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Diary: Insane after coronavirus?

Patricia Lockwood

Vol. 32 No. 18 · 23 September 2010

Memories of Frank Kermode

6660 words

Stefan Collini writes: ‘Yes, I’d like that very much. That really would be something to look forward to.’ Frank was already weakened and wasted by throat cancer, but my suggestion that we go to watch some cricket at Fenner’s did seem genuinely to appeal to him. There wasn’t much to look forward to by this point. On the appointed day the weather was kind, and after only a little too much fussing on my part we were finally installed on seats in front of the pavilion, the soothing sight of green and white displayed before us. Although hardly an enthusiast by temperament, Frank was a cricket-lover, always reading the scores in the sports pages and watching the TV highlights. He had played regularly while a lecturer at Reading in the 1950s (‘I was never any good’), and one of the times his hangdog look would hang most doggishly was when we talked about the fact that I still played and he didn’t (‘Of course, you’re young … ’; 90 could say that to 62).

We talked a bit about cricket when I would go round in the evenings (‘Yes, come round: I can still drink’), but mostly we talked about literature, which is to say mostly I tried to get him to talk. I was, am, too ill-read to be rewarding company for him on many of these occasions, which I always regretted, though there are worse failings than not being as well read as Frank Kermode. His range was astonishing, across genres and languages, and some favourites (Donne, Stevens, Roth) were very vivid in his memory right up to the end. He gracefully concealed his shock at the extent of my unreading, part of a deep courtesy that somehow enabled rather than obstructed playfulness and teasing. We would chat about the current review he was always writing (‘Mary-Kay keeps me under the lash’), and I could feel what a desolating defeat it was when, late in his illness, he had to acknowledge that he wasn’t going to be able to review the last book he had been sent. It was a selection of the letters of Louis MacNeice, and of course one immediately thinks how good it would have been to have had one of his quietly perceptive, deftly modulated assessments of a writer whom he had read when he was an undergraduate at Liverpool in the late 1930s and still partly admired. For decades Frank had set the benchmark for the review-essayist’s trade: it will be a long time before we stop wondering, faced with a new book, how he would have handled it.

Eliot famously said that in literary criticism the only method was to be very intelligent. Frank had none of Eliot’s chilly hauteur, nor his taste for provocation for its own sake, but he was, in his attentive, conversable prose, a wonderful illustration of Eliot’s mot. A Kermode essay seems somehow to set up camp inside the work he is discussing, to be at ease with its quiddity, often appreciative, yet also noticing where the handiwork had been ill-judged or botched. Reading him, one’s attention is directed to the subject matter not the critical performance, but it is impossible not to be aware of the presence of a responsive, deep-feeling man who is remarkably learned and constantly alert to all the ways literature can mean. Although in conversation he would talk about the particular book he had under review, he said little about his own writing or about the process by which his camped-up groaning over the difficulty of the task was invariably succeeded by the appearance a week or two later of a shapely piece of limpid thoughtfulness.

He would sometimes talk about his own past, reticently, sardonically. Key moments in his life would be elided with a deliberately restrained or oblique phrase (‘My private life was becoming disorderly’), and terms like ‘disaster’ and ‘fiasco’ peppered all reminiscence. I teased him about having been a serial professor, having held half the named chairs of English in the country, sometimes in quick succession (‘There were reasons; I don’t say good reasons’). He looked back with particular nostalgia to his time as the Lord Northcliffe Professor at University College London in the late 1960s and early 1970s. So why did he then move to Cambridge? ‘Vanity, I expect; ignorance. Terrible mistake, obviously.’ He was an accomplished moaner, or mock-moaner, and his time as professor at Cambridge was practised ground (‘Some of those people on the faculty board were unspeakable’). He would also recur to some of the celebrated critical spats he had been involved in, unyielding about the iniquities of Helen Gardner, generous about Empson though still irritated (‘Later in his life he made a great to-do about “matters of fact” in literature, but he so often got things wrong’). He had the usual nominal aphasia that comes with age, but uncannily sharp recall when it came to a line of poetry that had been in contention 40 or 50 years ago.

I was by no means one of Frank’s closest or oldest friends; ours was a late-blooming relationship, and all the dearer to me for that – there’s an inescapable poignancy and sense of lost opportunity in establishing a close friendship with someone already in their eighties. I could occasionally see traces of the iron and the acid that opponents had complained of decades ago, but overwhelmingly I encountered a quality it sounds too anodyne to describe as sweetness, and too gullible to see as a winning diffidence, but which communicated a reticent warmth I was very drawn to. I’m sorry now that we allowed English male shyness to stop us speaking more freely about some of the things that mattered to us most (not that he, ambivalent Manxman, would easily submit to the indignity of being lumped with ‘the English’), but that courtesy of his could sometimes make too much directness seem intrusive.

Our afternoon at the cricket was not a complete success. The batting became dull as the game headed for a draw; Frank could follow the flight of the ball less well than either of us had anticipated; and his body started to become too uncomfortable, so we decided to leave early. He got to his feet rather unsteadily, and as we began to head for the exit (how he would have twinkled at the ambiguities of that phrase) he slipped his arm in mine – for support, but easily and affectionately, so we processed round the boundary like a stately Italian couple out for their passeggiata. He knew he would never again go to a cricket match; he was doing most things for the last time now, silently grieving about transience and loss. I still find it hard to say what I felt as he companionably slipped his arm through mine: ‘pleased’ seems feeble, ‘proud’ seems absurdly self-important. Perhaps simply ‘moved’? Whatever it was it proved too strong for me quite to cope with, because after delivering him back at his flat I found that, even before I got home, I had started to cry.

Karl Miller writes: A few weeks ago I visited Frank in Cambridge. I had known him for 52 years, and for much of that time I had been his editor, publishing him first in 1958, when he was a lecturer at Reading University. In a style of the period, I was warned against him. Pupils of Leavis – I’d been one of them myself – spoke of a sinister influence, and a star of the Movement persuasion and of Leavis’s despised London literary world told me, in Fleet Street, that Frank combined the faults of the academic and of the journalist. Frank was not usually inclined – not entitled, perhaps – to agree with the star that scholar and journalist were two different people. He did once refer to the ‘lighter exercises’ pursued by the journalist. But he was very much a writer, and his writings were a single, undivided source of enlightenment. We don’t think of him as wanting to be, as he put it, ‘impressively arcane’.

By 1958 he was already admired for Romantic Image, and an abundance of important projects lay ahead: an unfailing concern with Shakespeare was joined by a rich and productive reading of the Bible; he inquired into authority and interpretation, truth and error, and there was an engagement with literary theory. He led a celebrated seminar in that field during his happy years at University College London. More and more, he devoted himself to the literary imagination of America and to the poetry and fiction of his contemporaries, there and here.

Some weeks before my visit to Frank I went with friends to visit the grave of the Anglo-Welsh Metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan. We read aloud a passage from Vaughan’s ‘great poem’, as Frank rightly called it, ‘The Night’, a great and quite a cryptic poem. The passage was discussed by him in a sermon, learned, lucid, by no means arcane, one of his finest things, which was delivered in King’s College Chapel on 11 May 1986. The passage reads:

God’s silent searching flight,
When my Lord’s head is fill’d with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night; His still, soft call;
His knocking-time; the soul’s dumb watch,
When spirits their fair kindred catch.

In St John’s Gospel Nicodemus is unfit for a Heaven-sent spiritual rebirth, while in Vaughan’s poem the darkness of Nicodemus is transformed into something antithetical, into an example for one who seeks, as the poet did, to be with his God in the dark night of the mystic, for whom dark can be light enough. The sermon is about the enabling errors whereby writers repeat and reverse what has been said before them, and Vaughan’s passage draws on a passage from the Song of Songs. ‘I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.’

Frank’s sermon was not, or not just, a deconstruction. It shows, I think, that he loved literature, and that it took him into a world of light. These last words can hardly mean to us what they did to Vaughan when he used them in the 17th century. But they have yet to lose their meaning.

Adam Phillips writes: Soon after I’d qualified as a child psychotherapist someone – I think Christopher Bollas – suggested that I should write to Frank Kermode about writing a Fontana Modern Master on Winnicott. This seemed to me an extraordinary idea. I had never wanted to be a writer, and this series of what were often rather remarkable books was edited by someone who had been a hero of mine at school, and someone I could never imagine writing to, let alone for. I had read all of Frank’s books, not because I was always interested in what they were about, but because they were written by him. The Sense of an Ending was (and is) one of the best books I had ever read; and even though he was formidably learned there was no sense of his own superiority in his writing. He had a fluency and a subtlety and a grasp that was unique. It had been impressed on us at school that literary criticism was not literature in the way that literature was, but there were critics – Empson, Burke, Blackmur, Poirier – who were among my favourite writers, and Frank was one of them. Needless to say I had never thought of him as Frank then, or even as Frank Kermode, but as the rather more austere and remote Kermode. The man I eventually met, and who became a friend, was neither of these things.

I sent what I thought of as a proposal for the book, and as some kind of proof of eligibility I also sent a two-page essay on tickling, the only thing I had then written. He replied by return of post: ‘Dear Mr Phillips, No one wants to tickle old men, and your paper reminded me how much I miss it. Could we have dinner?’ We met, and immediately got on; after we had chatted for about ten minutes he told me that he would be ‘delighted’ if I would write the book. He was affable and funny and in the course of the evening, which was long, and over very quickly, he told me, among many other things, that since I was a Jew I really ought to be an Orthodox Jew, and that reading was much more important than writing. He had very strong views about things but I never felt he needed me to agree with him. He had the wildest curiosity of anyone I had ever met but he was unfailingly courteous and calm. Being intelligent and widely read was about being genial for Frank, not about being intimidating. And when you are young – and indeed when you are older – that is both reassuring and inspiring.

But what was fascinating to me, on first meeting – apart from the fact that I was actually meeting him – was that he was at once impersonal and affectionate. It was not a shyness that was really a slyness, but what felt like a rather poignant fear of effusiveness. He wanted to value people and things without having to make great claims. So I felt immediately backed by him, but not under pressure. At that first meeting he made me feel older than I was, and much more intelligent than I felt. And that I could write a book. At the very end of the evening I said to him ‘ironically’, i.e. with rising panic, ‘How do you actually write a book?’, and he replied very straightforwardly, as though it was a good question: ‘Immerse yourself in the material, and the book will write itself.’ Which I did, and it did.

Jacqueline Rose writes: It seems, rereading him now, that he was always, directly or indirectly, writing about survival. That the form of attention he conferred on literary objects was designed above all to allow them, and himself, to survive. What is it about a literary work that enables it to persist over time? Most obviously perhaps, the ‘classic’ in his definition was a text whose plurality of meaning – a ‘requirement and a distinguishing feature of the survivor’ – kept it alive. It is because no reader can exhaust the meaning of such a text, because any one reading cannot but select and forget – to read is always mentally to drop bits and pieces of the writing as you go – that it will continuously be reinvented. A classic is a work that is ‘patient of interpretation’, as he put it in relation to King Lear. That was why he devoted so much time to the cryptic language patterns of the opening of Wuthering Heights in The Classic or to the trope of hendiadys in Hamlet in Forms of Attention. Both were virtuoso performances. But the display was in the service of the work which survived by means of what could be coaxed out of the surfeit of its language. It was the core of his enthusiasm, what made him feel that the whole of literary understanding could – and in many ways should – be drawn from the most intense focus on a single line of poetry.

His notion of the classic was not, however, as it might first appear, a gesture to some loose notion of boundless creative potential. It was always tempered by history. Any work is a child of its time. Thus Donne and Botticelli now have their place in the canon, but this was not always so, and it was a late 19th-century mixture of often ignorant appreciation and quirky scholarship that gave them the status which appears so natural today. ‘Permanent modernity,’ he wrote in one of his most brilliant sentences, ‘is conferred on chosen works by arguments and persuasions that cannot, themselves, remain modern.’ (What could ‘permanent modernity’ possibly be?) Our modes of appreciation, the enthusiasm with which we draw our preferred literary works into the present, are always on the verge of obsolescence. It was because he saw both sides of this story – the resilience and the transience of the work – that he could be so passionate and so sceptical a critic at the same time.

But it was also, I think now, what made criticism for him so urgent and vital a task (‘the medium in which [the text] survives’). The only thing that saves the text from oblivion is our attention, or our appetites, to refer to another of his favourite critical terms. The point of all ‘this shadowy talk is to keep a real and valued object in being’. ‘Shadows’ were also central to his reading of Hamlet so that ‘shadowy’ manages to be at once self-deprecating towards his own activity as a critic – as in ‘pale imitation’ – and a tribute to the most subtle shades of high art. The conversation or game, as he put it, had to go on, for ‘it is the means by which the primary objects of my own attention have to be brought to the attention of another generation.’ So he was also creating a legacy, staking his claim on the future, with all the potentially ruthless determination that implies, except that he had himself also provided the tools, if not to deconstruct the idea of legacy, then certainly to show why it was something to which no writer nor reader could ever be fully, or unambiguously, entitled.

The dogged persistence of his writing was therefore inseparable from what he saw as the critic’s duty – if that is not too ponderous a term – to a future he could already see without him (the last words of his memoir: ‘for as long as I am entitled to be’). But it equally belonged to another story, or rather to that part of his writing that was dedicated to stories, narratives, fictions and how they also allow us to endure, to survive, by crafting our relation to time. ‘Men die,’ he cites the physician Alkmeon in the opening pages of The Sense of an Ending, ‘because they cannot join the beginning and the end.’ Creating models of the world in fiction – Yeats’s ‘artifice of eternity’ in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ – was one crucial way of making ‘tolerable one’s moment between beginning and end, or at any rate keep us drowsy emperors awake.’ What human need could be more profound, he asked, than ‘to humanise the common death’? More simply, literary form is another name for the shapes that ‘console the dying generations‘.

It has been very hard in the past weeks not to think that it was his own death he had been writing about all along (‘anticipating’ would be too weak, ‘pre-empting’ too strong). ‘The artifice of eternity exists only for the dying generations; and since they choose, alter the shape of time, and die, the eternal artifice must change.’ In this, all fictions participate in the aevum, the third order of being between time and eternity, between nunc movens and nunc stans, which Thomas Aquinas assigned to angels. Again this is scrupulously historical, not soppy: he is tracking the development of Christian thought. As this dimension was slowly brought to earth, it allowed men to feel themselves, in moments Augustine termed the moments of the ‘soul’s attentiveness’, outside the limits of human time, to think that they might be ‘able, as it were, to do all that angels can’ – ‘as it were’ the crucial semi-ironic qualifier.

So fiction inherits the world of angels, but it is only through a moment of acute ‘attentiveness’ – a moment of literary criticism we might say – that any of this can be experienced, let alone understood. You have to read him to pick up the light, almost casual tone with which he follows this sequence to its conclusion. It is hard to imagine anyone else ever being such a master of understatement while also so trumpeting the writer’s and critic’s art. The scepticism is crucial, less style, something more like a warning. Nothing more deadly than a fiction that, losing its sense of belonging in time, tries to climb back up to the world of the gods. So anti-semitism was a ‘degenerate fiction’, the Third Reich the disastrous consequence of trying ‘to impose limited designs on the time of the world’, of believing that any system of thought could provide ‘a total and adequate explanation of things as they are’.

He thought of himself as a survivor of the war, lucky to have stayed alive in the navy ‘when more correct fellows who responded as bravely as their elders expected, were getting killed’ (‘more correct fellows’ – his famous self-deprecation might also have one of its sources here). Later he was baffled that, after the war, those lacking that experience should be so impatient of those who had barely held onto their lives. ‘It is therefore possible,’ he wrote, ‘for survivors to be at odds with, to feel unqualified to associate freely with, the living as well as the dead.’ He belonged nowhere (he called himself a métèque), by his own admission too ready to abandon and move on, a trait he attributed first to having been born and then leaving the Isle of Man in his youth. But I also wonder whether it wasn’t the war that gave to his wanderings the quality of neither living nor dying, and that led him to place the work of the critic, as a mode of survival, in the aevum, where ‘men sometimes’ – he was cautious to the last – have the sense of ‘being able to do what angels can’.

James Wood writes: I have good reason to remember Frank Kermode’s collection of essays The Art of Telling, because it was the first book I ever stole. Between the ages of 16 and 18 I lifted more than a few books from shops. Resources were very slight, and the hunger was very great, and how luscious those oversize academic paperbacks were, the impossible price somehow guaranteeing the quality of the esoteric knowledge within. Novels could be got at libraries, or ‘borrowed’ from a friend, but new poetry and literary criticism made themselves unaffordably superior, and thus had to be liberated by acts of democratic pillage.

This was also a time, in the early 1980s, when criticism seemed very important. Despite the blooming awareness that camps had been established, with theory on one side and criticism on the other, the eager student felt the need to read everyone, Blindness and Insight alongside The Force of Poetry, the rustle of language even in Bluebeard’s castle. In this context Frank Kermode meant so much because he was a father who had not stayed the same. I had grown up with him: at school, he was the safe pair of hands who introduced the Arden Tempest, and whose elegant, slightly opaque valuations (so much less dogmatic than Protestant Leavis!) shimmered on the back of contemporary novels. But as I entered university, I realised with gratitude that he was not exactly the same critic he had been in the 1950s; that theory, narratology and theology had all left their mark on his work, and that indeed he had been expending much effort in acting as a kind of mild English hotelier for the accommodation of warring families. He made one feel almost patriotic, for he was one of the few British literary critics of his generation capable of rivalling his American and Continental peers in intellectual sophistication. In addition, and this is not a small thing, he approached texts as if they were willed fabrications, intentional structures made by very discriminating people (Raymond Williams, comparably sophisticated as an analyst, always seemed to be peering into texts from the grand outside). This was what made his late book on Shakespeare’s Language so good; he is not afraid to talk about Shakespeare’s authorial ‘tricks’, for instance.

When I was growing up, there were two wonderful critics, very different but admiringly aware of each other, who read novels in this way, from the inside: Kermode and the all-round man of letters V.S. Pritchett. Kermode was the academic, Pritchett the craftsman, but both thought in long traditions, and both had a writerly interest in the fate of contemporary fiction. In this regard, The Sense of an Ending is Kermode’s central book because for the next 40 years he kept on returning to its questions. These had been prompted by new theory, but also by new novels – not just by the nouveau roman, but by native work that would remain engrossing to him (Muriel Spark, Henry Green, Beckett, B.S. Johnson, Burgess).

One is struck by Kermode’s determination, early on, to find a path between the formalist scepticism of Barthes and Robbe-Grillet, and the ‘naive’ humanism of the English tradition. Crudely put, he saw that Barthes was right about the way realism functioned as a code, a piece of cunning artifice, an ideology of verisimilitude (fictions which just stay the same, Kermode writes, congeal into myth); but the realist in him also insisted on fiction’s ability to be about something more than itself, insisted on its contaminated but victorious description of the world (what Ian Watt called ‘the literal imagination’). In beautiful words, he writes that if fictional forms

appear in shapes preposterously false we will reject them; but they change with us, and every act of reading or writing a novel is a tacit acceptance of them. If they ruin our innocence, we have to remember that the innocent eye sees nothing. If they make us guilty, they enable us, in a manner nothing else can duplicate, to submit, as we must, the show of things to the desires of the mind.

In place of French revolution, he offered English settlement; change is perpetual, and the novel may contain within its traditions and inheritances a thousand small revolutions. As he comments, a ‘traditional’ novelist might come along who rejects the avant-garde anti-novel, ‘and yet possess the power to make constitutional changes so profound that no proclamation of reform could be more effective’.

He never left this argument, returning to it in The Art of Telling, and near the end of his life in work on Ford Madox Ford and E.M. Forster. He wanted to push this mid-century French tussle between realists and anti-realists back a bit, into modernism; it was as if he was finding, in the absence of major British postmodern examples, the modernist precursors to Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet. And he rightly found them in Ford Madox Ford and Conrad, and their theoretical and practical experiments with form and content. He could have gone back further still: a version of this faultline can be seen in Henry James’s recoil from Flaubert (Flaubert as the flawless, cold formalist, James as the warmer aesthete-realist-moralist). It persisted in Nabokov’s hatred of Dostoevsky’s messiness, and is alive in the current battles between realists and anti-realists (Tom McCarthy’s Bookershortlisted novel, C, cannot be as radical as it wants to be if it offers no serious formal challenge to the traditional grammars of realism). Only last year, Orhan Pamuk’s Norton Lectures at Harvard employed Schiller’s terms to argue that the novelist must be both naive and sentimental, both traditional and radical: he must be naively confident in describing the world, and sentimentally self-conscious about how that description operates – in Kermode’s terms, at once innocent and guilty.

Like everyone else, I thought this father who would not stay the same would go on for ever.

Michael Wood writes: I’m trying to read from memory an expression on Frank Kermode’s face. He is pleased, friendly, even laughing rather than smiling, in a quietly disciplined way. But there is a diffidence in the pleasure, and something else in the diffidence. It’s not a secret meaning, although he did love secret meanings. He’s not hiding anything, only being discreet. I like the expression because it resembles his writing, and I feel that if I could read it better I would understand the writing better – no, not understand it better but be able to name something intriguing about it that I deeply enjoy but can’t name.

The time is 2007, the place is King’s College, Cambridge. Frank had given the Clark Lectures earlier in the year (they appeared, with additions, in 2009 as Concerning E.M. Forster). I hadn’t heard the lectures but I had heard the following extraordinary story. When he was about to give the first lecture, he had collapsed at the podium, and been taken off to hospital. After a great deal of concern and speculation, it was determined that the heat and the weather had caused a temporary weakness, and nothing graver was in the offing – or nothing graver than what Frank already knew about. Frank returned the following week to start the lecture series – there were three in the set – and of course the audience was considerably exercised to know what if anything he would say about the previous week’s mishap. If I had known of the event I would have bet that he would have said nothing at all. I would have been wrong, of course, but not as wrong as those who thought he would say anything direct or obvious. He said nothing until he got to a point in the second lecture where he described a character in a novel who faints. Tiny pause. Frank adds the words, ‘As one does,’ and continues.

When we met a month or two later, I reported this story to him as I had heard it, and asked him if it was true. I didn’t doubt my informant, only was rather interested in what Frank would say. He just said yes, with the muffled laugh I’ve described, and it is his complicated contentment that I am trying to read. He was, I’m sure, pleased at his calculated discretion, glad to have it noticed and reported, but also scrupulous enough to wonder whether such pleasure might be a not so discreet form of boasting. That’s where the diffidence in the pleasure came from, and yet inside the diffidence was, I want to say, another pleasure, the pleasure not of cleverness but of style, that is, of a kind of grace or luck, the pleasure of the day when the words you want come when you want them. In this case, when Frank managed to say exactly as little as he wanted to, not a jot more or less. The printed text offers two occasions for the personal insertion, on consecutive pages. The first is ‘She faints,’ and the second is: ‘Though she had done nothing, only fainted.’ The second spot seems perfect.

I see now that it is this grace or luck that I am thinking of when I try to evoke the sheer pleasure of reading Frank Kermode – as distinct from the half-dozen other excellent reasons for reading him. There is always an effect of speed as well as discretion, even when he is saying a lot rather than a little. He is funny as well as intricate – you have to race to keep up with him, and the race itself is a delight. A witch in Macbeth seems to speak of thunder, lightning and rain as alternatives, but how could they be? They represent, we read in The Sense of an Ending, ‘a pointless selection of some aspects of futurity at the expense of others’, and the same goes for ‘When the hurlyburly’s done,/ When the battle’s lost and won.’ ‘Hurlies are to burlies,’ Kermode remarks,

as thunder to lightning, and lost battles are normally also won … The equivocating witches … are themselves, like the future, fantasies capable of objective shape … They dress the present in the borrowed robes of the future, in the equivoques of prophecy … It is an interim in which the patient is denied the relief of time’s successiveness; it seems never to end.

The grammatical quibble, the division of hurly from burly, and the quiet ‘normally also’ – there is also a joke about Scottish weather in the passage – suggest how much is going on here, apart from the grand commentary on several sorts of time. It’s the agile play of registers that is so remarkable, as if we were reading a poem that could shift its tone drastically without losing its beat or its coherence.

There are no hurlies without burlies, Kermode is suggesting, because of the rhyme, and because there are not two words here, only one. But we don’t have to be the prisoners of our words or our rhymes, only of the necessary limitations they play out for us, the sense that, for example, ‘nothing in time can … be done, freed of consequence or equivocal aspects’. Part of the greatness of Kermode’s criticism lies in his consistent, melancholy acknowledgment of those limitations; the other part lies in his sympathetic and intelligent attention to everything in writing that resists them. As it does.

Wynne Godley, who died in May, wrote this piece in 1999 for a ‘Liber Amicorum’ celebrating Kermode’s 80th birthday:

To begin with the mean score was about 9-4 in my favour and I always won. Frank held my racquet in his hand admiringly and said: ‘It’s quite simple, you are a much better player than me.’ We met for squash not less than once a week for 20 years. As time passed, the scores got more even and I think Frank sometimes won.

How did I know that Frank wanted to beat me so desperately, seeing that he never revealed his feelings, directly or indirectly in speech? Because his stride became maddeningly jaunty if he won more than two points in succession; because of his firm insistence, so gentle sounding, on the replay of dubious points and balls; because of his solemn, though never emphatic, remonstrance if I screamed ‘shit’ while the ball was still in play and the point then went my way; because of the way he ruthlessly, joylessly and unerringly killed the loose ball and then put on a smug face. Another thing. If his body happened to get between me and the returning ball he made no attempt to get out of the way. On the contrary, he stood motionless with both elbows protruding rigidly so that collision with him really hurt.

Once I had to lie down in the middle of a game because I was so unfit. The score was 7-4 in Frank’s favour. Three minutes later we resumed and I won the next five points, extremely quickly. Frank, who never got sweaty or tired or even out of breath, said very quietly: ‘You shouldn’t have done that.’ I said that I forfeited the game. ‘Yes, but it is really a very annoying way to behave,’ said Frank, continuing with a monotonous remonstrance and making the emphases, not vocally, but with an up and down sawing movement of his racquet. I said I was sorry but I had to lie down and had given him the game, so would he please now stop chiding. Frank said OK he would stop. ‘But all the same,’ he went on, ‘it is a most annoying way to behave.’ I didn’t hear the end of his sentence because I had left the court in a huff. We made it up under the chestnut trees which shelter King’s College School. I said:

Chestnut candles are lit again
For the dead that died in spring:
Dead lovers walk the orchard ways,
And the dead cuckoos sing.
‘Housman,’ said Frank.
‘No,’ I said. ‘It isn’t by Housman.’

‘Yes it is,’ said Frank. ‘Someone else may have written down the words but the poem is by Housman all the same.’

Once I learned the hard way about Frank’s forehand drive, when it connected with my balls on its way towards the front wall. I had to lie down for 20 minutes. Frank stood beside me but wasn’t very sympathetic.

We never harrowed the squash ground during the precious minutes in the gallery of the King’s courts (dusty, cold, littered with broken gear) as we changed our shoes and other stuff. I slowly gathered that he was trying to redesign the English faculty. But this was proving impossible because people were exercising power who should have no right to do so. (‘Anita teaches,’ he told me, ‘and as it happens she teaches very well. But she teaches without anyone knowing that she can teach at all.’) And he was being slowly racked by the uniquely Cambridge-flavoured, cold cruelty of the English faculty as they organised themselves against him. I inferred all this very gradually and only by replaying in my mind, and resynthesising over a long period of time, the words he had spoken to me. For there was never a hint of complaint or pain in the tone of voice. Once he said, but with such calm that I neither heard nor understood the words for several days, that he had been walking down the street and suddenly wanted to lie down in it. He resigned his chair in the end of course, just before the lucrative early retirement scheme was introduced. ‘You are the only reason for me to remain here,’ said Frank in his beautiful, flat way.

We did other things. We drank gin before lunch on Sunday in the conservatory at Luard Road, with Mozart playing on the gramophone. In Michael Jaffe’s horrible Red Room, where the fellows of King’s congregate at lunchtime in murmuring cliques, we could huddle together safely. I played ‘Happy Birthday’ to him on the trombone on his 60th birthday. And we paid visits to the Royal Box at Covent Garden where we saw Tristan (‘Love is the same as death’) and Otello, and where we had parties made boisterous by Tony Tunstall, the naughty principal horn who wouldn’t stop drinking and leave for the pit until the lights started to go down. Once Frank came to my house to drive us to the Opera House and drove away again because no one had heard his knock. He thought we had gone without him! Fifteen or perhaps 20 years passed before I took in that Frank really did believe that he had no entitlement to the Regius Chair or to love, honour or respect from his friends, or to anything else at all.

It was natural that Frank should think of me to write about macroeconomics in his Modern Masters series as he had no knowledge of the subject himself and I had told him that I was writing a work of genius. I was doing a lot of economic forecasting at the time and it was going well. I said ‘in nature’s …’ but before I could proceed Frank went on ‘… infinite book of secrecy a little I can read,’ adding: ‘There are two soothsayers in Shakespeare. That’s the one from Antony.’

Unfortunately my opus needed 30 years’ work rather than 18 months. But Frank got impatient and the subject came up tiresomely at squash. When I said I was contemplating suicide Frank chuckled and said: ‘Yes, but finish the book first.’ And when, after publication, I said that the book ‘divided opinion’, thinking of the four professors around the world (one each from Denmark, Italy, the US and the Irish Republic) whose opinion matched my own, Frank stated flatly that no, opinion about my book was ‘universally bad’.

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Vol. 32 No. 19 · 7 October 2010

What first grabbed my attention was not Kermode sitting there in his tennis whites, but rather the large near-to-flowering cannabis plant growing from a Chinese pot on his desk facing a bay of windows. It was the summer of 1977 and I had been escorted by his then wife to his study to settle the terms on which I would paint the exterior of their house in Cambridge. Over the next five weeks, two things about the everyday Frank Kermode made a lasting impression.

The first was his power of concentration. He was struggling to finish The Genesis of Secrecy by the end of August, when he would be departing for Harvard to present the book as a series of lectures. The windows in front of his cannabis plant were in deplorable condition. I suggested that I work on them when he wasn’t writing, but he insisted my presence would be no problem. So for several days I scraped, puttied and painted never more than six feet in front of him. Not once did he show the slightest annoyance.

The other thing that made a lasting impression was his unconventional sense of social hierarchy. An ambitious conservatory was being built on the back of his house and twice a week its self-important architect arrived with two lackeys trailing at his heels. I soon noticed that whereas Kermode insisted I address him as ‘Frank’, he seemed happy to remain ‘Professor’ with the architect, whom, in a slightly condescending tone, he addressed by his first name. Then in the third week a carpenter arrived to set right various botched jobs in the house. It was immediately apparent that he was a master craftsman, and Kermode took to following him around the house, watching him work and engaging him in conversation. The tone Kermode took with him was almost deferential.

In my last week at the house the Chinese pot vanished from Kermode’s desk. Later I spotted it on a kitchen counter. All that remained of the plant was two inches of stem.

Edward Fullbrook

Vol. 32 No. 20 · 21 October 2010

I never met Frank Kermode in person. But I have been reading him since the beginning of my academic career at Trinity College Dublin, when I began work on an anthology of English translations of Montale’s poetry. A little later, having moved to Victoria University in Wellington (a ‘maximum emigration’, as Kermode described it in a kind email), I edited a set of previously unpublished Montale translations by Henry Reed, an author whom Kermode knew and respected. He welcomed the translations and enjoyed looking again ‘on Henry’s hand’.

In that email, Kermode added: ‘Did I tell you that Camillo Pennati and I published translations of some of the Xenia poems in the New York Review of Books? But I no longer have copies and I don’t remember the date of publication (I think in the 1960s); and I doubt if the translations had any merit except possibly that of earliness.’ I got hold of the translations just in time to include them in my Montale anthology. Here is one:

We had planned a whistle
for the hereafter, a sign of recognition.
I try it out in the hope
that we are all dead already without knowing it.

(‘Xenia’, I:4)

Marco Sonzogni
Wellington, New Zealand

Vol. 32 No. 21 · 4 November 2010

I am not at all surprised to learn that Frank Kermode kept a cannabis plant on his desk in 1977 (Letters, 7 October). By all accounts, trying to deal with the English faculty board in Cambridge at that time would have sent any sane man potty.

Roger Tingle
Sauternes, France

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