A Sort of Nobody

Michael Wood

  • Not Entitled: A Memoir by Frank Kermode
    HarperCollins, 263 pp, £18.00, May 1996, ISBN 0 00 255519 0

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 ways we try to make sense of our lives’. It involves close reading, discriminations of value, a practised affection for old and new texts, but its chief quarry is the turn of a culture’s mind, one of those trains of thought which Conrad thought could not be false – because even when they look horribly false they are embedded in arguments or entailments we need to believe are true. ‘I thought I could see a new way of looking at certain assumptions,’ Kermode says in Romantic Image (1957). He could; he did; and he has kept doing it. The world, he says at the end of The Genesis of Secrecy (1979), ‘is our beloved codex’:

We may not see it, as Dante did, in perfect order, gathered by love into one volume, but we do, living as reading, like to think of it as a place where we can travel back and forth at will, divining congruences, conjunctions, opposites; extracting secrets from its secrecy, making understood relations, an appropriate algebra.

Living as reading. The assumptions that Kermode likes to look at are always pretty complex, made up of untidy bundles of implication and imagery; historically inflected, but inclined to slip through the hands of straightforward, cause-driven history. We might think of them as the language in which a culture talks to itself, although it doesn’t always seem to be listening. In Not Entitled he describes The Sense of an Ending as a work which ‘showed an interest in Vaihinger and Nietzsche ... and in the psychology and sociology of apocalyptic thinking, but it was recognisable as literary criticism ... It was, in fact, an example of literary theory as it was before it was absorbed into Theory.’ Showing an interest is something Kermode has always done well, and one can always read him, as one reads few other critics, for the pleasure of finding out what he has been reading: what works of theology, for instance, or philosophy, or arcane history, or contemporary fiction. At the age of 26, he tells us, he left the Navy with ‘no idea of what I was going to do, except for the negative certainty that it wouldn’t be seafaring. A little more positively, I was fairly sure that it would involve writing of some sort, and reading, if I could buy the leisure to do it.’

He has certainly done the reading, but buying leisure turned out to mean lecturing in literature. Born on the Isle of Man in 1919, Kermode attended Liverpool University before and after his stint in the Navy during the Second World War. He got lecturing jobs at Newcastle and Reading; then chairs at Manchester, Bristol, London and Cambridge. Never one to miss an irony against himself, he remembers the double meaning lurking in the word ‘professor’: ‘what you have principally done to earn a living has been to teach, or profess to.’ He doesn’t think he was a good teacher, and will not be comforted on this subject. He has worked much in America; lectured everywhere; edited a number of scholarly texts; edited Encounter; and written, and still writes, quantities of elegant and subtle journalism. Apart from the works I have already mentioned, he has published, among others, Puzzles and Epiphanies; Continuities; Shakespeare, Spenser Donne; The Classic; The Art of Telling; History and Value; An Appetite for Poetry and books on D.H. Lawrence and on Wallace Stevens. He retired from his Cambridge chair in 1982; was knighted in 1991.

Not Entitled takes us through a grim but not unhappy childhood in Douglas (‘It as a world in which everybody was more or less ill. Heart, stomach, nerves were the ground bass of conversation, the tune specifying a tumour or a stroke of unprecedented severity, a disaster in what were called the waterworks’), and through the boredom and adventures of Kermode’s war years in the Navy (‘In wartime people are actively prevented from thinking except in headlines, many of them lies’). His early years in the academic trade are evoked with fondness and energy, but after that the book gets a bit scrappy and apologetic. There are odd, loud silences. If he were Rousseau, he says, ‘or perhaps even some quite ordinary autobiographer’, he would think he had to say something about his marriages:

But I don’t intend to. I will say here only that I was twice married. I cannot say much more on this point about the forty years in which I shared my bed with one woman or the other, because I am in absolutely no sense doing so as I write.

This means he is, in some sense, shuffling about the streets of Douglas as he writes, selling newspapers, taking summer jobs; spending much of the war in Iceland, seeing action in the Pacific; teaching at Reading, moving to Manchester and Bristol, enjoying America, working in London, resigning his job at Cambridge. It is not, I take it, that he can’t remember his marriages, only that he will not relive them. Still, ‘one woman or the other’ seems brutal, particularly in a writer with such an ear for idiom. The writing is wonderful throughout: oblique, stealthy, lucid, finely tuned to every little ripple of multiple meaning.

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