingly morose, these are not what are commonly called compulsive reads. Not everybody will experience an irresistible need to go on turning their pages. But I do, and would like three or four more, all about the Woolwich, the Arts Council, the BBC and Oxford, with incidental observations on the conduct of the young, the remembered follies of youth, the tiresome defects of age, and so forth.


Frank Kermode, 1 March 1984

Even in the days of what is now called ‘classical realism’ it was understood that plot, as a human contrivance meant to suggest intelligible causal relations between history-like events, could sometimes seem to be shadowed by other and larger plots, of uncertain and superhuman provenance. The relation between the two sorts of plot will vary – it is not the same in George Eliot and Hardy, but in both there is such a relation. Later, when to be modern meant to be inquisitive about technical refinement, one might have the story told by somebody unaware of its larger plot, which is what Ford Madox Ford arranged.–


Frank Kermode, 2 February 1984

For reasons that are not immediately obvious, the question of canons is at present much discussed by literary critics. Their canons are of course so called only by loose analogy with the Biblical canons, so it may be of more than strictly clerical interest that there is a major row going on among the professionals who deal with the real thing. This powerfully written book by James Barr is for the most part a polemic against a new wave of Biblical criticism called by its proponents ‘canonical criticism’, and to get the hang of Barr’s book one needs some idea of what he is attacking.

Conrad’s Complaint

Frank Kermode, 17 November 1983

A great many Conrad letters have already been published, notably in Jean-Aubry’s Life and Letters, but also in smaller collections containing his correspondence with one or more persons – for example, Edward Garnett, William Blackwood and Cunninghame Graham. Early letters to Polish friends and relations have been translated, and a series of about a hundred to Marguerite Poradowska appeared in the original French. However, it seems that ‘more than a third of Conrad’s extant correspondence – close to 1500 letters – has not yet been made available.’ Since Professor Karl, who makes this statement, elsewhere speaks of 3500 known letters, the mathematics seems a bit hazy, though in his biography, published four years ago, he says there are nearly 4000. However, there are certainly lots of unpublished letters, including a hundred-odd to Galsworthy, the same quantity to Ford Madox Ford, ‘several dozen’ to Thomas Wise, an unspecified but obviously vast number to the agent Pinker, and so on.–

Semiotics is a fashionable subject, but semioticians do not normally become international best-sellers, which is the fate that, in apparent violation of this familiar cultural assumption, has befallen the Professor of Semiotics at Bologna, Umberto Eco. Academic novelists aren’t rare, of course, but it’s hard to think of one who regards fiction as not only entertainment but material for the practice of a professional discipline. Eco’s novel is a very complicated instance of what he would call semiosis, of the production of signs and their vicissitudes in a network of codes. It also contains many disquisitions on semiotics and related subjects. If that were all, it might be expected to give keen pleasure to a rather small audience: but it seems to go down well with a very large one. That is because it is also, for the most part, as lively and interesting as it is weird and extravagant.

Last Man of Letters

Frank Kermode, 15 September 1983

Lewis Dabney, editor of the Portable Edmund Wilson, makes the slightly surprising claim that Wilson’s ‘reputation continues to grow’. I had supposed that it was, at least temporarily, in abeyance, and for reasons that Wilson would have easily understood. Mr Dabney remarks that Wilson’s work ‘reminds students of literature and history of their heritage from a time when these were the joint concerns of educated men rather than separated fields in the academy’. He presumably means that it ought to; there is very little evidence that it does. Dabney says that Wilson’s biographical emphasis (‘he sees society through the individual, takes style as a mirror of personality, and has the old 19th-century interest in authors as persons’) displeased the New Critics: ‘but their taboos have long since faded, and their heirs seek alternatives to the endless interpretation of texts.’ This rather amazing assertion is perhaps only a sign that the editor of the Portable E.W. would like his author’s stock to rally. The posthumous publication of The Twenties and The Thirties – Wilson’s notebooks and diaries for those decades – may have done something to further this end. Wilson had done some of the preparation for their publication before his death in 1972. The Forties is wholly edited by Leon Edel, who says in his Preface that this decade, at any rate the first half of it, is pretty scrappy so far as journal entries go, and it has to be said that the whole collection does Wilson no good whatsoever: which, considering his genuine importance, is a pity.–

Broken Knowledge

Frank Kermode, 4 August 1983

Richard Rorty has made us familiar with the distinction between two sorts of philosophy, which he calls ‘systematic’ and (I think infelicitously) ‘edifying’. The first sticks to the central epistemological tradition, which assumes that it can deal systematically and progressively with reality; the second is essentially of the periphery, and its exponents are pragmatical opponents of the institutional tradition. They include Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, William James, the later Wittgenstein and the later Heidegger, all philosophers who ‘want to keep the space open for the sense of wonder which poets can sometimes cause’. Bacon once called wonder ‘broken knowledge’ – a definition that suits Rorty’s needs. These people, he argues, substitute for continuous inquiry into the way things are all manner of discontinuous instrumentalities, and one of these is the aphorism.–

Diary: In Salt Lake City

Frank Kermode, 21 July 1983

Even if you enjoy Southern California as much as Reyner Banham you may still, like him, draw the line at those discreetly fenced-in and fortified cities in which the better-off sometimes choose to live, and at whose gates the visitor must check with the guardians before being allowed to enter. I recently spent a few days in one of these suburban paradises. It occupies a large tract of the Palos Verdes peninsula, its hills dotted with single-storey houses, tennis courts, swimming pools, corrals, and crisscrossed by trails created by the settlers for the use of their equestrian families. The endless rains of last winter have washed out many of the trails, and streams flow across them, scaring horses which have never seen running water. Large pieces of property have dropped off and blocked the roads. The nearby beaches have been shrunk by storms. It all seems a bit hard on people who have accepted the high risk of earthquakes but never dreamed of such destructive weather.

Diary: Being in New York

Frank Kermode, 7 July 1983

Tony Smith, reviewing J.K. Oates’s Penguin on herpes (LRB, Vol. 5, No 9), sounded, thank God, a cheerful rather than a holy note. Far from being a divine visitation on lechery, herpes is a manageable minor affliction. It may, however, be easier for the righteous to approve, and more difficult for doctors to demythologise, the condition Dr Smith called ‘the gay compromise syndrome’, better-known as AIDS. This may sound like a brand name for an indigestion tablet, but it is an acronym for Auto-Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Unlike herpes, this disease is a killer: the normal defences of the body fail, and the patient is vulnerable to rare forms of cancer and other disastrous infections. It is said that 80 per cent of those diagnosed three years ago are now dead. They were practically all male homosexuals, Haitian immigrants, heroin addicts or haemophiliacs. Some at least of the Haitians are now known to have histories of homosexuality. Since the number of sufferers doubles every six months, the gay community is not unreasonable in talking about an epidemic. Nobody knows what the agent is, and nobody knows why the more promiscuous are likelier victims than the less.

Diary: American Books

Frank Kermode, 1 April 1983

All the signs, we are continually told, point to rapid economic recovery in the US, and the Stock Market, perhaps because of this iteration, moves almost daily to new record highs. But unofficial individuals seem cautious or sceptical. Friendly foreigners, especially if they knew this country a generation back, are likely to note the discrepancy between the adman bullishness of government spokesmen and a certain dour disenchantment that has persisted as an ingredient of the American mood during the post-Camelot, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam years. Perhaps this is most noticeable in New York, a city now too notorious for its filth, brutality and cynical manners; the two notions that you need to be pretty tough to live there, and that things can only get worse, cause people to act tough and do a lot of complaining, especially about the economic situation.


Frank Kermode, 3 February 1983

The books listed below have been my leisure reading for many weeks, and I have a glimmering as to what it is that prompts the converted to claim so much for Gissing. But my own view, which is very commonplace, remains the same: New Grub Street is a novel of extraordinary power, and without it the oeuvre would be no more than the interesting record of a pained but minor artist.

Intelligent Theory

Frank Kermode, 7 October 1982

The first four books would normally be described as literary criticism, though they exhibit a considerable variety of interests, sociological, historical, theoretical; in Harold Bloom’s case ordinary language is defeated, for we need some such compound as cabbalistic-rhapsodic. None of them shows much interest in British writing, or the British literary scene, or in literary criticism...

Diary: Theatre of Violence

Frank Kermode, 7 October 1982

There occurred recently the first successful prosecution of videotapes under the Obscene Publications Act. As far as one can tell, the offending material had more to do with violence and cruelty than with simple sex, an interest they appear to be superseding. Around the same time we read of allegations that the Greek police had been inflicting some form of bastinado on a British woman prisoner. They were said to use this means of persuasion as a matter of course.

Diary: Jerusalem

Frank Kermode, 16 September 1982

Retirement, like other less pleasant conditions, is something one never seriously expects to suffer. After a lifetime of compliance with constraints which, however gentle, were not of one’s own choosing, one experiences for the first time a dreadful liberty to do as one likes. In principle, anyway. For example, in principle I can now live anywhere I want. The other day I had a letter from a distinguished colleague, postmarked ‘Verona’, which described the almost terminal happiness of living there and ended: ‘I don’t mean to die in Cambridge.’ Of course not: but where? Supposing for a moment that there were no considerations at all except the immediate satisfaction of my own desire, I think I might choose Jerusalem.


Frank Kermode, 17 June 1982

William Golding is evidently a bit fed up with being the author of Lord of the Flies. It was greeted with proper applause when it came out in 1954, but soon became the livre de chevet of American youth, and, worse, a favoured text in the classroom in the years of the great boom in Eng Lit, when a sterile popular variety of the New Criticism was encouraging all manner of dreary foolishness; whereupon the cognoscenti turned away, and called the book naive. Yet it was indeed a noble and a novel performance, to be followed in quick succession by two even more remarkable books, The Inheritors (1955) and Pincher Martin (1956). Suddenly famous, the author was now compelled to satisfy public curiosity by giving interviews and slogging round the lecture circuit. The powerful, idiosyncratic voice came through again – always on new and unpredictable subjects – in Free Fall (1959) and The Spire (1964). But there was less excitement than before, and also the rate of production slackened. In 1972 there were, among the three novelle of The Scorpion God, two of Golding’s best things, exhibiting his extraordinary blend of intensity and remoteness, that central inexplicitness within the explicit for which he is always trying. And Darkness Visible, three years ago, seemed to indicate a continuance of the old powers, perhaps augmented (as sometimes happens) by an audacity that comes as a grace to some artists in old age. Like Matty, hero of Darkness Visible, in his happy time, Golding holds that there is nothing hid which shall not be manifested, and nothing kept secret but that it should come abroad. He will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world, as many of them as he can: for this is what he takes novels, like parables, to be for. The effort involved is extraordinary; he has grown more willing to discuss it, but no more able to say exactly what it entails.

Bringing it home to Uncle Willie

Frank Kermode, 6 May 1982

A biography of Conrad that makes no claim to add to the voluminous information already on record, but runs amiably and quite deftly over the course, may have its uses. Not everybody has the time or the desire to tackle the thousand pages of Karl’s Joseph Conrad, or the shelf of books – Jocelyn Baines, Norman Sherry, Zdzislaw Najder, Eloise Knapp Hay – that would provide a richer and more chaotic account of this mostly painful career; and not everybody will be put off by Mr Tennant’s not saying anything very interesting about the fictions, of which he thinks Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness are the best. A lot of quite decent lives of famous people are not strictly necessary, though they are often the ones that get read. A good life of Edward Garnett, on the other hand, might, since his is a known but hardly a famous name, fail to attract much attention. But everybody who has an interest in 20th-century English fiction should read Mr Jefferson’s book. It is sometimes a bit dull and occasionally ill-written, but it is probably the most important of the batch here under review.


Frank Kermode, 3 December 1981

When I started reading Bliss I hadn’t read Mr Carey’s first book, The Fat Man in History, though like everybody else I had heard the stories acclaimed in terms which made the prospect of his first novel very attractive. It is therefore both surprising and regrettable that I have to say that Bliss is a bad novel, though by a talented author.

Bumper Book of Death

Frank Kermode, 1 October 1981

This book is a history of the collective consciousness of the ‘Latin West’ (with this country and New England included by association or out of courtesy) during the last thousand years; its focus is death, or changing attitudes towards death, but it is part of the argument that such attitudes must be related to our feelings about many other matters.

Structuralism Domesticated

Frank Kermode, 20 August 1981

This is a collection of essays by one of our best literary critics, in fact exactly the kind of thing one would expect from him; it simply continues the good work in the manner of his last two books. Why, then, do the reviewers shy like frightened cab-horses? Because Professor Lodge not only includes about seventy-five pages of ‘structuralism’, but actually uses the word in his title, and suggests that it is possible for an English professor to get along with it. Given the mood of rancorous philistinism that at present characterises reviewing in the weeklies, Lodge is to be congratulated on his courage. It is true that he had done this kind of thing earlier, but that was in the days before the great Cambridge scandal woke critics from their undogmatic slumbers. And perhaps he could also assume that his established reputation as a novelist might, with the aid of his solid critical achievement, protect him from insult.

The conversion of Ford’s novel into a television play was an enterprise even more foolhardy than the BBC’s Golden Bowl some years back. The adapter must at once resign himself to the sacrifice of dozens of ambiguities and implications, for they are made possible by purely novelistic means – in this instance, by the taste of the narrator for seeming irrelevance, for digressions that do not digress, for missing apparently obvious connections and for insisting hysterically upon others that look imaginary and without point, Ford professed to despise story: the idea was, by using all the available liberty of discourse, to represent an ‘affair’ in such a way as to extract every drop of meaning from it, which you could not do if you recounted it in story sequence. And although film and television drama can perfectly well do something like this, they lack the power to comment, with the suspicious certainty or the dubious innocence of Ford’s narrator, on the events and utterances thus artfully represented. The Good Soldier is continually preoccupied with knowing: it looks at that word, as at the word ‘heart’ from many semantic angles, and in consequence allows very little to be certainly known. But in dramatic adaptation there is a requirement that characters should do things much less ambiguously: their acts cannot be filtered through the head of John Dowell, the rich American simpleton (if indeed that is what he is) who tells the story. Moreover Dowell has to be there with the others, objectively represented as well as in voice-over; and it is beyond the power of any actor to play an impotent bonehead who is also a cauldron of passion and a sensitive register of cultural disaster (if that is indeed what he is).

Getting it right

Frank Kermode, 7 May 1981

Literary theory is somewhat bewilderingly in the news, and it is worth pausing over this well-written book, in which a young American Germanist develops his thoughts about the variety of it known as hermencutics. One sometimes hears this word uttered in tones of deep distrust or derision, as if it were some foreign novelty recently imported into a soundly pragmatical Britain by trendy malcontents intent on disturbing the peace: in fact, it is very ancient, though it has, of course, widened its scope and altered its aims. In its earlier forms, it usually amounted to prescriptions and prohibitions relating to the interpretation of Scripture. Its promotion to the status of the science or art of interpreting texts generally was effected in the early 19th century by Schleiermacher; and it achieved with Heidegger a philosophical apotheosis. Modern hermencutics is predominantly German in provenance. Central to it are Schleiermacher’s principle of the hermeneutic circle, which will be mentioned below; and the distinctions developed by his successors between the natural sciences and humane studies (Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften). Neither of these developments has attracted much comment over here.


Frank Kermode, 2 April 1981

Gerhardie is one of those writers who are periodically rescued from near-oblivion. In 1947, a temporary revival of interest was brought about by the publication of a ‘Uniform Edition’ of his novels, and there was another in 1970, when the same edition was republished with prefaces by Michael Holroyd. Gerhardie himself prefixed to the reissue of his first book, Futility, an important essay called ‘My Literary Credo’, which is unfortunately omitted from the new Penguin Modern Classics reprint. (Futility is the only novel in paperback, another omission that Penguin ought to rectify.) The most recent upsurge of interest has been caused by the posthumous publication of God’s Fifth Column, in the preparation of which Mr Holroyd, sticking to his noble task, has sensibly enlisted the help of a historian expert in the period reviewed by the book.

The Essential Orwell

Frank Kermode, 22 January 1981

Professor Crick’s subject is important and his research has evidently been diligent. We now know a lot more about Orwell than we did, and the increment of knowledge is not always trivial. Why, then, is it impossible to commend this book with warmth? For two main reasons: first, in a work of such length the prevalence of carelessly written pages is a strong disincentive to continuing (and of course they are shown up all the more by their proximity to quotations from Orwell); and secondly, Orwell was a literary figure as well as a political thinker, and Crick’s literary touch is far from certain.

The Duckworth School of Writers

Frank Kermode, 20 November 1980

The potter William de Morgan, finding himself at the age of 65 without a studio, decided not to look for another but instead to change his trade and become a novelist. Not so long ago the lucky and the cunning were picking up de Morgan tiles for a song, but it is altogether otherwise with his novels. Almost nobody seems to have picked them up for at least half a century The best-known, or anyway the only one that ever gets mentioned, is Joseph Vance, the first of them, which was published in 1906; the best, or at any rate the most interesting, is Alice-for-Short, which followed, in spite of its great length, only a year later. De Morgan lived to be 88 and wrote seven novels, as well as two more which were completed by another hand and published posthumously. They were mostly long books, and the first four came out at annual intervals, for de Morgan seems to have found fiction very easy after all that arduous tiling. He was writing at a time when such masters as Henry James, Conrad and Ford were agonising a lot about modern technique, but although he seems to have found the business of technique quite interesting – or rather, although he made a few knowing nods in that direction – what he really liked was to get on with his solid and complicated stories. According to the Cambridge Bibliography nobody has had a go at de Morgan since 1926, and there is clearly a case for fishing the novels out of oblivion.

Tennyson’s Nerves

Frank Kermode, 6 November 1980

Robert Martin’s book is not one of those literary biographies that reshuffle a familiar narrative and perhaps add a few bits of new information or conjecture. It is a full-scale life, founded on primary sources, many of them previously unpublished. As the first major biography since Hallam Tennyson’s pious memoir of 1897, it has obvious importance. Moreover, it is for the most part very well-written, affectionate without idolatry, well-proportioned and full of entertaining detail. Mr Martin, in short, has scored a considerable success.

Joseph Conrad’s Flight from Poland

Frank Kermode, 17 July 1980

Ian Watt began work on this book in 1955, and the intervening years have seen a boom in Conrad studies: but the thought that there might be nothing left for him to say quite rightly didn’t enter his head. What’s more, he has only just got under way: for all that it contains close on 200,000 words, this book is merely an antechapel to the main building. It considers the career of Conrad from Almayer’s Folly to Lord Jim, and it does so at its own majestic pace. The section on Heart of Darkness is much longer than the novella itself, and those on The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ and Lord Jim are on a scale only a little less generous. No space could be found for extended treatment of the other early works, except Almayer’s Folly. One can’t help wondering how Watt expects to get the rest of Conrad – which includes what most people regard as his greatest work – into one volume, given that he proposes to proceed with the same deliberateness, to have his fully matured say on everything he regards as relevant, and to dismiss with due consideration all that isn’t.


Frank Kermode, 19 June 1980

‘Generationalism’, as Mr Wohl designates the practice of thinking about history and society in terms of the characteristics attributed, usually by themselves, to members of particular age-groups, is a conceptual device nobody seems to have studiedvery closely till the 19th century. Not, of course, that conflicts between youth and agehadn’t been noticed: ‘they hate us youth,’ as Falstaff remarked, thinking of his behaviour rather than his age. Nor is it always the part of youth to be the wild ones. They may come on strong for discipline, reversing decadent trends, restraining reckless middle age. The novelty of 19th-century generationalism lay in a new self-consciousness about generational differences, and a desire to discover in them some historical dynamic. The result was a good deal of tediously abstract speculation about the length of a generation, the manner in which it acquired its characteristics, and so forth. Meanwhile more practical politicians found ways of using the cults of youth which acquired dignity as a consequence of all this cerebration.

It seemed to be happening only yesterday, but Blake Morrison was born in 1950, and for him the Movement is something you have to work on in a library. So it suddenly comes to seem rather remote, as deep in the past as those files of the Spectator where he found the famous pieces by J.D. Scott and Anthony Hartley, or the scripts of John Wain’s Third Programme magazine First Reading, or copies of the Reading limited editions of Wain and Amis. Mr Morrison claims to have eschewed gossip and attended instead to such questions as: ‘Did the writers know each other? Is there any evidence of mutual admiration, mutual influence, or collaboration?’ It is almost as if he were seeking information about Spenser, Gabriel Harvey and the Areopagus. Yet most of the poets he is writing about are ascertainably hale and not yet eligible for the Old Age Pension; even the few living elders they respected are still around, and capable of spry conversation – Empson, Fuller, Graves. Mr Morrison, of course, knew this, and addressed some inquiries to relevant survivors. Some responded – not Amis, I notice, and not Larkin, for reasons no doubt easily guessed at; but Conquest, doyen of the group, co-operated, and so did Davie, who is quoted more than anybody, though in my view (and in that of certain members of the group) he was never really in the middle of it, partly because he was an interloper from Cambridge, and partly because of all the talents assembled his was the least identifiable with the Movement’s mood and programme.


Frank Kermode, 22 May 1980

Forty years ago, Roy Fuller was taking a close look at himself and finding the image unsatisfying, already a little disappointed.

Novels about Adultery

Frank Kermode, 15 May 1980

It calls for no great acumen to spot a connection between adultery and theft. According to Dr Johnson, ‘the essence of the crime’ lay in ‘the confusion of progeny’, for by imposing bastards on her husband the adulterous wife diminished the inheritance of his legitimate issue. Since his infidelities were without this material consequence, they counted for much less – a tumble with a chambermaid was ‘mere wantonness of appetite’. Boswell says that this opinion showed Johnson’s usual solid judgment and knowledge of human nature: but he was moved to ask whether it wasn’t a little hard that ‘one deviation from chastity should so absolutely ruin a young woman.’ Not at all, said Johnson. ‘It is the great principle she is taught. When she has given up that principle she has given up every notion of female honour and virtue.’ Like Eve before her, she has by one wicked act disordered the entire fabric of social happiness and stability, of which property is only another aspect.

Educating the planet

Frank Kermode, 20 March 1980

It is a commonplace that among I.A. Richards’s first achievements was a modern defence of poetry. In the years following the Great War, he saw the world as entering an unprecedented historical crisis. He believed that the collapse of the old ‘Magical View’ of the world had left us in a condition of bewilderment, of deep privation, of affective destitution. People (I think he supposed them to be a minority) who were not content to ‘live by warmth, food, fighting, drink and sex alone’ must ‘require other satisfactions’: but the sources of such satisfactions had been stopped by the advance of knowledge. As throughout his life, he saw in trouble and disorder an immediate invitation to action, though, as at first conceived, this action was of a subtle kind, hardly to be distinguished from contemplation. ‘A sense of desolation, of uncertainty, of futility, of the groundlessness of aspirations, of the vanity of endeavour, and a thirst for a life-giving water which seems suddenly to have failed, are the signs in consciousness of this necessary reorganisation of our lives.’ What distinguishes this sentence from similar exclamations of dismay, which would not be hard to find in the literature of the period, is that it ends with the affirmation of a need to act. The rest of it owes most to Eliot’s Waste Land, as Richards acknowledged in a famous footnote. He valued the poem, not only as an exhibition of disorder and desolation, but as affording us means to contemplate them in a valuable way; it was modern, belonging to a world that had outlived the Magical View; but it offered what must take the place of that view if our psychological privations were to be ended.

English Changing

Frank Kermode, 7 February 1980

That language changes, and that we cannot prevent it from doing so, is a fact known to all, though some of us can no more contemplate it with resignation than we can death and taxes. It is two thousand years since Horace noted that good old words die, and that new ones must, on the right occasion and with proper modesty, be introduced. Yet even modest and necessary neologisms displease the modern humanist, and he is likely to be equally severe on what he regards as the abuse of old words. Professional linguists take a calmer view, and may even go beyond the limits of mere description and argue that change can tend to renovation rather than decadence.

Symbolism, Expressionism, Decadence

Frank Kermode, 24 January 1980

Blasting the past has long been a habit of avant-garde artists and malcontent youth, but anti-passéisme has made small headway in the learned professions. They are keen on roots – for example, the roots of the modern in late 19th-century art, and its roots in romanticism; the cardinal assumption is that everything really starts earlier than you might think. Work proceeds at different rates in different disciplines, which rarely take much notice of each other; literary men long since decided that Modernism grew out of Symbolism and Symbolism out of Romanticism, and the art historians are now saying much the same thing.

These letters are a partial record of a literary friendship; and they offer more than the usual pleasure to be had from eavesdropping on the talk of eminent writers. Nabokov and Wilson had a few specific common interests, the most important of which was a passion for language as the stuff of literature: but in temperament and formation they were almost wholly different. ‘Literature’ was, as an idea, venerated by both parties, but they could rarely agree about what good literature was. Since both men were honourably committed to speaking their minds on the subject, they criticised each other with an increasing freedom. A friendship which survived thirty years of plain dealing was ended when Wilson finally overstepped the generous limit.

Booker Books

Frank Kermode, 22 November 1979

The National Book League, on behalf of Booker McConnell, announces in a press release that one of five named novelists ‘will be £10,000 richer at 7 p.m. on 23 October’. The other four will have to be content with leatherbound copies of their books; one of the ways in which this competition differs from a golf tournament is that nobody gets appearance money. It’s all or nothing, an award for literary merit is made to look as much like a win on the pools as possible. By now the world as well as the contenders knows who’s in, who’s out, the matter having been decided by a non-competing novelist, three literary critics, and Asa Briggs.

Apocalypse Now and Then

Frank Kermode, 25 October 1979

Thanks to the work of Norman Cohn, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Keith Thomas and others, we have, over the past few years, acquired a lot of information about millenarianism as a social and historical force. The belief that the end is nigh, or that a new series of times is about to begin, is very ancient, but it is also modern. It is, moreover, a belief upon which people are liable to act, often with disastrous consequences to themselves and others. Persistent, dangerous as well as very interesting, it is a faith that invites more seductively than most the attention of the historian, and Professor Harrison, noting some very peculiar manifestations of it in the period of the Napoleonic wars and the succeeding years, has found himself a very good subject.

Stan Smith complains that I failed to explain Auden’s sly conversion of ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed’ from a Communist to a Christian poem (Letters, 10 April). I have known the poem in its original state since about 1938 but had evidently taken no account of the postwar shorter version or of Anne Fremantle’s book, so Smith was right to charge me with an oversight. But I’m...

Having Fun with Auden

7 February 2008

Hugh Wright protests that Auden enjoyed his time as a schoolmaster more than I’d suggested he did (Letters, 21 February). Teaching was one of the ways in which Auden made a living. He obviously preferred others. He enjoyed clowning for the boys at Larchfield but we are told by one of them that the class was nevertheless ‘overawed’ by him. John Fuller says that ‘Auden as a schoolmaster...
Blair Worden has completely missed my point. If the representatives of Essex were asking Shakespeare’s company to put on a play based on Hayward, the company must already have been in possession of that play; i.e. they had, sometime in the fairly recent past, commissioned it. Since the play can hardly have existed before Hayward had written his book, that commission must have been made between...
A passing allusion to Wallace Robson in my review of Humphrey Carpenter’s Angry Young Men (LRB, 28 November 2002) has caused some readers to remember him with resentment and some with admiration. I feel uneasy about my original remark because I didn’t make it clear that I was reporting an AYM view rather than my own. I was friendly with Robson for almost forty years and never doubted that...
Lawrence Hogben’s lucid account (LRB, 19 April) of the naval action against Bismarck in May 1941 left me uncertain about one detail. His account, supported by a chart, allows an inference that the battle-cruiser Hood sailed from Scapa Flow ahead of Admiral Tovey’s main force and went directly in search of the German battleship. Is this an accurate account of Hood’s movements? Days...
David George’s confidence (Letters, 3 February) that the obscurities in Coriolanus yield to an understanding that they have but two causes is more impressive than his evidence. The first cause, ‘severe ellipsis’, illustrated in his letter, is quite insufficient in itself to cover all the cases of rhetorical or grammatical bafflement. The other cause, said to be scribal/compositional...

Gospel Truth

2 January 1997

I was gratified to learn that Hyam Maccoby (Letters, 6 March), though offering different reasons, agrees with part of what I said in my notice of William Klassen’s book: the Judas story is a fiction; but he thinks both Klassen and I are wrong about paradidomi. Yet we all say it means ‘to hand over’. Maccoby argues that the handing over was by the High Priest to the Romans, which in...

Kettle of Fish

22 September 1994

William Scammell (Letters, 20 October) lets us know that he too was taught in the Fourth Form that you can easily tell the difference between a simile and a metaphor: one always starts with ‘as’ or ‘like’ and the other doesn’t. But since he allows us to think he is acquainted with Aristotle, who was so interested in these modes of indicating resemblance that he went on...


9 September 1993

Readers of Malise Ruthven’s excellent piece on the Waco siege (LRB, 9 September) should seek authority for the Rapture of the born-again not in the Book of Revelation but in 1 Thessalonians, 4.17, a text just as highly valued by those eight million American fundamentalists.

Cold Feet

22 July 1993

When you really get down to it Barbara Everett’s letter (Letters, 19 August) is about a single disputed reading in Donne’s ‘Valediction: of weeping’, so I will refrain from comment on her more general remarks and merely say why I think she is wrong about that reading. I do not know why the modernised text was ‘tendentious’, nor is any evidence adduced to suggest...


13 May 1993

I have been thinking about Miranda Seymour’s interesting letter (Letters, 27 May), and agree with her that there can be no general rule. How biographers name their subjects is up to them; all I would suggest is that they should, in making their choices, question themselves as to the reasons for their preference, as, so she implies, Michael Holroyd did in calling Strachey ‘Lytton’;...


12 September 1991

Mr Peter Marsden (Letters, 24 October) was of course quite right to reproach me for saying Ungeboren meant anything at all, and certainly not ‘undepraved’. Martin Amis gave his character the name Unverdorben, a word I dutifully looked up. Having ascertained that it meant ‘undepraved’, I then converted it to ‘Ungeboren’, for reasons which cannot possibly concern anybody...


20 December 1990

Reading Claude Rawson’s powerful essay on Burke (LRB, 20 December 1990), and in particular what he had to say about ‘Burke’s purplest passage’, I was reminded of an ancient discontent with the sentence in that passage that begins ‘Without force, or opposition’ and ends: ‘[This mixed system of opinion and sentiment] compelled stern authority to submit to elegance,...


24 July 1986

Frank Kermode writes: I had a feeling that all was not well with my obstetrical trope, and am grateful to Mrs Simon for explaining how it miscarried.


22 May 1986

SIR: Nobody enjoys an adverse notice, and Professor Stead has replied when still so cross as to be rather silly (Letters, 19 June). His suggestion that I failed to read his book with care is offensive, but the rest of what he has to say is really neither here nor there. Having thought very well of The New Poetic, I expected much of this new book, and was disappointed when it turned out to be manifestly...


2 February 1984

Frank Kermode writes: I set up no dichotomy; my purpose was to describe an interesting disagreement. What I said about Augustine was correct, though of course many other things may correctly be said of him, including – with some reservations – what Dr White says. As he must know, Augustine’s interest in the historical sense of the Old Testament bears no resemblance to Professor Barr’s....

Vulgar Chauvinism

5 February 1981

SIR: Since my attitude to Professor Rawson, and to your paper, has always been one of friendly respect (indeed I have collaborated with both), I cannot conceal my astonishment that he should have written, and you published, his review of Susanne Kappeler’s book on Henry James (LRB, 5 February). He sets the tone by expressing contempt for critics with funny foreign names like Lugowski. The name...
SIR: One thing about Sir William’s very peculiar piece (LRB, 24 January): unless he has access to Greville’s notes, he cannot know that Sidney said ‘need’, for Greville in his book says ‘necessity’; he, not I, preferred the long fussy word.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites more than 33,000 passages from Shakespeare to illustrate the sense of English words. About 1900 of its main entries have first citations from Shakespeare....

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Out of the Lock-Up: Wallace Stevens

Michael Wood, 2 April 1998

Asked in 1933 what his favourite among his own poems was, Wallace Stevens said he liked best ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’, from Harmonium (1923). The work ‘wears a deliberately...

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A Sort of Nobody

Michael Wood, 9 May 1996

Criticism for Frank Kermode is the articulation of assumptions, a sort of phenomenology of interpretative need. Its job, as he says in The Sense of an Ending (1967), is ‘making sense of the...

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Real Absences

Barbara Johnson, 19 October 1995

‘Reading others people’s letters, like reading private diaries, offers thrilling and unexpected glimpses into the lives of others,’ claims the dustjacket of The Oxford Book of...

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Kermode’s Changing Times

P.N. Furbank, 7 March 1991

Frank Kermode having now become ‘Sir Frank’, it seems a good moment to take a look back over his remarkable career: though by no means because that career is at an end, for he is...

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Kermode and Theory

Hayden White, 11 October 1990

Frank Kermode belongs to no sect of literary criticism, and he has founded no school. Like William Empson, whom he praises as a ‘genius’ of criticism, Kermode has always been more...

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Loose Canons

Edward Mendelson, 23 June 1988

Frank Kermode’s History and Value reads the literature of the Thirties as ‘a love story, almost a story of forbidden love’. The story is usually told in political terms, but the...

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Reading the Bible

John Barton, 5 May 1988

‘Everyone communes with the Bible,’ wrote Marilyn Butler recently in her Cambridge inaugural lecture, commenting on the recent re-inclusion of the Biblical canon in the canon of...

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Andrew Gurr, 6 February 1986

Like relics of the True Cross, there are said to be enough splinters to make an orchard from the mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare in his garden at New Place. The Shakespeare canon has excited...

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From Plato to Nato

Christopher Norris, 7 July 1983

Eagleton’s book is both a primer and a postmortem. It surveys the varieties of recent and present-day literary theory, only to suggest – in its closing chapter – that they had...

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Advanced Thought

William Empson, 24 January 1980

Frank Kermode’s new book contains a great deal of graceful and dignified prose, especially in the last chapter, and many of the examples are of great interest. It seems to argue that no...

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