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Letters

Vol. 32 No. 19 · 7 October 2010

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Memories of Frank Kermode

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
Bristol

All Shook Up

Jenny Turner’s reading of Tom McCarthy’s C was a terrific account of the pleasures of a particular kind of reading experience (LRB, 9 September): ‘like being a guest at the dream-party of an extremely well-read host’, with her copy of the book propped up next to the OED, and her computer. It made me reflect on how rarely this kind of response to literature – uncertain, questioning, highly creative in terms of how we must think in order to make connections – is invited by contemporary English-language novels. So deeply in thrall to narrative progression are we that a book like C comes along, with an author who talks about literature as an ‘event’, and we get all shaken up.

For nothing about C sounds that new, actually. The modernists flattened out reading, to use a McCarthy-ish expression, giving us stories that we look at and apprehend rather than follow line by line until we get to The End. And any Woolf scholar will tell you that multiple subjectivity replaced that omnipresent narrator (the one who, as McCarthy says, ‘goes around emoting, experiencing and developing. This is what I hate’) a long time ago.

No, what’s interesting here is Turner’s own writing about all this: her gorgeously free-ranging associative responses to her own reading, which remind us that there could be so much more to the British novel than what, unfortunately, we keep thinking of as the British novel. At the end of the day it was her review, and the way it was constructed, more than C itself, that – to paraphrase that great artist of the flattened out ‘thing’, William Carlos Williams – was doing the real work of ‘making it new’.

Kirsty Gunn
University of Dundee

Get a Real Degree

The headlines ‘Down with Creative Writing’ and ‘Get a Real Degree’ apparently represent your view of this academic subject, if not quite Elif Batuman’s (LRB, 23 September). In the 40 years or so since I pioneered this discipline in British universities (at Lancaster, and with Malcolm Bradbury in East Anglia), I have not seen one reference to it in the press that was other than disparaging. Have I wasted my life, or what?

David Craig
Carnforth, Lancashire

Elif Batuman’s flatteringly maximalist review of my book, The Programme Era, has misunderstood its argument in at least one respect. She charges that the book ‘occasionally seems to ignore the whole history of literature before Henry James’, pointing out, for instance, that a fascination with ‘point of view’ in fictional narrative was not original to the postwar American fiction I discuss. But I never claimed it was. I argue that the postwar period’s ‘true originality . . . is to be found at the level of its patron institutions’. This was associated with an attempt to extend the franchise of literary excellence to new social groups that I refuse to greet with simple contempt. My point is that the programme era has been the scene, not of the invention, but of the codification of a long-standing concern with narrative point of view, and of the dissemination of this concern to unprecedented numbers of students. Batuman similarly gets me wrong on college attendance, the fictionalised slave narrative, the surprisingly institutionalised rebel Ken Kesey, and finally shame, an emotion I’m proud to say I know predates 1945.

As for our colleagues who live on Planet MFA, my experience has been that they are exceptionally well read, though the language they use to talk about their reading is different from (and for the vast majority of the public, infinitely preferable to) that heard on Planet PhD. Most writing programmes require students to take several academic literature classes along with their workshops, and the work of John Barth, Robert Coover, Charles Johnson, Michael Cunningham and many others is as intimately conversant with literary history as one could wish. That there are many postwar writers who have suppressed knowingness in search of a more immediate or ‘innocent’ purchase on contemporary experience only supports one of my broader claims, which is that the familiar revulsion at writing programmes so energetically reprised by Batuman is a weak foundation on which to build a scholarly account of the programme era.

Mark McGurl
University of California, Los Angeles

The main problem with Elif Batuman’s piece was her starting point: ‘The fact is that literary historians don’t write about creative writing, and creative writers don’t write literary histories.’ D.G. Myers’s 1996 book The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing since 1880 is perhaps the best-known literary history of creative writing in the US, while Margaret Atwood’s Survival is a key work of Canadian literary history and Czeslaw Milosz’s history of Polish literature a standard text. In America creative writers as different as William Gass and Jay Parini have produced literary histories. It may be that novelists and poets from Johnson and Scott to Octavio Paz and Peter Ackroyd have more often shaped ideas of literary history by writing biography, or by anthologising, but the situation is far more nuanced than Batuman suggests. From Harvard and Emory to Belfast and St Andrews, there are English departments where creative writers, literary historians and critics work in ways that give the lie to Batuman’s ‘schism . . . between literary scholarship and creative writing’.

Robert Crawford
University of St Andrews

Self Defence?

Adam Shatz doesn’t mention Israel’s well-layered (mostly US-funded) missile defence systems (LRB, 23 September). The latest, Iron Dome, will become operational some time this year and, according to Israeli top brass, it will be ‘enabling’ to the strategic forces. All this could mean that they anticipate being safe from retaliation if they attack Iran’s nuclear sites, especially given that Israeli spooks already believe they have successfully hacked into Iranian missile sites.

Elizabeth Young
London W2

If Only

I do wish people, in this case Emily Cole, would stop referring to John Cage’s 4’33" as consisting in silence (Letters, 23 September). The three ‘tacet’ movements of the work were intended by Cage to provide conceptual frames for whatever random noises occurred during them. Cage was fascinated with what might be happening in the ‘silences’ between the notes of Western music – the sounds which were not organised by the composer – and how they might be turned into a composition. 4’33" is not a Dadaist prank, and silence was absolutely not what Cage intended us to hear when the work is performed.

Matt Fretton
London EC1

Pre-Raphs

I’m fascinated that Glen Newey maintains that to admire the Pre-Raphaelites is to demonstrate a shocking ‘failure of sensibility’ (LRB, 23 September). This 50-year-old canard derives from the notion, promulgated by the Fry-Bell ascendancy of the early 20th century, that French art set the only standards of aesthetic excellence in the middle and late 19th century, and that these are to be preserved inviolate even into the 21st.

The Pre-Raphs were revolutionary in their attitude to colour and subject matter, and technically remarkable in their observation of the world: Ford Madox Brown, for instance, is one of the most intelligent and original painters of the 19th century. His Work (1852-63), like Holman Hunt’s Awakening Conscience (1853), is a novel in paint, and if Glen Newey can admire Little Dorrit, it seems inconsistent of him not to see merit in these visual parallels to the fiction of the period.

Andrew Wilton
London SW11

At TCD

Andrew Robinson refers to the late acceptance of women at Trinity College Dublin (Letters, 9 September). The first two to be admitted, in 1903, were Helen Morony and Helen Chenevix. TCD had a medal struck to commemorate this event, naming the two ladies (although a contemporary cartoon shows the dean weeping over a hairpin). My family has one of these medals. Helen Morony was my husband’s mother, Helen Chenevix (for many years general secretary of the Irish Women Workers’ Union) one of his godmothers. Despite fierce opposition from the Catholic hierarchy during this period, there were some Catholic students, and when my husband entered Trinity during the war years there were still some Catholic students although the prejudice was even stronger, since by that time there was a Catholic university in Dublin.

Josephine Lloyd
Amstelveen, the Netherlands

XAXAXABB

In his discussion of the problems of translating ottava rima, Tobias Gregory might have mentioned the ingenious solution reached by Anthony Esolen in his version of Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered: the optional use of unrhymed odd lines in the sestet to give a rhyme scheme of XAXAXABB, which in Esolen’s hands leads to a fluent and unobtrusive English form of the stanza (LRB, 9 September).

Michael Robertson
Augsburg, Germany

Lyrebird

Gordon Kerry is not quite right in describing the Australian magpie’s repertoire as ‘all its own work’ (Letters, 9 September). Although by no means as virtuosic as the lyrebird, the magpie is indeed a part-time mimic. If we are to take issue with any part of Nicholas Spice’s description, then it should be his referring to the magpie carolling in the ‘outback’. Magpies can be seen and heard in almost any suburban garden.

Andrew Williams
Bad Endorf, Germany

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